Saturday, 19 April 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera

published 1985

[Florentino and Fermina were in love as teenagers, but she married someone else, Juvenal Urbino. Here they are meeting years later]

Florentino Ariza waited for them with the provincial officials, surrounded by the crash of music and the fireworks… Juvenal Urbino greeted the members of the reception line with that naturalness so typical of him, which made everyone thing the Doctor bore him a special fondness: first the ship’s captain in his dress uniform, then the Archbishop, then the Governor with his wife and the Mayor with his, and then the military commander, who was a newcomer from the Andes. Beyond the officials stood Florentino Ariza, dressed in dark clothing and almost invisible among so many eminent people. After greeting the military commander, Fermina [Urbino’s wife] seemed to hesitate before Florentino Ariza’s outstretched hand. The military man, prepared to introduce them, asked her if they did not know each other. She did not say yes and she did not say no, but she held out her hand to Florentino Ariza with a salon smile.

observations: The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez died this week.

More than 30 years ago, someone lent me the Marquez book One Hundred Years of Solitude. On the front cover a review quote said ‘this book will change your life’. My friend said ‘it won’t change your life, but you must read it and you will love it.’ She was right – so much so that I bought my own copy of it, unusual in those broke days, when a borrowed book was a big saving. It was my first exposure both to magic realism and to South American literature (as I’m sure was true for many people), and it was SO different, so full of colour and life compared with Northern literature of the time (John Updike, John Fowles, Graham Greene), that I was enchanted and went on to read much more from him and from other authors such as Isabel Allende and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Marquez had the best titles – No-one Writes to the Colonel – and not one but two of the best first lines ever: this is from 100 Years:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
And the book above:
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
His style is distinctive: long hypnotic passages describing people’s lives and thoughts, funny and mesmerizing. ‘Tortuous’ sounds like an insult, but it’s not – you settle into his books for a long winding tale. It’s a good way into 100 Years before you get the significance of the firing squad mentioned above.

Love in the Time of Cholera has the edge for me, a lovely book. My favourite bit comes when he describes the home life of Fermina and Juvenal:
He would push aside his plate and say: “This meal has been prepared without love.” In that sphere he would achieve moments of fantastic inspiration. Once he tasted some chamomile tea and sent it back, saying only: “This stuff tastes of window.”

And he’s right – all chamomile tea tastes of windows.

The picture shows aviator Charles Lindbergh visiting Colombia in 1928 (hence the US flag), and meeting dignitaries – it’s from our much-loved resource, the San Diego Aviation Archives.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Eastertime Special: Village Diary by Miss Read

published 1957

The vicar called in to give his weekly talk. This time, as well as a little discourse on everyday Christianity, he told the children about Palm Sunday and the Easter festival, as is his wont before the school breaks up for the Easter holiday.

When he asked for pussy-willow to decorate the church, Joseph Coggs raised an eager, if grimy, paw.

‘I can get a whole lot,’ he said, eyes agleam. ‘If I wriggles through the hedge down the bottom of Miss Parr’s place, there’s a pond and a pussy-willow tree.’

The vicar looked slightly taken aback.

‘But I’m afraid that’s a private tree, Joseph,’ answered the vicar. ‘It belongs to the people who live in the flats there.'

Joseph looked bewildered…

The vicar drew in a sad breath, and very kindly and patiently gave an extra little homily about the sanctity of other people’s property, and the promptings of one’s own conscience, and the eye of the Almighty which is upon us all, even those who are but six years old and are wriggling on their stomachs through the long Fairacre grass.

observations: Today is Good Friday: Easter Sunday will follow.

The village of Fairacre doesn’t change and neither does the schoolteacher, or the vicar, or little Joseph Coggs. CiB explained more about this in an ancient (2 years ago) entry on sewing class at the school – see here. It is easy to mock these gentle stories of village life – I loved them as a teenager, saw later how wrong I was to like them, and now have come to realize their true worth: a look at life in an Oxfordshire village during the second half of the 20th century, and a museum of the values and thoughts and issues that were important to those people at that time. Plus, endless entertainment from the very real stories of the schoolchildren.

