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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Pure by Andrew Miller

published 2011








[Paris 1785: Jean-Baptiste has a new job, and decides he needs a new suit]

Two hours later, Jean-Baptiste is examining himself – examining someone – in a large, brilliantly polished oval mirror. He is wearing a suit of pistachio silk, a silk lining of green and saffron stripes. The waistcoat, cut at the top of the thigh, is also pistachio, with modest gold-thread embroidery. The cuffs of the coat are small, the collar high. The cravat – saffron again – is almost as large as Armand’s. For a long time, Charvet and Cedric have been pulling pins from between their lips, have been snipping and sewing and handling him with that freedom reserved to their trade, to that of body servants, surgeons and executioners. They are almost done. They stand back, careful to exclude themselves from the mirror’s scope. They look at him looking at himself. It is, Jean-Baptiste is perfectly aware, far too late to refuse the suit or even to criticise it.





observations: I have read and re-read this passage several times, and I still don’t understand how the suit appeared. It seems unlikely that the tailor’s shop had it ready-to-wear, but did they really rustle it up in two hours? Both seem very unlikely.

A couple of people mentioned this book to me, and one (thank you, AS) actually sent it to me, and indeed the scene of the pistachio suit is hard to resist. Poor Jean-Baptiste, the suit (‘the colour of pea soup’) will be a minor irritant to him in times to come. It is a symbol of his naivete, hammered home like everything else in the book. (He is green, you see.)

The story has a fascinating setup: an overfull cemetery – packed with plague victims – must be moved from the centre of Paris. It is unhealthy, and is blocking progress. Jean-Baptiste is the engineer put in charge of the project, and the book follows what seems to be about a year, and is completely fascinating in part. But: this is clever, original, well-researched (I presume) – Miller has taken his idea and flown with it. Yet the book is full of the wince-making clich├ęs of historical fiction. On p21 we have the maid at his lodgings. ‘Like everyone else in the house, she suffers from dreams’ – I nearly threw the book across the room at this point. What does it MEAN? Like every other woman in the book, she is obviously attracted to the pleasant but unexceptional Jean-Baptiste. One woman is driven mad by him, and (it pains me to type this) there is a local prostitute who is very beautiful and who – amongst other things - uses sex to obtain books, so yeah, she gives up this (completely unimaginable and unconvincing) life to be with him, without any discussion. Not one word of this seemed real.

When it’s not based in historical-fiction-land, the story is strangely modern: Jean-Baptiste travels to the capital for work, makes a few mistakes, gets drunk and does foolish things with his friends, meets a girl, they move in together, he goes home for a visit and sees he has moved on from his family. It’s all rather like a Tony Parsons or David Nicholls novel, I found it far easier to imagine him in the 1980s or 1990s. And the lengthy Christmas trip home really bothered me (like the suit): would a young person in his position in 1785 really have been able to go off like that? I was back in 1985: Did he have a Young Person’s Coach Card for the journey, and take some Christmas presents bought on 23rd December on the Champs Elysees, after a visit to the pub with his mates where he moaned about his family?

I’m being so rude about the book because I wanted it to be better than it was – there were scenes where it really took off: a lot of the scenes with the miners, the party they had, the clash between the miners and masons and what followed: all were wonderfully-well-done. (The miners reminded me of the characters in one of my favourite books of all time, No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod – set in the 20th century and half the world away, but also miners). But then we’d be back with the mysterious attraction to girls, and the spot-the-foreshadowing for the French Revolution.

This has been a hugely successful book, many many people loved it. But I can’t help comparing it with the completely forgotten The Nebuly Coat by J Meade Falkner, on the blog this week: again, a technical man comes to work in a church, and makes friends with the organist, has dealings with women. The Falkner is far superior, has depth and nuance, and to me was much more involving. 


The picture is a portrait of the Drummond family by Benjamin West from 1781. I like to think that Jean-Baptiste is giving the benefit of his views to the beautiful Heloise (she can read, you see) and Armand the organist.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The Nebuly Coat by J Meade Falkner

published 1903






[Afternoon service in the Minster at Cullerne]

The stranger lifted the cord from its hook, and sat down in the first reserved seat, as if the place belonged to him. Clerk Janaway was outraged, and bustled up the steps after him like an angry turkey-cock. “Come, come!” he said, touching the intruder on the shoulder; “you cannot sit here; these are the Fording seats, and kep’ for Lord Blandamer’s family.”

