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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

published 2014

[Summing up the career of protagonist Fiona Maye, and explaining why she is childless]

A story best told at speed. After finals, more exams, then the call to the Bar, pupillage, a lucky invitation to prestigious chambers, some early success defending hopeless cases – how sensible it had seemed, to delay a child until her early thirties. And when those years came, they brought complex worthwhile cases, more success . Jack was also hesitant, arguing for holding back another year or two. Mid thirties then, when he was teaching in Pittsburgh and she worked a fourteen-hour day, drifting deeper into family law as the idea of her own family receded, despite the visits of nephews and nieces. In the following years, the first rumours that she might be elected precociously to the bench and required to be on circuit. But the call didn’t come, not yet. And in her forties, there sprang up anxieties about elderly gravids and autism. Soon after, more young visitors to Gray’s Inn Square, noisy demanding great-nephews, great-nieces, reminded her how hard it would be to squeeze an infant into her kind of life. Then rueful thoughts of adoption, some tentative enquiries – and throughout the accelerating years that followed , occasional agonies of doubt, firm late-night decisions concerning surrogate mothers undone in the early-morning rush to work. And when at last, at nine thirty one morning at the Royal Courts of Justice , she was sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice and took her oath of allegiance and her Judicial Oath before two hundred of her bewigged colleagues , and she stood proudly before them in her robes, the subject of a witty speech, she knew the game was up, she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ.

observations: Ian McEwan's books are full of over-privileged people studying their own reactions to this and that.

In this book a description of London in the rain is mixed with looking at climate change. We are asked to consider several musical performances – obviously we can’t hear, so we have to take his word for it that one of them really is that cliché of someone performing spectacularly well because they are going through an emotional trauma. I found the music descriptions embarrassingly over-earnest, even though I share his taste for a quite obscure Keith Jarrett album (possibly our favourite track from it is different: I couldn’t quite tell).

The book has echoes of the Frances Fyfield crime story I featured recently, Blood from Stone, which also featured a high-flying woman in the legal world thinking about her cases. (Though Fyfield will never be treated with the literary acclaim McEwan gets). This book – which deals with the rights of children, and issues of consent over medical treatment – came out just as a controversial case was hitting the headlines in the UK: a family had removed their child from a hospital in Southampton, and then from the country, because they were unconvinced by the treatment being offered. McEwan wrote a very interesting article for the Guardian newspaper on this, very reasonably linking his book with the case – but less reasonably, completely spoilering the book, in a way that you would only realize when you start reading it. So avoid the article if you intend to read the book…

The issues are important, and McEwan is plainly intelligent, and not in any doubt about his intelligence, but I’m not sure a novel is the way to look at those issues. The book bears a strange resemblance to the James Joyce short story The Dead: a traditional Irish song is important, and a young man in poor health travels in the rain and gets wet in his devotion to someone, surely to his own detriment.

The picture shows Cherie Booth Blair, wife of the former UK Prime Minister and a barrister, QC and part-time judge. Depressingly, when I was searching for pictures using the tags woman + judge, a lot of pictures of beauty contests popped up.

Other McEwan books, A child in Time and Sweet Tooth, have appeared on the blog.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Spy Hook by Len Deighton

Published 1988

Action takes place in 1987

When after thirty minutes or more Frank returned he was dressed in what for him were informal clothes: an old grey herringbone tweed jacket and flannels, but the starched shirt and striped tie wouldn’t have disgraced any Mess. Just as I was able to make new clothes look shabby, so Frank was able to invest even his oldest garments with a spruce look. His cuffs emerged just the right amount and there was a moiŕe kerchief in his top pocket and hand-sewn Oxfords that were polished to perfection. He went across to the drinks trolley and poured himself a large Plymouth gin with a dash of bitters.

‘What have you got there?’ he asked.

‘I’m all right, Frank,’ I said.

‘Wouldn’t you rather have a real drink?’

‘I’m trying to cut back on the hard stuff, Frank.’

‘That bottle must have been on that trolley for years. Is it still all right?’ He picked up the bottle I’d poured my drink from, and studied the label with interest, and then he looked at me. ‘Vermouth? That’s not like you, Bernard.’

‘Delicious,’ I said.

observations: Having read (& blogged on - click on links) the first trilogy of Bernard Samson books - Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match – I have embarked on the second, and they are just as compelling.