For Easter Miss Read will set the children to making Easter cards, expecting:

Easter eggs, chicks and the like… but the most striking use of paper and pencil came from Patrick, who had carefully folded his paper in half to form an Easter card, which he finally presented to me. It showed three large tombstones with crosses, and the letters RIP printed crookedly across them, and inside was neatly printed 

The picture is an Easter Sunday School class from Canada in the 1920s, from the Deseronto archives. You can just see the words Christ is Risen on a banner across the top.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding: part 2

published 1931

There was a large garage, where the charabancs stood, half in and half out of the yard. Several cars were slipping, one by one, like beads on a string, round the huge bulk of the Eastrepps to Mundesley motor omnibus.

Mrs Dampier gazed resentfully at the passing cars. She could remember the time when Eastrepps had still been a fishing village, with its flint-faced church, in all the severity of Perpendicular, standing in a little God’s acre set about by Regency houses of stucco. The town had grown out of all knowledge during the last 30 years –not as much as other East Coast places, but quickly enough to annoy the older residents./ And this, of course, was the height of the season. Young men in blazers and grey flannels, accompanied by young women in white pleated skirts and brilliant jumpers, swarmed in the streets and on the sands.

observations: ****There may be light spoilers – I’m not giving away the solution, but there will be a few details and plot points from well into the book. If you are about to read Death Walks in Eastrepps, then save this entry till afterwards!****

This is a second visit to this very good detective story, and it’s something of a tossup whether it’s the plot or the wonderful period & sociological details that make it such a riveting read. I think it would be hard for a modern writer setting a book in 1931 to get some of these details right: there's mention of ‘a parliamentary’ – this turns out to be a cheap, slow basic train service enforced on the railway companies by an Act of Parliament in order to make travel available to all. After one of the murders, boys are ‘crying it in the streets’ – shouting out the details while selling a quickly-produced news-sheet for coppers. This is happening at what seems to be after midnight, when the murder was discovered around 10pm. The next day, someone else’s story of having travelled down from London by train that morning is disputed, because he apparently didn’t notice the dozens of crime reporters and photographers who were on it.

When a character is being tried for his life, he signs his will quickly before the trial starts, ‘while yet there was time – while, technically, he was still a free man. Such was the law.’ The judge has a black cap for passing sentence of death. There is an odd use, to modern readers, of the phrase ‘at fault’ – twice it refers to the police in a manner suggesting it means that they are at a loss or unable to solve the crime.

It’s clear that the serial killer in the book must be caught, because he is affecting trade in the busy resort looked at so disapprovingly by Mrs Dampier above – people are leaving early, which is all right because they have already paid, but others are cancelling in advance. And who can blame them…?

[Incidentally – SPOILER – 

this must be a very rare book of its era in that someone is wrongly convicted AND is executed: usually a last-minute reprieve comes, and sometimes in books such a miscarriage has happened in the past, but I am hard put to think of any other wrongful execution during the main plot in a Golden Age detective story. The police don’t seem to care about this aspect when the true murderer is revealed, and the only person bothered at all is his mistress.]

Crime writer and blogger Martin Edwards mentioned this book at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, and it was because of his recommendation that I read another Francis Beeding book, see this entry.

Top picture from the Australian Maritime Museum by the wonderful Sam Hood; beach view is also by him, from the New South Wales archives.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Shoes in Literature

Today’s entry appears on the Guardian books blog and looks at the role and importance of shoes in literature. I didn’t even have room for all the examples I found, and the commentators came up with more of them. I was sadly lacking in male examples, so would be particularly pleased to welcome any references you can think of.

This is part of the piece:

Let's start with some little girls: the Fossil sisters from Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes (and it's noticeable that many of her other books have been retitled and re-packaged to form a "Shoes" series). They have ballet shoes, white kid slippers, and tap and character shoes in patent leather with ankle straps.

