Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Gone are the Leaves by Anne Donovan - part 2

published 2014

‘The colours are so beautiful,’ she cried, ‘But which to choose for my little songbird?’

My Lady looked at him. ‘Mon Petit, you should be in scarlet and gold but somehow I feel it will not suit. Yet you cannot dress like this.’

Feilamort aye wore browns and greys, failzit colours that meant he was barely noticed.

My mither gied a slight nod towards me. My Lady, as if she hadna seen this, exclaimed ‘Deirdre, you have an eye, you chose beautiful colours for my little daughter. What do you suggest?’

I picked a velvet between grey and cream. ‘This is doocolourit and I think t’will brighten his skin.’ I held it up and its soft and gentle tone suited him weel. ‘And I can broider the tunic with blue and green and flashes of crimpson, so it will make it vieve.’

I curtsied. ‘If My Lady approves.’

She nodded and turned to my mither. ‘I do.’


*** ADDED LATER:  Canongate, the publishers of this truly excellent book, have made a longer extract available - you can find it here ***

This new book gave the blog an Easter entry, which also explains the use of language, and why you shouldn’t let the unfamiliar words put you off.

Deirdre, the narrator of this part of the book, is a young embroiderer working for a grand family in Scotland at some non-specified time, but maybe the 1400s. Feilamort is a pageboy with a beautiful singing voice, and he and Deirdre are great friends. When you first start reading it, it is not at all clear what kind of book it is at all: at first I thought it was a children’s book, but it most certainly is not. I’ve seen it described as a fairytale, but it’s not that either. And it’s one of those books where it is much better not to know what is going to happen: I had no idea, and kept getting big surprises. Just when you get used to Deirdre as narrator, other voices start intervening and explaining more of the complex plot.

The writing is beautiful: ‘With the passing of time, even the sharpest-eyed seamstress would find her gaze pearl ower like a misty morn.’ And: ‘the mess of a baby is preferable to the cleanness of a cauld bed.’ And the descriptions of Deirdre’s embroidery work are enthralling.

Anne Donovan is someone who should be much better known. Earlier entries on her here and here.

The top picture, from The Athenaeum website, is by Jacob van Oost the Elder.

The young boy (who is in red and gold) was a young German Emperor from the early 1500s.

The group of people is a 14th century picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Berlin Game by Len Deighton

published 1983

Werner loitered on the corner for a moment, turning to watch a dozen or more youngsters as they passed him and continued towards Hallesches Tor. They were attired in a weird combination of clothes: tight leotards, high boots and Afghan coats on the girls; studded leather sleeveless jackets and Afrika Korps caps on the men. Some of them had their hair dyed in streaks of primary colours. Werner was no more surprised by this sample of Berlin youth than I was. Berlin residents are exempt from military service, and there is a tendency among the young to celebrate it. 

But Werner continued to watch them, and waited, still staring, until a yellow double-decker bus stopped and took aboard everyone waiting at the bus stop. Only then did he feel safe. He turned abruptly and crossed the street at the traffic lights. I followed as if to catch the green.

observations: Having really enjoyed The Ipcress File recently – here and here with two contrasting but both rather splendid photos – I decided to move into unknown Deighton territory, and what a good decision that turned out to be. Berlin Game is a terrific book, full of tension and mysteries and moments where you have to suddenly change your mind about what you read 10 pages ago. It is immensely clever, but also very human and very very funny. And the best bit is that there another EIGHT books to go in this triple trilogy about Bernard Samson. I am moving on to them fast.

I love the way Deighton puts in the details of normal family life in the middle of the spying. For a scene where Samson is getting vital info from his wife (another spy) and her sister, there is a background of the Portuguese housekeeper making supper – she uses the shrimps which were meant for tomorrow’s lunch, and then ‘there was a cloud of smoke and a loud crash which we all pretended not to hear.’ And, just like the hero of The Ipcress File, (I do go on and on at this because of my Guardian piece on food in books) Samson says ‘I was never much good at cooking.’

You find out about forfaiting and avalizing (important banking and import/export business), and there is this delightful aphorism by a passing character: ‘Research and investigation are no damn use if they don’t support those prejudiced judgements we’ve already worked so hard on.’

