Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Idol House of Astarte by Agatha Christie

From The Complete Miss Marple Short Stories - story first published 1932, this collection 2003, new edition with illustrations by Andrew Davidson 2012

‘The Goddess of the Moon’ cried Diana. ‘Oh do let us have a wild orgy tonight. Fancy dress. And we will come out here in the moonlight and celebrate the rites of Astarte’…

Diana Ashley’s suggestion of a fancy-dress party that evening was received with general favour. The usual laughing and whispering and frenzied secret sewing took place, and when we all made our appearance for dinner there were the usual outcries of merriment… Richard Haydon called himself a Phoenician sailor, and his cousin was a brigand chief….

Suddenly we came out into the open clearing in the middle of the grove and stood rooted to the spot in amazement, for there, on the threshold of the Idol House, stood a shimmering figure wrapped tightly round in diaphanous gauze and with two crescent horns rising from the dark masses of her hair.

‘My God!’ said Richard Haydon, and the sweat sprang out on his brow.

But Violet Mannering was sharper.

‘Why it’s Diana’ she exclaimed. ‘What has she done to herself? Oh she looks quite different somehow!’

observations: In an entry earlier this year I explained how I came to see this edition, and why for once the physical book is more important than the words – thank you to The Folio Society, whom I strongly recommend, and who are responsible for the picture.

This is a straightforward Christie short story: the situation in which a young man dies is described to Miss Marple and she solves the crime apparently by magic. But no – beware of magic! Christie does an admirable line in having things both ways: she often uses myths, séances, spiritualism and in this case ancient religions as a way to create a creepy tension, but then the solution will depend on your ignoring all that. As she says: ‘one looks at the facts and disregards all that atmosphere of heathen goddesses which I don’t think is very nice.’ (In fact I think the last 7 words were put in by Christie just because they are funny: Marple isn’t taken in by these things, but she is far from prim and prissy, and is totally unshockable.)

The fancy dress theme is well done, a clue tucked in there along with the vision of the Neolithic hut dwellers ‘explaining the sudden lack of hearth-rugs.’ (So here’s Stig of the Dump one more time to illustrate that one:) 

Links on the blog: Agatha Christies all over the place – click on the label below. Fancy dress is another favourite blog theme – try here, here, here and here. Earlier this week, The Goldfinch's Pippa was dressed in diaphonous gauze too.

The first illo is from The Folio Society and used with their kind permission, while the brigand is an Argentine gaucho from Wikimedia Commons as featured in the past in a Charles Darwin entry

Friday, 29 November 2013

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

Published 2013   set in 1976

[She decided on] a frilled dress in lawn cotton. One of Peter’s favourites. He said it made her look like a milkmaid. Apparently this was a good thing. They had gone together to a boutique in Oxford to buy these clothes; shopping with a man was not something Monica was used to. She had always gone with her mother or her sister; she wasn’t one for shopping alone, found it hard to make up her mind, could never decide if something suited her or not. So she had taken Gretta or, in later years, Aoife, who, despite dressing like a tramp, was surprisingly good at knowing what looked right on people. Monica wasn’t at all used to the idea of coming out through the curtained door to display yourself to a man waiting in a chair, to elicit his approval before you even knew yourself whether you liked it. Joe had hated shopping, would never have gone with her, even if she’d asked.

observations: This is Monica, getting dressed in the middle of the heatwave of 1976, and in all conscience the dress probably wasn’t even as nice as the one in the picture – a lot more covered-up. This is the story of a family crisis at a very specific time and place: Monica’s father, Robert, has disappeared, apparently just walked away from her mother Gretta. The three siblings, Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife gather at the family home to see what can be done: everything happens from Thursday to Sunday (although with some flashbacks and memories). To anyone who lived through the drought summer of 1976, the atmosphere is very well-done – much better than in the William Boyd book Restless, yesterday, which takes the same specific time and does nothing with it. O’Farrell is good on the heat, the restlessness the simultaneous enjoyment of heat and hatred of it, and the strange feeling that there has never been weather like this before.

It’s a very entertaining and involving book: very good on different kinds of families, shouty ones and quiet ones:

He was used to a house in which people clattered from room to room, shouted down staircases, banged open doors to yell, what time do you call this, where people threw themselves into chairs, slammed down teacups, used more words than perhaps they needed to.
-- and O’Farrell is also good on class differences, the expectations of the children, the clothes they wear, the mother setting the tone of the family. There are family secrets and problems and misunderstandings, and it is all extremely well-written – but you’re left with a faint feeling that it was all a bit easy, that the plot (suddenly emerging in the final quarter) was just an excuse to write about these people, and that it’s good, but doesn’t quite soar. But still, a very entertaining book. And really, much better than the much-praised Restless.

The picture is from a fashion magazine from the summer of 1977.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Restless by William Boyd

published 2006   section set in 1976

I made a bit of an effort for Hamid, though my heart wasn’t really in it. I rather relished these rare evenings alone but I washed my hair and put on some dark grey eyeshadow. I was going to wear my platform boots but didn’t want to tower over him so I settled for some clogs, jeans and an embroidered cheesecloth smock. My burn-dressing was less conspicuous now – under the cheesecloth of the smock it formed a neat lump the size of a small sandwich. While I waited for him I set a kitchen chair outside on the landing at the top of the stairs and drank a beer. The light was soft and hazy and dozens of swifts jinked and dived above the treetops, the air filled with their squeakings like a kind of semi-audible, shrill static.
Hamid arrived, wearing a dark suit and a tie. He said I looked ‘very nice’ though I could tell he was a little disappointed.

observations: This was a promising enough concept: a daughter who finds that her mother had an unknown secret life as a spy, and that this life might just be coming to catch up with her. The narrative switches between mother and daughter, between the Second World War and 1976. It’s an intriguing idea, but I didn’t think it worked. Firstly, Boyd just didn’t seem to be that good at doing a woman’s perspective, so to have two females as main characters was a mistake. The summer of 1976 was memorable: hot and atmospheric, but he makes nothing of that. There is a history don at All Souls with a computer on his desk (in 1976? no) and photocopied photos being used for ID (no – photocopying was still quite rare, and photos were unrecognizable). 