This sounds twee, but it's not: the girls need to work and earn money, and these shoes are kit – even if there is a little sentiment involved in the way Posy cherishes her mother's ballet shoes.

In Judy Blume's teen classic Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, the heroine is nearly 12, and is told that if she wants to be one of the cool girls at her new school she has to wear loafers with no socks. Her mother thinks this is ludicrous, and Margaret gets blisters, but she does end up in a secret club. 
That was in 1970 - shoe-based intimidation and anxiety have been around longer than you’d think.

Keeping your shoes clean is important for Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. She and her friends have to be carried across a puddle by Angel Clare 
on the way to church, to save their best shoes. But later on, when she is trying to re-connect with him, she changes out of her boots, then has to watch the Clare family find them and carry them off in disgust, seeing them as trash – could it be more symbolic? As Tess 
thought of her dusty boots she almost pitied those habiliments for the quizzing to which they had been subjected, and felt how hopeless life was for their owner. 
In Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince, Julian, who is in her mid-20s, meets up with the much older author Bradley – she's the daughter of his friend and rival. He meets her in the street outside a shoe shop: she is barefoot, she borrows his socks, he buys her a pair of purple boots. "Julian's delight was literally indescribable", and Bradley feels "a ridiculous and unclassifiable sort of glee". Shortly afterwards he realises that she had "gone away still wearing my socks". You might have to be a philosopher like Murdoch to unpick the multiple meanings of that scene. 

From the piece, you can find Virginia Woolf’s Kitty in The Years, with large feet and tight shoes, in the entry here, while Vivian and her ‘hand-carved walking shoes’ are here on the blog

And there are plenty more examples: Rebecca Gowers recent novel When to Walk had important shoes in it (well, it would with that title) including the patent boots  and red high heels above. 

Sara, in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, has a terrible time, living in the attic because her father died leaving her penniless, but the hardest moment in the whole book (should have been in the tearjerker post) is surely where her old downtrodden shoes cause her to slip in the mud: when she gets home she starts screaming at her doll, a scene that resonates whether you read the book when you are 10 or 40.

Javier Marias, in his lovely novel All Souls, here on the blog, has this to say about the shoes of the narrator’s mistress:
the sight of empty shoes always makes me imagine them on the feet of the person who has worn them or might wear them, and seeing that person by my side – with their shoes off – or not seeing the person at all upsets me terribly.

I ended the piece with what I think is the most beautiful shoe image in literature: from Cider With Rosie, it involves what were probably cheap rough boots. Laurie Lee is taken in hand by Rosie, they disappear under a wagon for a short perfect page of pleasure, and halfway through:
She took off her boots and stuffed them with flowers. She did the same with mine.
On the way home, 
Rosie carried her boots, and smiled. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Passover: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

published 1995

[The Warshaw family is celebrating Passover]

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” Irene swept into the living room, looking even more flustered than Marie, her face red, her forehead shining. She was wrapped , as on all special family occasions , in one of a number of flowing garments she had made for herself, according to her own design, drawing her inspiration, as far as I could determine, from the caftan, the muumuu, and possibly from certain episodes of Star Trek. “I was just having a little problem getting the Seder plate arranged. The one we bought in Mexico last winter.” She carried the broad, painted earthenware plate to the table and started to set it down in front of Irv, beside the matzohs, then stopped and stood frowning at it, shaking her head. It was a pretty thing, decorated with green vines and yellow flowers and dark blue undulations, and loaded up with the usual ritual foodstuffs. “I’ve got the moror, and the parsley, the charoses, the bone, the egg … Damn it, I can never remember what this sixth little circle is for.”

observations: In one of the best extended scenes of this marvellous book, Grady Tripp has come to visit his wife’s family for Passover, bringing along with him one of his students (and a dead dog and a tuba). He says ‘they weren’t my family and it wasn’t my holiday, but I was orphaned and an atheist and I would take what I could get.’