Bernard is still distrusting and disapproving of most others in his mysterious department of spies, and still worrying about his personal life, his children, his departed wife and his new young girlfriend. By now it is like listening to a very entertaining old friend chatting about his bosses and the rest of his officemates, with the occasional attack, gun story or general physical violence thrown in. The book is very much rooted in its time, and not just because the Eastern bloc has been dismantled since then. The food, restaurants and décor are all depressingly 1980s, and Samson doesn’t know that if he looks something up on the Department’s computers then there will be a record of this, he can be traced.

And there are those odd funny comments that you think probably are true:
Posh Harry’s mastery of the German language – grammar, pronunciation and idiom – belied the rather casual, relaxed demeanour he liked to display. Adult foreigners who will devote enough time and energy to acquire German like this have to be dedicated, demented or Dutch.
A previous entry looked at the tailor scene in London Match – Deighton excels in these scenes where two things are going on at once, and the dialogue and actions are evenly split, the reader (and sometimes the participants) having to decide what is being discussed in any single sentence. In this one there is an incongruous scene where Samson and Werner are discussing the boiler at Lisl’s hotel along with more weighty items.

Samson’s cleaning lady is called Mrs Palmer – which is the surname given to the film version of the character from the Ipcress File and other Deighton books (though Deighton never names him). He also drinks some Chateau Palmer wine.

It is very hard to imagine that anyone could finish this book and not want to start on the next one, Spy Line, immediately.

The photograph is from Perry Photography.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

published 2014


The Orange Juice Problem occurred at the end of an already disrupted week. Another occupant of our apartment complex had destroyed both of my ‘respectable’ shirts by piggybacking on our washing load in the shared laundry facilities. I understood his desire for efficiency, but an item of his clothing had dyed our light-coloured washing a permanent and uneven shade of purple…. Rosie’s outer clothing, which was largely black, had not been affected. The problem was restricted to her underwear.

I argued that I had no objection to the new shade and that no-one else should be seeing her undressed, except perhaps a doctor, whose professionalism should prevent him or her from being concerned with aesthetics…

[Later] Sonia hd suggested purchasing Rosie high-quality decorative underwear for Christmas, noting that gifts of this kind were traditional in the early years of marriage. It was a brilliant idea, and had allowed me to replace the items damaged in the Laundry Incident, but the process of matching the stock at Victoria’s Secret with Rosie’s purple-dyed originals had been awkward. The gift was still in my office.

observations: Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project got a good write-up on the blog last year, and I re-read it recently and was even more enthusiastic: it is clever, well-structured and good-hearted as well as being hilariously funny. It outlined the efforts of Don, an Australian academic, to find a life partner. It’s (intentionally) obvious to the reader from very early on that the eventual partner is going to be Rosie, but the two of them have to find that out for themselves.

In this sequel, just published, the two of them have married and moved to New York, and Rosie gets pregnant. This gives rise to many hugely entertaining misunderstandings and bizarre events very much in the manner of the first book, all narrated in his trademark straight-faced manner by Don. The people around him try to explain to him what he may not be picking up from facial expressions, and just often enough he confounds them with his scientific knowledge, his complete lack of tact, or his sheer humanity. Gene comes to stay, and there are new characters: Sonia, above, is the wife of Dave the Baseball Fan from the previous book, and inexplicably gets involved in Don’s meetings with a social worker, pretending to be his wife:

I gave Sonia a look intended to remind her that she was supposed to be Rosie, who would not be defending weirdness and had not been raised in a small Italian village with poor hygiene. Of course, neither had Sonia. I suspected things were going to become confusing.
I thought The Rosie Effect was a wonderful book: satisfying, charming, kind about the world, very very funny. If you liked the first one, you will like this one too. If you haven’t read the first one you should.

The lady in the underwear is showing Marks and Spencer lingerie – wholesome and real-looking, she looked a lot better than the Victoria’s Secret models in purple.

******ADDED LATER: I am delighted to say that the Rosie author, Graeme Simsion, has tweeted to say that he 'loved the purple underwear and choice of 'real' model.'

Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown: Part 2

published 1941

Jeremy at the piano played a soft valse from Les Sylphides.

Vicky, in a crisp snow-white ballet dress, twirled gracefully on to the stage…. The audience was spellbound. She was some vague wood sprite, here for a moment, gone the next,. The light had on its blue shade, which gave the slim, white-clad figure an appearance of transparency. She finished up with a series of slow fouettees, and sank on to the ground in a billow of tarlatan. The applause was magnificent, and she was called before the curtain time after time.

observations: See also earlier entry for more about this classic children's book.