Above, the narrator mentions a burn on her shoulder – this happens in a very bizarre and unconvincing incident involving a teapot and a bath, but there seems to be no reason for it at all. I am used to proper thrillers – where everything is point, or at least potential point - and I wrongly assumed her clumsiness was a clue: perhaps she was going blind? But the whole of the modern section, really, led to nothing. And her childhood was odd: one sentence implies that the house she lived in was grand and big enough to have a ‘library’, but nothing else would lead you to think that.

Meanwhile, the sections in the war were more intriguing, but involved the mother being trained to a very high degree as a top-level spy, and then being sent to write fake news stories in an office – she just didn’t seem to have any need for the training we all enjoyed reading about, or else she was being wasted on her job. And really, it was hard to get worked up about the importance or jeopardy involved in fake news stories, try though he did….

There were other things wrong: at a vital moment a contact ‘thought for a bit and then said, ‘Amsterdam?’’ But later Eva says ‘He had said ‘Amsterdam’ instantly, confidently, sure that this was the answer she expected.’ Well both those things can’t be true, and we never really got to the bottom of what happened. The child has ‘a fritter of pencils and wax crayons around him’ – what does this mean? The lights in a restaurant are like ‘albescent moons’: this is just affectation – albescent means ‘becoming white’, so it adds nothing to the description.

If the book had been exciting and compelling I probably would have made less of these issues: boredom brings out the inner pedant.

The picture is from a 1976 fashion magazine. More fiction set in 1976 tomorrow.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - Part 2

published 2013

The club was so beautiful that I resented the press of guests, which made it difficult to see the architectural details, the portraits hung frame to frame – some of them very fine – and the rare books on the shelves. Red velvet swags, garlands of Christmas balsam – were those real candles on the tree? I stood in a daze at the top of the stairs, not wanting to greet or talk to people, not wanting to be there at all –

Hand on my sleeve. “What’s the matter?” said Pippa….

Among the strangers, [Hobie] and Pippa were two of the only really unique or interesting-looking people there: she, like a fairy in her gauzy-sleeved, diaphanous green; he, elegant and endearing in his midnight blue double-breasted, his beautiful old shoes from Peal and Co.

observations: Should be read in conjunction with earlier entry on the book.

Novels are often described as Dickensian, and (same thing with Jane Austen-esque) you do sometimes wonder if the reviewer has actually read, or had any feel for, the original. But for once, this book struck me as like Dickens, in one specific way: the book follows a young man over about ten years of life, and in that time extraordinary things happen to him. When young he is at the mercy of adults who may or may not have his best interests at heart, and ends up in strange situations, with both actual danger and emotional jeopardy: he is storm-tost, hither and thither. Although the story is picaresque, most things are going to link up by the end. So he is a Nicholas Nickleby, a David Copperfield.

As in Dickens, tiny characters get their moment – this is the doorman at the apartment building of Theo’s richest friends:
Even in some smoky post-catastrophe Manhattan you could imagine him swaying genially at the door in the rags of his former uniform, the Barbours up in the apartment burning old National Geographics for warmth, living off gin and tinned crabmeat.
And there’s Janet - who is only a memory, and this is practically all that is said about her:
Janet fat and rosy in her pink shetlands and madras plaids like a Boucher nymph dressed J.Crew, Janet who said excellent! In answer to everything and drank coffee from a pink mug that said Janet.

There are wonderful passing descriptions of the lives of the Barbours and their classy friends – all very like the British Sloanes with their fear of ever being alone, their constant social life and need to meet up and chat. Blog favourite Frank O’Hara comes up fleetingly in a glimpse of another relationship that isn’t spelled out.

As I said before, the is a wonderful, marvellous book – it’s a commitment to read it, it is 770 pages long, and Donna Tartt doesn’t feel any need to help you out by reiterating details  - who are Moira  (a name of interest round here)  and Samantha? I’d lost track by the end. But she does help out by making the whole book so compelling and wonderful, it is well worth the commitment.

Picture from Vogue 1950, via the wonderful Clover Vintage Tumblr.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut

published 1982

When [Mother] was in the hospital for the last time, she thought she was in a spaceship. She thought I was Father, and that we were headed for Mars, where we were going to have a second honeymoon.

She was as alive as anybody and utterly mistaken about everything. She wouldn’t let go of my hand.

“That picture,” she said, and she would smile and give my hand a squeeze. I was supposed to know which of all the pictures in the world she meant. I thought for a while that it was Father’s unfinished masterpiece from his misspent youth in Vienna. But in a moment of clarity, she made it clear that it was a scrapbook photograph of her in a rowboat on a small river somewhere, maybe in Europe. Then again, it could have been Sugar Creek. The boat is tied to shore…. She isn’t going anywhere… Somebody has persuaded her to pose in the boat, with water around her and dappled with shade. She is laughing. She has just been married, or is about to be married. She will never be happier. She will never be more beautiful.

Who could have guessed that that young woman would take a rocket-ship to Mars someday?

observations: I read this book because I heard it had recipes in it, a subject I was looking at for the Guardian books blog. It does – Vonnegut says they are ‘intended as musical interludes for the salivary glands’ and that ‘no-one should use this novel for a cookbook.’ That comes in his introduction, which also helpfully explains the main symbols in the book: ‘there is an unappreciated, empty arts center in the shape of a sphere. This is my head as my 60th birthday beckons to me…. Haiti is New York City…. The neutered pharmacist… is my declining sexuality.’