Irv will shortly be looking around the table:
at which sat three native Koreans, a converted Baptist, a badly lapsed Methodist, and a Catholic of questionable but tormented stripe, lifted his Haggadah, and began, unironically, “Once we were slaves in Egypt …”
Earlier all the men have chosen yarmulkes from a box, each relating to a past social event – wedding or bar mitzvah. Grady Tripp is fighting hard with his wife Emily, and Irv says rather sadly: "families are supposed to get bigger. This one just keeps shrinking."

All of Emily’s family are great, well-drawn characters, but older sister Deborah is particularly delightful. Grady says:
there had been times in the past when my sister-in-law’s counsel, while never useful, had provided a certain amount of welcome bemusement, like the advice of an oracular hen.
The book is wonderful and the 2000 film is terrific, although sadly they miss out this Passover scene, and Emily never appears. 

This book got something of a rough deal, from lesser hands, in this entry. There's a Passover meal in this book.

Passover picture from the Centre For Jewish History. Second one is from a family seder held in 1949 in St Paul’s Minnesota, from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The First Name Challenge: Wiley Cash

Col, of the crime-fiction blog Col’s Criminal Library, is at the other end of the crime fiction spectrum from me – he likes his books dark and violent and noir-ish. After a bit of recent chit-chat about how different our favoured authors and titles sounded – he likes books by authors called Duane, and Red, and Jake; and he enjoys titles such as Pigs’ Blood and Shovel Ready – we decided on a challenge.

So…my challenge to him was: ‘each of us has to read and blog a book by an author a) whose first name hasn't featured before and b) that name has to at least *suggest* a genre or style quite different from the books most closely associated with our blogs. Are you on for that? I feel I get off more lightly, as I do dabble a toe into noir, but I think it'll do you good to read authors called Araminta and Amelia.’

Col has completely aced the challenge – he found an author called Araminta Hall, a book called Dot, and has read it. You can read his verdict here. Kudos, Col.

I chose my book from Col’s recent archives – so his review of it is here.

the book: This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

published 2014 set in 1998

I could feel everything around me too: the crowd was so loud that you couldn’t even hear the music or the announcers, and when Brian Jordan hit a fly ball to left field and McGwire stepped into the batter’s box with nobody on base it was the loudest thing I’d ever heard. Ruby stuffed her hot dog in her mouth and covered her ears with her hands. But as soon as McGwire set his feet and got into his batting stance the whole stadium went totally silent, and you couldn’t hardly hear a thing.

McGwire swung and missed on the first pitch. As soon as the ball snapped into the catcher’s mitt, everybody in the stadium sighed at the same time like the audience does on game shows when somebody says the wrong answer. But it got quiet again when McGwire stepped back into the box. The next pitch was a ball, and everybody sighed just like they had before.

observations: This is a scene, near the end of the book, in a real-life baseball game: during the summer of 1998 in the USA, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were competing to beat a decades-old record for the most home runs in a season. This game at St Louis was a key moment in the rivalry, and all the main participants in the book (those that are still alive and not badly injured, that is) turn up at the stadium.

Wade Chesterfield, a former minor player, has abducted his two young daughters after their mother’s death. The legal position is clear – he has no parental rights – so they are on the run. But he is also in trouble with some very dicey types, who want some money back from him.

The story is told through the eyes of the older daughter Easter, who is 12; Brady, the court-appointed guardian who is searching for them; and an extremely nasty man called Pruitt who is clearly intending to kill Wade while reclaiming the money.

The baseball season is always there in the background – everyone in the book has a connection with the game. So there are lines of conversation like this:
He got the yips. He plunked this guy in the face one time, and the dude just lost it and charged the mound.

Completely incomprehensible to me, but that’s fine. Sammy Sosa (the real-life record-seeker in case you are having trouble keeping up) is supposed to have played with Wade at one time, leading to this excellent moment:
“Good thing Sammy got out of here when he did,” he said. “He’s got old teammates snatching up they kids, and him out there chasing Maris [current record-holder] with Big Mac.” He shook his head like it was the most profound thing he’d ever thought, much less said.