“I will make room if Lord Blandamer brings his family,” the stranger said; and, seeing that the old man was returning to the attack, added, “Hush! that is enough.” …

The choir, who had been interested spectators of this conflict of lawlessness as personified in the intruder, and authority as in the clerk, rose to their feet as the organ began the Magnificat. The singing-men exchanged glances of amusement, for they were not altogether averse to seeing the clerk worsted. He was an autocrat in his own church, and ruffled them now and again with what they called his bumptiousness. Perhaps he did assume a little as he led the procession, for he forgot at times that he was a peaceable servant of the sanctuary, and fancied, as he marched mace in hand to the music of the organ, that he was a daring officer leading a forlorn hope.



observations: I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, but I do remember my reaction: ‘Nebuly coat! I wonder what kind of coat that is? Never heard of it, should make a blog entry.’ As it turns out, the nebuly coat is a coat of arms, but this was happy ignorance on my part, because I am SO GLAD to have found the book. It is a 5-star read.

It is at once easy and hard to describe: a young-ish architect arrives in a small forgotten town around the middle of 19th century: he has been assigned to oversee repairs to the crumbling Minster – the town used to be a port, and much more important. He takes lodgings with an elderly lady and her beautiful niece – both come down in the world, and with a mystery or scandal in the background. His fellow lodger is the organist: drunk and disappointed, and busy with papers concerning the mystery.

There is a lot about ecclesiastical architecture, and church bells, and church music. Trollope and Hardy are often mentioned in reviews of the book, along with the Dickens of Edwin Drood – there are echoes of all of them, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It is very atmospheric, and mysterious, with a hint of the supernatural. It’s very very funny, and suspenseful too. At the end I had to read fast to find out what was going to happen (although not everything is tied up at the end of the book). And the characters are wonderful – he had a Chekhov-like ability to describe minor or apparently unsympathetic people in a paragraph and make them come alive, and like Chekhov you felt he could see everyone’s failings, but he looked on them in a kindly and forgiving manner.

I could quote from it endlessly. When the heroines of the book fall on hard times, the younger one – ‘every girl in her teens knows that there lie hidden in the recesses of her armoire, the robes and coronet and full insignia of a first-rate novelist’ – tells her aunt ‘I will earn some money. I will write.’

Her aunt replies
“How will you write? Who is there to write to?” Miss Joliffe said, and then the blank look on her face grew blanker, and she took out her handkerchief. “There is no one to help us. Anyone who ever cared for us is dead long ago; there is no one to write to now.”
I loved that combination of simplicity and sadness and comedy, which struck me as most unusual.

This is another book that’s going to need another entry to do it justice.

The picture, from the Athenaeum site, is Interior with an Organist and a Procession by Alphonse Legros. It is important to the plot that the organist is far removed from any such procession, tucked away in his tower, but the picture was ideal in other respects, so I decided to use i
t.
 

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

book 2 – No More Parades


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES





At those words it came to Tietjens suddenly to think of Sylvia, with the merest film of clothing on her long, shining limbs . . . She was working a powder-puff under her armpits in a brilliant illumination from two electric lights, one on each side of her dressing-table. She was looking at him in the glass with the corners of her lips just moving. A little curled . . . He said to himself: ‘One is going to that fine and secret place . . . Why not have?’ She had emanated a perfume founded on sandalwood. As she worked her swansdown powder-puff over those intimate regions he could hear her humming. Maliciously! It was then that he had observed the handle of the door moving minutely. She had incredible arms, stretched out amongst a wilderness of besilvered cosmetics. Extraordinarily lascivious! Yet clean! Her gilded sheath gown was about her hips on the chair . . . 

observations: Another visit to this series of books: more of the plot in these entries, or click on the labels below.

Christopher Tietjens is in the trenches during the First Wold War, but remembering a recent moment when his estranged wife, the deeply wicked Sylvia, came to France (with no papers) to visit him and to make his life as difficult as possible – something which seems to be her only aim in life.

The night is going to end up in a drunken brawl in the hotel corridor. The door handle he can see moving is someone who thinks he might just visit the lovely Mrs Tietjens.