This was not looking promising.

So a lesson: never judge a book by its introduction – this is a wonderful novel, enchanting, hilariously funny, deeply thought-provoking, and full of instant aphorisms on modern life.
That is my principal objection to life, I think: It is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes. 
… and indeed the narrator, Rudy, does make a terrible mistake as a teenager with a gun (symbolic, KV says in the intro, of ‘all the bad things I have done.’) The novel follows the story of his parents and then him and his brother through the 20th century – a lot of it is very sad, but Vonnegut’s storytelling style is so perfect that you are carried along as if it were a comedy. The characters are vivid and have real lives and emotions, even if the facts of the plot are plainly ridiculous, and involve the explosion of a neutron bomb in a Midwestern town. Vonnegut has real things to say, intriguing perceptions:
We all see our lives as stories, it seems to me… If a person survives an ordinary span of 60 years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over but the story is… It may be a bad thing that so many people try to make good stories out of their lives… I suppose that’s really what so many American women are complaining about these days. They find their lives short on story and overburdened with epilogue.
This is what leads up to the scene above: Rudy’s mother has not led a very satisfactory life, and she certainly has not been a good mother to him, but Rudy doesn’t judge her, and carries on trying to make sense out of life.

The book reminded me of both John Irving, and John Williams’ Stoner, and Rudy’s father would have been running round Vienna at the right time to visit Madensky Square. Father was very keen on wearing a Hungarian Life Guard uniform, with disastrous results on the night of the Prom. It would have been something like the left-hand one on this stamp, from a stampboard

The top picture is from the Jewish Women’s Archive via Flickr.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Raven's Eye by Barry Maitland

published 2013

chapter 9

[Policewoman Kathy Kolla is on an undercover operation in a casino]

[Kathy] put on her short black dress— the one with a hint of bling around the collar and hem— dark tights and high heels. She did her make-up, not sparing the mascara and lipstick, put on her best earrings and necklace and combed her blonde hair back into the bob she’d had done at the salon the previous evening. She stared at her reflection in the mirror, added a touch more lippy, and decided it would do…. DS Mickey Schaeffer was looking dapper in a tuxedo. He eyed Kathy approvingly. ‘Got your gun?’…

They caught a cab to Fantasyland, and entered arm in arm, looking as if they’d been out on the town all night. The gaming rooms were relatively quiet, a few bleary-looking couples yawning, a gaggle of young women from somewhere up north— Manchester by the sound of it— still buzzing on pills and alcohol, a couple of more serious punters with expressionless faces. Kathy had an earpiece hidden beneath her hair, through which she heard the operation controller checking the arrival of armed response units in the surrounding streets. Together, she and Mickey made their unhurried way from room to room, checking the layout against the plans and photographs they’d memorised, and mentally recording the faces of guests and staff. A camera in Kathy’s bag was also transmitting pictures to control.

observations: Could have done with access to Kathy’s secret camera. I thought it would be easy to find a nice photo of smart couples in a casino, but it is close to impossible: there are not that many pictures of the interiors, and those that exist are nearly always empty of customers. Any modern picture showing punters looks a bit down-market – they are not dressed in black tie, that’s for sure. So I settled for this 1880s print of Monte Carlo. Presumably it is casino policy not to allow photos – I had such a clear vision in my head of some James Bond-style scene with beautiful people, bright lights and gold fittings. The non-existence of this picture was very disappointing,

Unlike the book: Barry Maitland has written a series of 12 excellent police procedurals featuring Brock and Kolla, and this is the newest one. They are much-loved among crime fiction aficionados, and it is surprising they have never crossed over into bestsellerdom – perhaps they need a TV series. They are all set in and around London, and do a fantastic job of showing small corners of the city: it is always a shock to find out all over again that Maitland has lived in Australia for years. I don’t know how he does it, but the authenticity is striking. His background in architecture and urban design usually shows through: a fascination with the canals of London is evident here, and he certainly conveys their charms and secret ubiquity.

Kathy is trying to flush out a hardened violent criminal: she is acting as a decoy, and if there were any criticism of this book it would be that she keeps going back into jeopardy – on one of the occasions every reader must be shouting ‘no no don’t do it.’ But we can forgive Maitland anything: the tension he creates in the various scenarios is impressive. Let’s hope he keeps writing these winning books.

The picture shows the gaming room in Monte Carlo in 1889.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Dress-Down Sunday, and Bob Dylan again: Good To The Eye


Guest blogger Colm Redmond, fresh from seeing Bob Dylan for the seventh time last night, takes another look at Dylan's memoir. The only song performed both in the Greenwich Village folk clubs in the early 60s and at the Blackpool Opera House last night was "Blowin' In The Wind", which he was performing live for the 1,188th (known) time, according to

Chronicles, Volume One by  Bob Dylan

Published 2004 - section from early 1960s

[In the cafés and bars of Greenwich Village, NYC, singers generally performed for nothing and relied on a whip-round among the audience]

One singer I crossed paths with a lot, Richie Havens, always had a nice-looking girl with him who passed the hat and I noticed that he always did well. Sometimes she passed two hats. If you didn't have some kind of trick, you'd come off with an invisible presence, which wasn't good. ... A couple of times, I hooked up with a girl I knew from the Café Wha?, a waitress who was good to the eye. We'd go from place to place, I'd play and she'd take up [the] collection, wear a funny little bonnet, heavy black mascara, low laced blouse - looked almost naked from the waist up under a capelike coat. I'd split the money with her later, but it was too much of a hassle to do it all the time. I still made more when she was with me than when I was working on my own.

observations: We have seen how, for someone with a famously roving, womanising eye, Bob Dylan does a surprisingly good job of showing an interest in what men look like and wear. But he doesn't skimp on descriptions of women either; nearly always attractive ones. We don't know if the waitress in this extract dressed like that for work, or only when passing Dylan's hat around. Either way she must have been quite a sight. Not too surprising that - assuming an even split - she doubled a legendary singer-songwriter's takings without singing a note or writing a word. Mary Travers of Peter, Paul And Mary used to be a waitress at Wha? and she was a remarkable beauty in her day [see films of the Newport Folk Festival if you don't believe me] but I imagine if she was the waitress in this story Dylan would have mentioned it.