I did find some of the very gruesome violence hard to take, I skimmed those bits. But apart from that, this book was a great read: very well-written, and it certainly pulled me in, and I was really anxious to know what would happen. The book was full of surprises, right to the end, and walked a careful and thoughtful line between Wade’s obviously disastrous life and bad record as a parent, and his love for his daughters, and attempts to do the right thing by them.

He may be my first Wiley, but I would certainly read another book by him, and I would recommend this one. As it happens, I was living in the USA during the summer of the Sosa/McGwire rivalry, so that was an extra attraction for me, although, as is obvious, I still know zip about baseball. So don’t be put off by that element.

The pictures are of Sammy Sosa (top) and Mark McGwire.

Thanks to Col for an enjoyable bit of swapping. We’d love to hear if there are author first-names you have never sampled – and may we suggest you try a new one with your next book…?

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Dress Down Sunday: No Name by Wilkie Collins

published 1862


Magdalen turned, and confronted Mrs. Lecount. She had expected—founding her anticipations on the letter which the housekeeper had written to her—to see a hard, wily, ill-favoured, insolent old woman. She found herself in the presence of a lady of mild, ingratiating manners, whose dress was the perfection of neatness, taste, and matronly simplicity, whose personal appearance was little less than a triumph of physical resistance to the deteriorating influence of time. If Mrs. Lecount had struck some fifteen or sixteen years off her real age, and had asserted herself to be eight-and-thirty, there would not have been one man in a thousand, or one woman in a hundred, who would have hesitated to believe her. Her dark hair was just turning to gray, and no more. It was plainly parted under a spotless lace cap, sparingly ornamented with mourning ribbons… Her large black eyes might have looked fierce if they had been set in the face of another woman, they were mild and melting in the face of Mrs. Lecount; they were tenderly interested in everything she looked at—in Magdalen, in the toad on the rock-work, in the back-yard view from the window; in her own plump fair hands,—which she rubbed softly one over the other while she spoke; in her own pretty cambric chemisette, which she had a habit of looking at complacently while she listened to others…

The housekeeper listened to the praise of her domestic virtues with eyes immovably fixed on her elegant chemisette

observations: I had to read this several times – staring at her chemisette? Was this some kind of metaphor or euphemism? So then I looked up chemisette: ‘a woman’s light undergarment for neck and shoulders, an ornamental neckpiece or dickey usually made of muslin or lace, and worn by women to fill in the open neck of a dress.’ 

So it’s a filler, to make your neckline or décolleté more respectable, pretty much fulfilling the role of a camisole today. And sometimes the chemisette really only consisted of a front, tied on, and that it could be called a tucker, as in the phrase ‘best bib and tucker’, which is more or less the same thing as the dickey in the definition.

So there you go. Still don’t know why Mrs Lecount stared at it so much. In the rather rough morality of the book, Mrs L is a baddy – she correctly infers who Magdalen is and what she is up to, and she tries to thwart her. She is a worthy opponent for the splendid Captain Wragge, and must be almost unique in Victorian literature: she isn’t seen as particularly scholarly or a bluestocking, but she is knowledgeable about science, and Captain Wragge mugs up on scientific facts in order to attract her interest and impress her. It is hard to think of any other female characters for whom science talk would be a distraction, and who know more than the men around them. She also keeps an aquarium in her room containing fish, reptiles and amphibians (to Magdalen’s horror) – hence the toad above. 

Captain Wragge is a wonderful character, with his ‘dash of humour’ and his complete lack of morals, very amusing and entertaining, and Magdalen is a remarkable heroine. The fake identity they build for themselves is hilariously thorough: ‘[your imaginary father] is buried on the south-west side of the local cemetery in Honduras with a neat monument of native wood carved by a self-taught negro artist. Nineteen months afterward his widow died of apoplexy at a boarding-house in Cheltenham.’

The portrait of a lady is Countess Bucquoi by Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, wearing a chemisette. The other picture is a chemisette from a costume collection.

There have been several other entries on this book: click on the label below.