The edition of the book I have now has been updated, which seems a shame, and the modernizing is rather random anyway. The book is very 1930s, then suddenly the children are doing GCEs (rather than School Cert) and wearing tights (rather than stockings). At the same time, there is a wonderful scene at the fairground: Nigel, who is 15, wins on the skittles and is offered ‘cigarettes or chocolate’ as his prize. He chooses chocolate, thank goodness.

There was a BBC TV version produced in 1980 (set in non-
specific olden times) which starred Sarah Greene as Sandra – Greene went on to become a Blue Peter presenter. Another production of it would surely go down well, and what a chance for young actors to play their stage-struck selves.

Pamela Brown wrote the book between the ages of 14 and 16, and that fact wouldn’t knock you out with surprise – but it has a kind amateurish enthusiasm which greatly suits the subject matter, and I’m sure still appeals to young readers (who could just imagine themselves as young actors), as it did 30 and 40 and 50 years ago.

Many of us have been slightly mystified by tarlatan: it is a kind of stiffened muslin, and a great favourite in Little Women and other LM Alcott books, and in Ballet Shoes and in Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save me the Waltz. It also turns up in Gone with The Wind, but should not be confused with the large Tarleton family, neighbours of the O’Haras.

But for some of us, we can never rid ourselves of the idea that it’s connected with tartan in some way, so we visualize it as a stiffened muslin with a criss-cross pattern on it. 

Pamela Brown continued the story of these young people in Golden Pavements, where they attend drama school.

Les Sylphides was the subject of a wonderful poem by Louis MacNiece, giving rise to this blog entry.

The ballerina picture is from George Eastman House.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Twospot by Bill Pronzini and Collin Wilcox

published 1978

The street door opened and Shelly came inside.

When I leaned out of the booth and waved at her, she saw me and then came over wearing a lopsided grin. “Sorry to be late,” she said. “A couple of last-minute things to take care of.”

“No problem,” I said.

The waiter showed up as soon as she sat down, and we got our orders out of the way: two roast beef sandwiches, another Bass ale for me, a pint of Black-and-Tan – half Guinness and half lager – for her. After he drifted off, Shelly brushed a hand absently through her fine, short-cropped hair and looked at me in a frankly appraising way. She was dressed in a tailored three-piece wool suit and a blue silk blouse; the outfit, and some carefully applied make-up, made her look less hard-edged than she had last night. And even more attractive.

observations: My good blogging friend Col, of Col’s Criminal Library, sent me this one ages ago. I’ve been doing some clearing of the book mountains, and this is one of the treats that turned up, and Col might see it as a much-needed corrective to the outbreak of Mitford detail in yesterday's entry

Twospot has a premise that may not be unique, but is certainly one I have never come across before in many years of reading: a specific kind of mash-up of characters and writers.

Both the authors write (or wrote in the case of Wilcox, who died in 1996) completely different series detective books: Pronzini with his Nameless PI, Wilcox about a San Francisco cop called Lt Hastings. For this book, they got the two fictional characters to co-operate in solving a crime, with the two authors (as far as I can tell, this isn’t spelled out) contributing alternate sections, each from the POV of one of the investigators.

The result is entertaining and good fun: the San Francisco setting is very well realized. The first of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books appeared the same year, and it’s interesting to compare the books and watch how the city is changing, as the gay sensibility becomes more important. The book took a highly unexpected (to me) turn into political matters – I certainly did not guess where the plot was going.

Another strand deals with a winery outside the city, a family business going wrong - always a favourite in mystery stories, and again nicely done. The woman above works at the winery, but obviously has other tastes when it comes to drinking: I served many Black-and-Tans in my barmaid years, and a lot of beer to women, but very very few B&Ts were ordered by women.

I have read Pronzini before, but hadn’t come across Wilcox: he also apparently created the TV character McCloud. Pronzini’s main character is always described as ‘Nameless’, but – as Col noted too - in this book the Wilcox-created oppo, Hastings, refers to him as ‘Bill’, presumably a deliberate in-joke.

Read Col’s review of the book here.

The three-piece suit above - from a fashion magazine of the time - is probably rather country-ish for the SF working woman, but it is definitely of the right era.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Thursday List: The Mitford Sisters

Which one is the great beauty? l-r:Unity, Diana, Nancy

This week the last of the famous Mitford sisters died: Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, known as Debo.