There is a lot in the series about gentlemen having regular mistresses, and we are twice informed that the correct way to pay off these women is to set her up in a tobacco shop. They don’t exist much any more, but now I’m thinking again of the respectable women who ran them in my youth… surely not….?

The relationship between Christopher and Sylvia has elements that resemble the marriage of George Smiley and Lady Ann in John le Carre’s books. Christopher is even more annoying than Sylvia: at one point he says ‘I have not got a friend in the world’ and you can’t help thinking that it’s hardly surprising. Just for starters, he has attractive views like this:
A heavy dislike that this member of the lower middle classes should have opinions on public affairs overcame Tietjens.
Another character says to him:
Yet you’re a disaster; you are a disaster to every one who has to do with you. You are as conceited as a hog; you are as obstinate as a bullock . . . You drive me mad.
… and that seems about right.

A key element of his memories of her – ‘three months ago they parted’, above – has her going to Paddington station so as to travel to Birkenhead and a convent where she will go on retreat. Nowadays you would certainly be going to Euston, not Paddington.

The description of life in the trenches has a ring of total authenticity, and there are interesting points about the differences between enlisted men and conscripts, and the importance that quite small sums of pay might mean. And there is a nice bit of character-drawing for Christopher’s brother Mark, who has
his copy of The Times airing on a chair-back before the fire – for he was just the man to retain the eighteen-forty idea that you catch cold by reading a damp newspaper.
The picture is a saucy French postcard of the era, something that both Christopher and Sylvia would both consider to be very low class.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Love of Stones by Tobias Hill

published 2001







There is a painting of Queen Elizabeth in Hatfield House Hertfordshire. It is called the Ermine Portrait, after the stoat which sits on the Queen’s arm. It is a political portrait in the old style, the Queen surrounded by her treasures. A show of potency to the powers across the water. In this picture the Bretheren is the brooched centrepiece of the Queen’s black jewelled skeleton

The Virgin Queen(‘s) eyes are small and quite hard, like those of the ermine poised on her sleeve. It is nearly three decades since she gained the throne, the assassins sent for her from Europe finding themselves, inexplicably, assassinated…

When Elizabeth gained it, the Three Bretheren was 150 years old. It took this time, five generations, before a woman owned the jewel.




observations: In this recent Ayelet Waldman entry, the protagonists of the book were looking for the owners and history of a precious piece of jewellery: in this one they’re looking for the jewellery.

The whole of Love of Stones is about the jewel above, clearly visible in the picture as described (though not sure about ‘skeleton’). The story starts with the commissioning of the brooch by Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy, and then mostly concentrates in two particular periods in its history: the lives of two Jewish men from Baghdad, who end up in Victorian London, and a modern-day search for the jewels by a partial narrator, Katharine Sterne.

The details – of jewellery, precious stones, goldsmithing, the creation of a crown – are fascinating, and Hill convincingly describes a kind of mania that overtakes some people who become obsessed with collecting (in the case of one character, just pearls, nothing else.)

Does the jewelled brooch really exist? Hard to tell – it doesn’t seem to exist under the name Hill gives it, though there it is in the picture.

With the two main strands of the plot, you have inklings of what is going on, and they seem to be carefully structured to echo each other. The Levy brothers sections is real historical fiction – including lots of research, a look at mudlarking and a meeting with Queen Victoria. Katherine Sterne’s part is a contemporary thriller: she is following clues, moving on, staying one step ahead of others. The main criticism of the book would be that it is hard to understand her obsession with the brooch: it is just a given that she is spending her life trying to find it, sacrificing everything to it. But we are not given any glimpse as to why.

It is an intriguing read, though I suspect a forgettable one. It’s well-written – ‘his feet were full of anger. They walked by themselves’ – and has odd moments of humour. But it is quite repetitive, the same things keep happening to the characters (they are knocked out and knocked down quite a lot), and it’s hard to care much what is happening to them, there are too many plot devices, too many roads to take. It’s 450+ pages long, and could have done with losing a third of that.

Two of the Amazon reviews give strange reasons for reading it: one is from author Sally Vickers, who says Hill gave her own Miss Garnet’s Angel a nice review, so she thought she’d return the compliment. The other is from someone who was entering a writing contest of which Hill was a judge, and who thought it might be helpful to suss him out. 