Café Wha? is still open now; it was the king of the Village's folk venues in Dylan's time but is overshadowed in reputation by the Gaslight Café - which was on the same street - because some famous tapes of Dylan performing at the Gaslight have survived.

Suze Rotolo - the girl with him on the 1963 Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album cover - has written about these days in her own book A Freewheelin' Time. It seems from both her account and Dylan's own that he was a restless as well as an ambitious guy and it's unsurprising that he didn't stick with the waitress plan just because it was lucrative, if it was also "a hassle".

Richie Havens was later famous for playing the guitar with his thumb, instead of fingers, on the fretboard and for opening the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Presumably the "trick" Dylan refers to was having a pretty girl, because I can't imagine people chipped in twice just because there were two hats. Or were the Olden Days really that sweet and uncomplicated?

The main photo is of CiB favourite Louise Brooks - not waitressing, but demonstrating how to rock dark eye makeup, and look naked when you're not. It's a Diary Of A Lost Girl publicity shot. Obviously, for when her mom came to visit the café, she'll have had a backup respectable outfit with a dinky change dispenser:

This is in fact Brooks' contemporary and hair-twin Colleen Moore, in the 1927 film Her Wild Oat. She made many films with great titles, she was admired by F Scott Fitzgerald, her eyes were different colours, and on closer inspection her bob was different from Louise's by virtue of having a side-part behind that fringe. Brooks parted hers in the middle.

Entry should be read in conjunction with this one. There's another great waitress picture here.

For more from the Guest Blogger, click on Colm Redmond below.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

No Love Lost by Margery Allingham

Novella: The Patient at Peacocks Hall

First published in book form 1954

The only unusual element that morning was provided by Rhoda. Once or twice I wondered if she was ill. She bustled about as if she was thinking of spring cleaning, and for ten minutes we had a wrangle because she objected to my clothes. I was very comfortable in slacks and a twin set, and her remarks on my ‘slovenliness’ and my ‘nice new red wool upstairs’ completely bewildered me. In the end I got the better of her by insisting on taking her temperature. It was normal but her pulse was slightly quick, and I recommended a sedative. She left me alone after that but I heard her go out to the back gate several times, which was puzzling, for no one goes calling in Mapleford on a Sunday…

[a little later] Percy nodded at me. ‘You change into a Christian skirt and pop down and settle the trouble,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Dr Linnett and I will have a smoke until you come back. It won’t take you ten minutes.’… At any rate, I got into my red wool and a coat faster than ever in my life, and was out on the road in less than five minutes…

observations: Rhoda, the housekeeper, knows that the narrator is going to have an important visitor, and wants her to look nice for him. How I wish I had come across this book when I wrote a piece on women in trousers in fiction, featured on the Guardian books blog. This would have been a nice 1950s reference - a Christian skirt! She is a doctor, and obviously cannot see a patient or a suitor while wearing slacks.

I was alerted to the existence of No Love Lost by the Passing Tramp blog: the book consists of two novellas – the other is Safer than Love – that Allingham wrote to be serialized in US magazines in the early 1950s: she made it plain she wrote them for the money. Bloomsbury Reader has re-published them as an ebook, and they are good enough as entertainment and an interesting sideways look at Allingham and her work. The settings are a small English village or town; both have a medical background; both are funny and satirical about the provincial atmosphere; and the minor details of life just after the Second World War are worth it in themselves. 

Allingham was wonderful at describing the strange corners of London – it’s what she’s famous for – but in fact lived much of her life elsewhere, and must have known small-town ways well. Both stories feature first-person narrations by feisty women with difficult and very relevant lovelives, going into jeopardy – all very different from the Campion books.

I enjoyed them very much, though that is partly because of having recently read the wonderful The Adventures of Margery Allingham – a biography by Julia Jones. It is fascinating to any fans of the writer, but it is also a model of how to do biography: sympathetic but realistic, very clear about what is fact and what is supposition, and very clear on what we need to know and what we’d like to know, and the line between them. Allingham’s long marriage is a matter of great mystery and speculation; her death was quite horrible and upsetting (she was sectioned to force her to have medical treatment), and Jones writes about both with wonderful, admirable tact. She also uses the literary works very convincingly as part of her picture of MA’s life – the book is highly recommended.

The picture is from the Dovima is Devine photostream.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

published 2013

Not knowing what to do, I started walking down St Mark’s toward Tompkins Square. All Day All Night. You Must be Twenty One To Enter. Downtown, away from the high-rise press, the wind cut more bitterly and yet the sky was more open too, it was easier to breathe. Muscle guys walking paired pit bulls, inked-up Bettie Page girls in wiggle dresses, stumble-bums with drag-hemmed pants and Jack O’Lantern teeth and taped-up shoes. Outside the shops, racks of sunglasses and skull bracelets and multi-colored transvestite wigs. There was a needle exchange somewhere, maybe more than one but I wasn’t sure where; Wall Street guys bought off the street all the time if you believed what people said but I wasn’t wise enough to know where to go or who to approach, and besides who was going to sell to me, a stranger with horn rimmed glasses and an uptown haircut…?

observations: I deliberately read very little about The Goldfinch before starting it, and that turned out to be a really good idea, and one I strongly recommend to anyone else.