The proprietor of Clothes in Books is an unreconstructed old leftie, but has an inexplicable and wide-ranging interest in the aristocratic Mitford Sisters, and has read just about everything by or about them, so feels uniquely qualified to create lists about them, and use that as an excuse to air her opinions one more time. (There was a brother, Tom, but he was very much overshadowed by his sisters). First, a list of the sisters in order of (very much) personal preference:

1) Given my political views, it is unsurprising that Jessica (also known as Decca) is my favourite of the women. She was a Communist, who ran away to the Spanish Civil War with her boyfriend and later husband Esmond Romilly. They then emigrated to the USA.  She was widowed in the Second World War and then married a left-wing lawyer (who briefly employed Hilary Rodham Clinton as an intern). The two of them worked tirelessly for human rights causes all their lives.

Key books by Jessica Mitford:

The American Way of Death (and a later Revisited version of the book) – an investigation into the funeral industry

The American Way of Birth – exactly what it sounds like, a similar investigation into maternity care

Hons and Rebels (first volume of her autobiography, roundly condemned by her sisters as lies, contains many of the key anecdotes about the family’s upbringing in the Oxfordshire countryside)

Well-dressed in the 30s - clothes for a London trip

2) Nancy Mitford was the oldest: she wrote a handful of novels that will live forever, a few less good ones, some very good history texts, and a lot of journalism.

The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate, and Don’t Tell Alfred are wonderful books (with many entries on the blog: click on the labels below). Her books featured on my recent list of books about young women, the ones for endless re-reading. I also wrote about Love in a Cold Climate in the Guardian newspaper, for a feature on comfort reads.

3) Pam Mitford – quiet and mysterious, the country girl who didn’t want to write, or to have extreme political views (though her husband Derek Jackson did), or to become famous, or to conquer London. She liked farming and country pursuits. She was much loved by poet John Betjeman, and is thought to have been one of the inspirations for his poems about such women.

4) Deborah Duchess of Devonshire. Jessica said the girls all grew up lounging around waiting for Mr Right to turn up ‘or in Debo’s case, the Duke of Right.’ She always wanted to be a duchess, though at the time she married Andrew Cavendish there wouldn’t have been much of a prospect as he was a younger son – his brother the heir died in the Second World War. She came to writing late in life, with some books about Chatsworth House – the great country mansion which she and her husband ran as a business – and then her letters to Patrick Leigh Fermor, and a book of memoirs.

5) Unity Mitford was an out-and-out Nazi supporter, but she was so strange, and sounds so mad, that it is hard to blame her as much as Diana. She tried to commit suicide when Great Britain declared war on Germany: she shot herself, but lived on, much damaged, for several years more.

Diana dressed casually for a party, with friend

6) Diana Mitford, who became Diana Mosley, has featured on the blog recently, and this is part of what I said about her:

Her politics were detestable and deluded: she was a friend of Hitler, and she was married to fascist leader Oswald Mosley and supported his political views totally. But once you get that out of the way, there is still something left. She was a woman of principle and great loyalty, she found it easy to make and keep good friends despite everything (‘everything’ including imprisonment during the WW2 and the whiff – strongly denied - of potential treason). For someone claiming such strange views she had friends of all kinds – including many whom her husband’s desired political system would have condemned as degenerate, or Jewish, or both.

There is a way in which she doesn’t add up…
She was simultaneously quite transparent and quite incomprehensible – those who knew her say she had great personal warmth and charm, but some of us (without the advantage of knowing her personally) wonder about the ice in her heart.

She was famously beautiful. She was also a very good writer – her biography of the Duchess of Windsor is hilarious, very readable, and illuminating and revealing: she knew the Duchess well. Her pen portraits of friends were also very good.

Nicholas Mosley was her stepson – he wrote the novel Impossible Objects, one of the best books on the blog last year.


The simple search engine on Clothes in Books seems quite overwhelmed by the amount of Mitfordiana - not everything shows up - so here are some links:

One of the original inspirations for this blog was Jassy’s criticism of short wedding dresses, and consideration for ‘your poor old dead legs’, in this entry on Pursuit of Love.

Other blog entries about the sisters include ones about the great closing lines of The Pursuit of Love; about who was the beauty of the family; about what Cedric wore to the ball (original research! 2 pics below for 2 costumes); 

why Rupert Everett should play Lady Montdore; and how the sisters’ lives influenced Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. And much much more – Peter Quennell falling in love with Diana....  