The picture is the Elizabeth I portrait from Hatfield House – the photo came from Wikimedia Commons.

More about Elizabeth I (and more pictures of her) in the entries on Lytton Strachey's book on her - click here, or on the labels below.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Murder in Style by Emma Lou Fetta

published 1939



Susan Yates, passing through the lobby accompanied by a client from Chicago, glanced at the blue-gloved young woman with amused approval of the inventiveness of her costume.

As if the force of gravity ended at the top of her skull, Miss Holt had managed to place a halo-like hat exactly at that point. There it remained magically…. She decorated an otherwise skimpy but docile little suit with a cheap bunch of artificial, blue cornflowers. Amazingly, Susan thought, the tout ensemble of the young woman’s toilet possessed that tenuous quality known to her business as chic. She murmured as much to her woman companion, who sniffed audibly, after one glance at the redhead, and said: ‘Darling if I didn’t know all about your
impeccable taste, I should say you’d lost your mind. Why the child looks like a floosie. Probably is.’



Susan shook her head. ‘She has, my lamb, that thing you can improve upon but not endow – natural taste. One could make a knockout of her with a little time and trouble.’





observations: Curtis Evans, of the excellent Passing Tramp crime fiction blog, brought this one to my attention: he wrote about author and books here and here, and has had a hand in the reprint, by Coachwhip Publications, of 3 of Emma Lou Fetta’s mysteries. Nothing could be more up the Clothes in Book street than a 1930s murder story set in the fashion industry, so naturally I ordered it, and was delighted to find that Curt had written a fascinating and comprehensive introduction (which should definitely be read after the book in fact…)


World of Fashion Luncheon, New York 1940


A group of women representing branches of the fashion industry are meeting for a business luncheon in New York – they are organizing a special show. One dies after taking a vitamin pill. Naturally, she was an out-and-out trouble-maker, and everyone in a 50-metre radius might have a motive to kill her. Investigations follow, and anonymous notes, and sinister meetings in the park at midnight, and a lot of discussion of clothes, the fashion world, and career women.

It is not the greatest murder story ever written, but it is great fun, and full of fascinating sociological detail: the woman have huge handbags, rather like the It bags of today; one woman puts on a marabou jacket to sit up in bed and eat her breakfast; a successful radio personality is hoping that she might be able to take a role in the new industry of television. One character wears ‘a hat like a flashlight camera’ – I’m guessing that might be this kind of shape:



-- like those cameras press photographers have in films of the era.

More on the blog from the obvious suspects – Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds, and Christianna Brand’s Death in High Heels, are both similar detective stories set in the fashion world, as is Patricia Moyes’ Murder a la Mode – and, there is another book of that name, which I am hoping to read soon. The other (earlier) Murder a la Mode is by Eleanor Kelly Sellars – writer and blogger Helen Szamuely found it and recommended it to me. Watch out for it…

All the photos are from the NY Public Library collection, and from the 1939/40 New York’s World Fair. The World of Fashion luncheon looks like it might be the kind of event the ladies in the book were organizing….

Thursday, 28 August 2014

My Friends the Hungry Generation by Jane Duncan

published 1968





In 1951, when I had last seen my niece, she had been an entrancing three-year-old who was just beginning to read and when the door opened now I was quite unprepared for the leggy coltish eight-year-old dressed in very short shorts and a very dirty white shirt. The first things I noticed about her were the long, beautifully-shaped bare legs, the long, light brown pigtails and the large eyes, shaped and darkly-lashed like the eyes of her mother, but in colour, the brilliant blue of her father’s. The two boys, who stood on either side of her in the doorway, I had never seen before, of course.



[Some time later] George, Tom, Sandy Tom and I followed. On the driveway there was a Land Rover, hitched to it was a small horse-box and looking over the tailboard of this was the hairy face of a little Shetland pony… Miss Forth, George and Tom were leading the pony down the little ramp on to the gravel…. Liz clasped her arms round the pony’s neck and laid her cheek against the wiry mane.




observations: And on we go with Jane Duncan and her alter ego Janet -  it is 1956 now, and she is visiting her brother and his family. Her sister-in-law is having another baby, and Janet ends up looking after the other children, who are the Hungry Generation. Janet is child-free herself, and makes heavy weather of the mysteries of childcare. She is also very soppy and bursts into tears the whole time. Normally these books have a mixture of a current thread and a historical one, but this one is unusually linear, with some reminiscences of Janet’s youth, but otherwise a straight story about the summer looking after the children.