[So if you’re contemplating it, stop reading this NOW, bookmark it, and come back when you’ve finished. There aren’t any spoilers, but it’s best to come to the book blank.] 

I had gathered the initial premise: young Theo is in a NY museum when it is attacked by terrorists, and loses his mother, but walks out with a valuable picture, The Goldfinch of the title (which is a real picture, by Fabritius, in The Hague). I had no idea what was going to happen to him after that, and so the book was full of tension and surprises – I didn’t know what kind of story it was going to be, and that was all to the good.

And it was fabulous, a huge adventure story with a serious core, amazingly funny, very perceptive and observational, and full of fascinating details about art (‘boring picture of fat-faced man you don’t know’) and art theft - and also antique furniture*, Las Vegas, drugs, drug addiction, NY upper classes, how to smuggle a dog onto a Greyhound bus, and on and on. It is a breath-taking book: her ability to inhabit different worlds is extraordinary – how does she know? How does she do the dialogue so well? Does she know the kind of low-lifes who pop up here and there? 

*There is a recipe for furniture polish, which might have fitted nicely into the blog piece on recipes in books. 

There are a few scenes and sections that go on too long (presumably no-one will edit her) and the loss of the passport seemed a clunky plot device. But these are tiny criticisms over the length of a book that gives you a whole world, and otherwise has an almost-perfect structure.

The description of his walk above reminded me instantly of the pictures of James Jowers: his marvellous photos of New York life are available from George Eastman House via Flickr and I have used them on the blog before (for example here and here). The one above is called St Mark’s Place.

The book would also have suited this picture:

-- a photo I have had in mind for ages, and finally found a great fit for in last months Impossible Object.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - Part 2

published 1927

James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.

She stroked James’s head; she transferred to him what she felt for her husband, and, as she watched him chalk yellow the white dress shirt of a gentleman in the Army and Navy Stores catalogue, thought what a delight it would be to her should he turn out a great artist; and why should he not? He had a splendid forehead…

Happily, Mildred came in to fetch them, and the bustle distracted them. But he kept looking back over his shoulder as Mildred carried him out, and she was certain that he was thinking, we are not going to the Lighthouse tomorrow; and she thought, he will remember that all his life.

No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out— a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress— children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed.

observations: In Monday’s entry I commented on the fact that Mrs Ramsay doesn’t cook the famous boeuf en daube in this book: Mildred does. Mildred is, one assumes, the cook, so what is she doing carrying James off, above? Why isn’t she cooking dinner? She seems to spend a lot of time looking after the children - something else that Mrs Ramsey cannot do - and on general household duties.

the children were not asleep. It was most annoying. Mildred should be more careful.

She had told Mildred to move [the skull] but Mildred of course had forgotten

There are other maids – a Swiss girl called Marthe (or maybe Marie, her name seems to change) who is crying because her father is dying, but we don’t hear any more about that. And later on there is an odd repeated phrase about Mildred from someone remembering her years later:

And cook’s name now? Mildred? Marian? Some name like that.
And then the same character a few pages later:
There was the cook now, Mildred, Marian, some such name as that
It’s not that you expect more of Woolf than is fair – though this is the woman who said we need to write about the bald spots at the back of men’s heads, so we can expect a lot of her – it’s the total lack of self-awareness that’s disappointing, to forget the name, to repeat the phrase, to care so little for the staff.

But still a great book, and will always be worth reading for that central section about the house. And that picture is just asking to be coloured in in yellow... 

More Virginia Woolf on the blog here and here.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Bob Dylan Special: The Raw Skin of the Earth

In honour of Bob Dylan's current UK tour, two relevant entries this week. One will appear on Dress Down Sunday, the day after our Guest Blogger Colm Redmond has been to see Dylan's second Blackpool concert. Today - marking the last date of three in Glasgow - a first look at Bob Dylan's only published non-fiction work.

the book:  Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan

published 2004, section set in 1989

Across a vacant field stood an obscure roadside place, a gaunt shack called King Tut's Museum ... A young girl was on the balcony beating the dust off a rug, dressed in pink gymnastic tights, had long black oiled ringlets and a bath towel around her shoulders. The dust hung like a red cloud in the air... 

[The store] was run by an old-timer called Sun Pie, one of the most singular characters you'd ever want to meet. The man was short and wiry like a panther, dark face but with Slavic features, wore a narrow brimmed, flat topped straw hat. On his bones was the raw skin of the earth. The young girl up on the balcony was his wife. She looked like a schoolgirl.

observations: There is no sign whatsoever of Volume Two of Bob Dylan's long-awaited memoir - but it's easy now to forget that no-one ever seriously believed a first volume would appear, even after it was promised. Chronicles is by no means a conventional autobiography. It alights apparently at random upon periods in Dylan's life, generally times in which he made specific albums. The project started when he was asked to write an essay about the making of each of his albums for a re-issue programme - he never got very far with that, but was inadvertently inspired to start writing more about his life.

Like Morrissey, Dylan can at times bring a picture to life despite giving no realistic details. Sun Pie had "on his bones ... the raw skin of the earth" - well, not really; but I certainly know what it means. Dylan also has a novelist's gift for telling you a lot about what someone's like just by describing their look: folk music history expert Izzy Young is "sardonic" which doesn't tell you a lot, but he also "wore heavy horn-rimmed glasses, spoke in a thick Brooklyn dialect, wore wool slacks, skinny belt and work boots, tie at a careless slant," and that kind of makes you feel like you have him pegged.

The book is astonishing for its descriptions of places and people, and exciting in its psychological twists and turns. For all its slangy informality, it's beautifully written, and he gets away with some expansively poetical writing. There are of course passages - juicy insights into the recording process, for example - that are bound to be relatively uninteresting for those who don't like Dylan's music or are unfamiliar with the particular albums we witness being recorded. But then there will always be another fleeting glimpse of a star to make up for that: "Spending time with Bono was like eating dinner on a train - feels like you're moving, going somewhere."