....favourite book and large jewels in the Making of a Marchioness, the Xmas presents entry (Fanny's fur hat to the right) - and still this is just skimming the surface. 

The Mitfords must be mentioned more around here than anyone else, to the great disdain of my good friend Col of Col’s Criminal Library – which is undoubtedly a Mitford-free zone.


Other Mitford books: Mary Lovell wrote The Mitford Girls about all the sisters, which is a great general introduction, and Laura Thompson (biographer also of Agatha Christie) wrote an enjoyable, quirky book about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate. Lisa Hilton's The Horror of Love is specifically about Nancy's affair with Gaston Palewski ('Fabrice'). 

There are several other books about the individual sisters, and various collections of their letters. The collection of letters between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy, often consulted and referred to here on the blog, is one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century, and if I had to live with one book for the rest of my life I would probably choose that one.

Now that Deborah has died, the writers and biographers will be keen to produce more books, the last words on the sisters. And perhaps more about some of the more intriguing aspects of Debo’s life… I suspect there’s a lot there to be revealed. (What WAS that about JFK?)

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Book of 1958: Dead Man's Knock by John Dickson Carr

published 1958

She was tall, especially in high-heeled shoes.The sleek black hair fell below her shoulders. Her eyes, which could be sly and dreaming or else full on you to express secrets while concealing them, were of a light hazel flecked with green where the light touched.

But Rose Lestrange was one of those women about whom you are less conscious of the face than of the figure. Slender, and yet rounded, the white skin of a rich dusky pallor, she wore a cotton dress of yellow, cut in a low V in front and stretching just below the knees. All her movements had that same sinuous grace; she seemed always in motion, deliberately calling attention to it.

observations: Rich Westwood has chosen the year 1958 for the September meme on his Past Offences blog. (See the fascinating previous roundups of entries: 1963 in June, 1939 in July, 1952 in August). And I’ve chosen John Dickson Carr again, as I did for 1939.

Carr – who also wrote as Carter Dickson - was American, but I haven’t before read a book of his set in the USA. He is famed for his locked room mysteries, and those rooms tend to be very European – panelled walls, gentlemen’s clubs, London atmosphere, and smoke and mist. So this is quite different: it’s a real campus murder, very much set in the USA – two characters met at a dance in a gymnasium, which you can’t somehow imagine in his English-set books. There are academics behaving badly, faculty wives, and a fair amount of illicit sex. The ghost of Wilkie Collins (constantly referred to as ‘fan-bearded’ and ‘fan-whiskered’, whatever that means) hovers over everything. It’s a goodish mystery, with a nice explanation for how the room was apparently locked from the inside…. Though the rest of the exposition isn’t so good.

Very very slight SPOILER:

In a recent review on her marvellous A Penguin a Week blog, Karyn Reeves asked a question about old murder stories where people are allowed to get away with it: ‘I always wonder, when I encounter this attitude in an old Penguin, if the misdemeanours and transgressions of the lower classes were viewed in quite the same way.’ (I covered the same book, JC Masterman’s Four Old Friends, on the blog here.) I can only recommend this book for her consideration.

As a 1958 book it has some interest – you would say that Carr was trying to keep up with the times, show modern life and young people, show, exactly, that he didn’t have to write about English country houses. I would class it as a good one, but not a great one - think I prefer his European works, though that may be just misplaced nostalgia on my part.

I had one funny experience while reading it: there was a section where several characters are wandering around in the dark, and one says:
‘It’s ten to one. You’re right. Miss Lestrange has probably taken a sleeping-pill.’ 
I was very puzzled by this because my impression was that it was more like 6am, so I re-read a whole section of the book to check on this, and indeed I seemed to be right. But then it turned out that I had misread the punctuation, and what the sentence actually said was 
‘It’s ten to one you’re right. Miss Lestrange has probably taken a sleeping-pill.' 
I feel Agatha Christie could have made a classic misdirection clue out of that one, like ‘I’ll see to her packing’ - someone half-asleep would overhear it, and use it as time/alibi evidence.

Various young women wander round in different-coloured dresses, which is moderately important, and another of them is in white and red, rather like the young lady from this entry on John Penn’s Mortal Term:

The top picture – from 1955 – is from Dovima is divine.