The book is a curiosity in terms of childcare, showing us how much has changed since those days – the children sound positively hysterical and are endlessly badly-behaved, and Janet doesn’t hesitate to spank them. The general level of violence in the house (which is definitely meant to be a happy, loving, normal household) is quite surprising to modern readers I would suggest. In addition the new-born baby (two weeks old, max) is given diluted cow’s milk to drink, and when that doesn’t work, goat’s milk. The Christening happens almost immediately, with no special preparations. When an aunt dies (in the same town) the parents of the new baby both disappear to the bereaved house completely for several days – possibly just a plot device to give Janet more responsibility.

Janet in the book claims that one character loves her son-in-law ‘more, even, than her own daughters or the [grand]children.’ This trope comes up occasionally in books, and always seems to be wholly unconvincing – and in normal circumstances (ie there is nothing wrong or strange about her relationship with her own children) unimaginable. It sounds sniping to say that the author had no children of her own.

I think I enjoyed this one less that others in the series, because of the single setting. More on the series by clicking on the Jane Duncan label below. I have missed out My Friends the Macleans, a rather uninspired entry that ends on the day that this one begins. 

In a serious adult book in the 1960s, it seems very strange that one character will casually give a pony as a thank you gift to a family: in fairytales and old-fashioned children's books, yes, lovely. In real life: worst gift ever.

Girl in shorts, a 1958 photo from the Florida archives via Flickr. The picture of the children on a pony comes from the National Library of Wales.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

published 2009

set in 2007








With the letter she had sent a photograph of herself, and he could feel the tattered edge of it with his thumb as he raised his hat to one more person, saw, from the corner of his eyes, one more person gauge the unusual sobriety and richness of his black suit and strong boots and fur-collared overcoat. His thumb caressed her face. His eyes could see her features, neither pretty nor homely. Her large clear eyes stared into the photographer’s flash without guile. She wore a simple dress with a plain cloth collar, an ordinary woman who needed a husband enough to marry a stranger twenty years her senior.

He had sent her no photograph in return, nor had she asked for one. He had sent instead a ticket, sent it to the Christian boarding-house in which she stayed in filthy, howling Chicago, and now he stood, a rich man in a tiny town in a cold climate, at the start of a Wisconsin winter in the year 1907. Ralph Truitt waited for the train that would bring Catherine Land to him




observations: Reading this book was part of a project to clear a TBR pile, and that worked out well because  I bought it a while ago, and remembered nothing about it except what you would know from the excerpt above: that a man living in a remote mid-Western town in 1907 advertises for a wife, and she arrives by train. So something like Patricia MacLachlan’s YA classic Sarah, Plain and Tall? No, as it turns out, not one little bit.

I knew it had been described as a gothic creepy tale, but still every surprise and twist came to me fresh, and I enjoyed that – I am a good guesser, and there are only so many ways this plot could go, but still I could lose myself in the overblown prose, even if there were rather too many descriptions of sex.

There was one point where I found the plot unconvincing, but as it turns out, Robert Goolrick had thought of that too, right at the end, so that was satisfying. (I felt the whole business with the original photograph wasn’t really explained, either.)

We find out about Ralph Truitt’s past, and what he wants from the future: we find out some of Catherine Land’s past. He says to her ‘I know. I know what you are doing.’ But does he?

Some of the very lush prose became repetitive, and the endless misery got a bit much, with the sad stories of the people of the town, and the tagline ‘it was just a story about despair.’ But I found it involving, and a little bit unexpected, and I really did want to know what was going to happen to the people.

In Sunday’s entry on John Dickson Carr, another book set in 1907, I featured a picture of a young woman in a bathing-suit. It was captioned in a museum archive as 1907, although it did look much more recent than that, and one valued reader, Daniel Milford-Cottam, helpfully came into the comments to explain why he thought it had been wrongly dated. He was very convincing…. But whatever the truth, the world of bathing suits and exposed legs is very far from the 1907 portrayed in this book.

This photograph here is of Harriet E Giles, a pioneer and advocate of women’s education in the early years of the 20th century, and one of the founders of Spelman College.