The picture is of Lisa Bonet as Epiphany Proudfoot in the 1987 film Angel Heart, the one that finally got her (allegedly) sacked from the squeaky-clean Cosby empire. Although the towel is not around her shoulders, the outfit's wrong, and she is not "beating the dust off a rug" (which amazingly is not a euphemism), I'm sure Sun Pie's wife looked like this. And here's a bonus pic showing her hair:

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Petrona Remembered - The 'In a Word: Murder' anthology

In a Word: Murder

edited by Margot Kinberg 

published 2013

This ebook has been produced as a tribute to Maxine Clarke (aka Petrona), much-missed crime fiction fan, blogger and writer, who died last year. I wrote about her before on the blog, and said what a kind, generous friend she was: and many people feel the same. So much so that Margot Kinberg has assembled this collection of short stories, by a number of crime writers, as a tribute to her: all profits will go to the Princess Alice Hospice, where Maxine spent her last days. You can find the book here.

Margot had the brilliant idea of suggesting that the stories focus on crime in the writing, reviewing, editing, publishing and blogging world. 

I particularly enjoyed The Killing of Captain Hastings, a story by Martin Edwards, a very funny and clever look at a crime fiction convention in Whitby:

....They strolled along the cliff path together…In the distance, she could see the ruins of the old abbey, perched on the headland above the North Sea. The stonework glinted in the moonlight...

The cliffs at Whitby (picture from the Library of Congress) may be important to the plot.

Sarah Ward has a lovely story, La Lotte, set in France and featuring Simone de Beauvoir, ever elegant in this picture:

‘Roughly translated it said “Society cares for the individual only so far as he is profitable”. It’s a quote from Simone du Beauvoir….Once upon a time, about twenty years ago in fact, there were two restaurants in Caen connected to writers….’
And editor Margot Kinberg also contributed a couple of stories. The In-Box involves her regular sleuth, Joel Williams, academic and former cop, and combines, to splendid effect, emails and very up-to-date technology with proper old-fashioned detective work and finding clues in words.

Blake waited silently while Williams read. He glanced around the office – to him, a typical professor’s office. Dark wooden bookshelves on two of the walls, all of them filled with books; basic institutional beige carpet on the floor; two chairs facing the desk; picture of the wife next to the computer.

The picture is of the original private detective, William Pinkerton, in his office, so we don’t think either Joel or Margot will mind its lack of modernity. It comes from the Library of Congress.

So – a book full of great stories like these three, a good cause, and a fitting tribute to Maxine, who’d have loved it. You can visit the Petrona Remembered site here, and you can buy the book here.

Monday, 18 November 2013

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - Part 1

published 1927

Jasper offered her an opal necklace; Rose a gold necklace. Which looked best against her black dress? Which did indeed, said Mrs. Ramsay absent-mindedly, looking at her neck and shoulders (but avoiding her face) in the glass. And then, while the children rummaged among her things, she looked out of the window…

She let them take their time to choose: she let Rose, particularly, take up this and then that, and hold her jewels against the black dress, for this little ceremony of choosing jewels, which was gone through every night, was what Rose liked best, she knew. She had some hidden reason of her own for attaching great importance to this choosing what her mother was to wear. What was the reason, Mrs. Ramsay wondered, standing still to let her clasp the necklace she had chosen, divining, through her own past, some deep, some buried, some quite speechless feeling that one had for one’s mother at Rose’s age. Like all feelings felt for oneself, Mrs. Ramsay thought, it made one sad. It was so inadequate, what one could give in return; and what Rose felt was quite out of proportion to anything she actually was. And Rose would grow up; and Rose would suffer, she supposed, with these deep feelings, and she said she was ready now, and they would go down, and Jasper, because he was the gentleman, should give her his arm, and Rose, as she was the lady, should carry her handkerchief (she gave her the handkerchief), and what else? oh, yes, it might be cold: a shawl. Choose me a shawl, she said, for that would please Rose, who was bound to suffer so.

observations: Virginia Woolf – such a great writer , such a good feminist, such a favourite on the blog with her early discussion of the business of Clothes in Books in Orlando.

And To the Lighthouse – a wonderful book, a long-time favourite. And it is, it still is. But investigating the question of the boeuf en daube for a recent Guardian books blog piece, I found much of concern among the household arrangements.

For a start, Woolf has obviously never cooked a boeuf en daube, and neither has Mrs Ramsay, heroine of the book. They both appear to believe that the dish has knife-edge timing, and can burn, and that the bay-leaf ‘needs to be done to a turn’ – all of which is nonsense. The dish sounds delicious (Woolf has plainly eaten it, and a good one at that), and Mrs R says complacently - as she dishes it out like the dining-room queen she is, finding a specially tender piece for Mr Bankes - that it is her grandmother’s recipe.

But it has been cooked by someone called Mildred, and it is her masterpiece. While the dish is being finished off, Mrs Ramsay has spent the time upstairs putting on her black dress and letting the children choose her accessories.

There’ll be more about domestic matters chez Ramsay, and more about Mildred, later in the week.

And go to Elizabeth David to find out how to make a boeuf en daube.

Virginia Woolf is also on the blog here.

The picture is a fashion illustration for the French designer Madeleine Cheruit.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Dress Down Sunday: Swan Song by Edmund Crispin

published 1947 chapter 17


“One of my happiest memories,” said Joan as they descended the stairs, “is playing Salome in Strauss’s opera with Edwin in the unlikely role of John the Baptist. It was some time ago, when I really had a figure” (“You have still,” Fen put in gallantly), “and I remember it partly because I realised even then that I was the first Salome to give the males in the audience a really good run for their money during the Dance of the Seven Veils. It was at the Paris opera, and I ended up in a condition of nudity which would have made the Windmill girls blush…. However, that wasn’t what I was going to say. There stood Edwin, sternly resisting my charms, pudgy, half-naked, and with a corpulence barely credible in a man who’d lived so long on locusts and wild honey. And do you know” – Joan stopped abruptly in front of the door which led into the auditorium – “I found him revolting. ‘Let thy white body be touched by me’,” she quoted. “And really, if I’d had to touch him, I think I should have screamed…”

observations: Not exactly disproving our cheeky theory about Crispin and his interest in sex (see here and here). Later on it is claimed, by a rather loopy character who is a composer, that the Edwin above is a nymphomaniac: “one who has a mania for nymphs.” 

Crispin is also, as we said before, a musician and composer, so this book set in the world of opera is right up his street, and there is plenty of interest. It’s a real period piece: set during preparations for a performance of The Meistersingers which is going to be one of the first since the war – apparently Wagner wasn’t thought suitable during the years of combat because of his alleged influence on the Nazis. It’s also seen as rather risible that the producer thinks the singers should be able to move around the stage during an aria - ‘“It sends one out of tune,” Adam told him kindly’. One firm belief which has disappeared completely now, happily.

The post-war atmosphere is splendidly real: the shortages of food and whisky and many other items, the cold, the keenness to get going on life again. Gervase Fen is always an excellent character, with his rudeness, lack of tact, academic scheming and general charm.

The role of Salome is intriguing – since the opera was first performed in 1905 there has always been a tension between having a great voice to sing the very demanding role, and having someone who can really give the Dance of the Seven Veils what it needs, and look right doing it. Nowadays – along with moving around – it is assumed there will be singers who can do both, but I have certainly seen versions where it seemed to be the Dance of the Seven Veils as channelled through Pan’s People (British TV dance group, with a distinctive and not terribly demanding style). Joan does sound good though. The Windmill was a London theatrical institution famous for: revues with half-naked girls; the fact that it didn’t close even in the darkest days of the Blitz; and the alleged story that the girls could be fully naked so long as they didn’t move on stage.

There are some splendid pictures of early Salomes around and it was hard to narrow it down to these three. The one with the head is Gertrude Hoffmann, the one with the crossed hands is Tillie D’Urieux (or Tilla Durieux), and the third one, immediately above, is a belly dancer (with quite the look in her eye) called Fritzi Schaffer – none of them opera singers, playing Salomes in other versions of the story. All three pictures are from the Library of Congress. We somehow feel favoured blog commentator Ken Nye may have something to say on the subject....  [ADDED LATER: Yes he did! See below...]

Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott

published 2011

Clover and Aurora moved through a tricky series of arabesques while Bella danced off to get into her bumble-bee wings; they wafted into the ether of spring, the music metamorphosed, and Bella came clumping on in her bee costume: a comedy no matter how you tweaked the wings.
‘Be my little baby bumble bee(Buzz around, buzz around, keep a-buzzin’ ’round) …’

Nothing fazes Bella, Clover thought, watching from the darkness. Bella’s plump bosom filled up the stripey dress so nicely. Clover’s own chest was two separate little teacups, but Bella had turned out almost upholstered, her rounded robin’s front very appealing.
‘Let me spend the happy hours

Roving with you ’mongst the flow’rs

And when we get where no one else can see

(Cuddle up, cuddle up, cuddle up) …’

There she went, flirting with the men in the first row of the balcony. Every few steps she’d hop-sidle, in sweet imitation of a bee landing on a flower clump. Mama had tried to infuse this dance with a bit more grace but had thrown up her hands in the end and told Bella to dance it her own way.

observations: We keep visiting this book, but that’s OK – it’s just because it’s SO GOOD. It seemed time to look more at what they wear on stage, and then we had this great picture to hand - though it seems likely Bella's costume was a bit more racy.

The Belle Auroras also dress up as butterflies, and there is nearly a very nasty accident with their wings.

Choosing the costumes and working up their acts are described in great detail in the book, and makes for some of the most fascinating reading. Is the song too sentimental? Is the costume smart enough? Do the items follow on properly? How did that song go down? They mock another act:
‘Listen: The Ioleen Sisters, twin Amazons from Australia with a double set of accomplishments, slack-wire walking and sharp-shooting. Why those two skills? For crossing a river as an alligator attacks?’

Their futures are always in their minds. Aurora lives for a time a most respectable life – a friendly lady says
‘Being as you are, in a way, semi-professional,’ she said. Aurora understood that to be a form of compliment, as one might say semi-professional prostitutes

--would the three sisters give up the joys of the stage for a more ordinary life? They think about the famous/notorious Evelyn Nesbit  - who gave us one of our favourite ever blog images:

‘Maybe not the happiest analogy, Clover thought’, as Nesbit’s jealous husband shot her lover.

Although the Belle Auroras are anxious not to end up at the lower reaches of vaudeville – burlesque – they also don’t have any time for people who don’t respect their careers. They are spirited independent women, a pleasure to read about.

Links on the blog: More from this book, and  Angela Carter's Wise Children is a similarly fascinating look at women on stage.

The costume picture (actually a hornet) came from Wikimedia Commons, and was first published in a fancy dress book

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Doors of Sleep by Thurman Warriner

Published 1955 chapter 1

She was standing beneath the carved head of the girl on the corbel, and their features were uncannily alike. In her arms she carried a sheaf of early chrysanthemums. She was wearing a thin brown dress, polka-dotted; she looked very slender and young. As Mr Ambo watched, she put the flowers in two tall vases under the chancel arch, kneeling on the steps to arrange them. She stood there a moment, head on one side, gave them a final touch and turned away…

[later, the same day] Then a curious and disturbing thing happened. [Mr Ambo] thought he saw someone on the terrace steps. His sight being less acute now, he concentrated all his powers of vision on that shadow in the waning light. A woman, surely, in a brown, polka-dotted dress. For a moment he thought Alyson must have returned unexpectedly, then he realized the inadequacy of that as an explanation…

‘No,’ Vinery said, ‘it wasn’t my wife.’

‘You saw her?’ Mr Ambo asked, and Vinery burst into a long laugh…

observations: This is a creepy little episode – never really explained, and with no great purpose. Although this is a murder story, there is no question of this appearance being related to alibis or people being where they shouldn’t. There is no real explanation of it in the book. In an earlier entry – which should be read with this one - we said that Warriner can’t make up its mind what kind of a book it is.

There is a nasty atmosphere of a wicked, manipulative husband indulging himself in psychological abuse, and a rather interesting take on marriage from an Archdeacon:

By heaven, no, it isn’t to say that God joins together every couple who stand at the altar. I’d put it at about ten percent. Majority of ‘em use God as a sort of super-registrar.

The wife in this case – the woman in the polka-dot dress - is too perfect for her own good, an empty character to modern eyes. There is a fairly excruciating passage where Lottie – the bra-less girl from the previous entry – who is obviously of low origins but rising up in the world, is described as subtly learning from Alyson, her social superior, getting hints on how to dress.

I complained about a recent detective story set in the 1950s because he misquotes a famous line of poetry. I’d have thought that much less likely to happen in a Penguin book of the 50s, but I’d be wrong – same line, same mistake. (The correct line is: They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.)

There are some splendid names in the book – Charlesworth Vinery and Amen and Starry Sleep – but I suppose if your own name is Thurman Warriner you have a headstart in this area.

I thought it would be easy to find a suitable picture of a woman in a polka-dot dress (she didn’t have to be a ghost after all) but it was very difficult. This one is from Dovima is Devine’s photostream.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Guest Blogger: At last I am someone!


the book: 

Autobiography by Morrissey. 

Published 2013 in Penguin Classics. Set in 1959-2011

November 1973: 
I catch the [New York] Dolls on their now-famous Old Grey Whistle Test television appearance ... The morning after the Whistle Test, I present 50 pence at Rumbelows in Stretford Precinct and I ask for the New York Dolls single.

'See,' said one fat assistant to another, 'I told you someone would buy it.'

At last I am someone!

2006 and 2007:

One afternoon at the studio Tony [Visconti] shows me a film of a singer called Kristeen Young playing somewhere in New York. Everything about this singer is new. The solid fixity of her presentation is as striking as having a safe drop on your head from a tenth floor window. She belongs to no other time or fad. Even her makeup is a mystery. ... Eternally caught in life's screen door, Kristeen will discard the dress and wear the hanger. ..

[A few months later] we are in New York at the ice-cold chamber of David Letterman's television set. David always has the studio at Icelandic temperatures because he apparently sweats a great deal. Fish-eyed, we endure. The shuddering genius of Kristeen Young is with us to alarm David with her spirit-of-the-sea backing vocals, plus a few mid-ocean arm movements as we play That's how people grow up.

Kristeen wears her self-made 'bubble' dress that is a sirenesque bubble-wrap of Star Trek in collision with The Jetsons. Kristeen is miffed when the same creation appears on Lady Gaga two years later.

Morrissey seems, for our purposes, disappointingly uninterested in clothes and almost never describes what people wear unless hundreds of them are wearing Morrissey t-shirts. Although, it is true that once he makes a friend by approaching a complete stranger just because he is walking past Old Trafford cricket ground, in grim early-70s Manchester, in an elaborate glam-rock outfit.

These extracts give a very good idea of what the book is like, in several senses. Many of its 400+ pages tell you little or nothing about him and much about other people - not necessarily what they'd want you to know, but hardly ever what the reader would like to know either, gossip-wise. Many of his sentences are crammed with adjectives and adverbs, in a way that can be exhausting but is often terrifically vivid. And many of the images he conjures up will bear no scrutiny as to actual meaning and yet - as long as you move on and don't think too hard - can really nail an impression. It wouldn't have taken long to remove glitches like that confusing reference to a "television set". Such things are not truly a problem but they are a distraction; but then, maybe the character of the prose would have been harmed by too much tinkering. Or by any editing at all, as most people agree it seems to have had none.

I've read a load of reviews of Autobiography and almost no-one bothers to mention that it is very funny, on almost every page. Or that Morrissey's habit of making punning references to his own most famous lyrics is a bit rich, coming from someone who claims the press ignore any news about him that won't let them use his songtitles Bigmouth Strikes Again or Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now as headlines. Or that complaining about the assumption that he's like the character who inhabits the Smiths' lyrics does not tally with this book's uncredited epigraph*: whatever is sung is the case. The whole sentence, from WH Auden, reads: 'Self-deception is impossible in opera, because music is immediate, not reflective; whatever is sung is the case."

*Epigraphs are supposed to come at the beginning; but I don't know the word for an equivalent at the end, where this one comes.

This extract contains pretty much all the information there is anywhere about Kristeen Young.

The pictures of her in her bubble dress are not from the performance in question. However - in what may be a first for Clothes In Books [editor's note: not a first - see this entry] - I can direct you to a video of the very incident described above. Type "Morrissey Letterman That's How People Grow Up" into YouTube and you can catch the dress and the backing vocals in all their glory. Incidentally it is said - though not in Autobiography - that when Morrissey cancelled half a dozen gigs soon after this, it was because his time in those Icelandic conditions made him ill.

You can find previous entries from this Guest Blogger here and here. He is on twitter as @colm59, and blogs as beggars can't be vegans.