All in all, a delight, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

The top picture was taken at Alexanderplatz in Berlin in 1990, the three young women from 1988 were in Heidelberg (not Berlin). Both pictures are from the Bundesarchiv. The last picture is a punk club in Berlin in 1985, and used from Wikimedia Commons with the permission of the photographer, Corujao.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Pamela by Samuel Richardson - Part 3

published 1740

I went up soon after, and new dressed myself, taking possession, in a happy moment, I hope, of my two bundles, as my good master was pleased to call them; (alluding to my former division of those good things my lady and himself bestowed upon me;) and so put on fine linen, silk shoes, and fine white cotton stockings, a fine quilted coat, a delicate green Mantea silk gown and coat, a French necklace, and a laced cambric handkerchief, and clean gloves; and, taking my fan in my hand, I, like a little proud hussy, looked in the glass, and thought myself a gentlewoman once more; but I forgot not to return due thanks, for being able to put on this dress with so much comfort.

Mrs. Jewkes would help to dress me, and complimented me highly, saying, among other things, That now I looked like a lady indeed.

observations: This entry should be read with previous ones, and contains PLOT SPOILERS.

Once the resolution of this book has come – Mr B stops trying to seduce or rape Pamela, and decides to marry her - the final third of the book is both tiresome and dull. Pamela continually expresses how happy she is, and worries about her Master’s sister - who strongly disapproves of the match, to the extent that she bursts into their bedroom early in the morning to find out whether they are sharing a bed. Although to be fair to the sister: she tried to remove Pamela from danger right at the beginning, she is also concerned about another woman that Mr B has seduced and impregnated in the past, and she also fears there may have been a sham-marriage – another of Mr B’s attractive earlier plans. So not wholly unreasonable…

Pamela is (despite attitudes which are unimaginable to modern women) a fine heroine: straightforward, clear and honest – there is an engrossing scene, alluded to above, where she divides her possessions into three bundles according to how she obtained them: she does not feel she can run away with gifts from the man she is avoiding.

She is annoying but intriguing, and quite convincing – she climbs out of windows and climbs walls, though is prone to giving up too easily: ‘O my foolish fears of bulls and robbers!’ She tries to escape, but fails for various reasons – the most feeble of these is because she is busy embroidering him a flowered waistcoat, and wants to finish it before she goes, because it is so beautiful.

And amid all the bowing and scraping and being grateful, Pamela does manage to say:

How do these gentry know, that, supposing they could trace back their ancestry for one, two, three, or even five hundred years, that then the original stems of these poor families, though they have not kept such elaborate records of their good-for nothingness, as it often proves, were not still deeper rooted.
Dangerous socialist tendencies.

The picture, Portrait of a Bride with Flowers by Pierre Gobert, was painted around 1720, and comes from the Athenaeum website.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay

published 1926


With these Greshams life was like walking on a tight-rope. The things you mustn’t do, mustn’t wear. You must, for instance, spend a great deal of money on silk stockings, when, for much less you could have got artificial silk or lisle thread. Why? Did not these meaner fabrics equally clothe the leg? Why had people agreed that one material was the right wear and that others did not do? Why did not anything do?

The same with gloves, with shoes, with frocks, with garments underneath frocks. In all these things people had set up a standard, and if you did not conform to it you were not right, you were left. You wore thick stockings and brogues in the country, thin stockings and high-heeled shoes in the town. You wore a hat if you gave a lunch party, a sleeveless dress in the evening. You had, somehow or other, to conform to a ritual, to be like the people you knew.

observations: There is no denying that Denham, the young woman who is having these thoughts, would be a most irritating person in real life. She has come from Abroad to London, never having lived in England, and finds everything very confusing and difficult. Meanwhile the relations who have taken her in find her very confusing and difficult – more about the plot in these earlier entries.

The title of the book is never explained, but is generally assumed to be a reference to the music hall song: ‘Oh Mr Porter, what shall I do? I wanted to go to Birmingham, and they’ve taken me on to Crewe.’ So Denham is in the wrong place.

Macaulay dithers a bit, but in the end is quite non-judgmental about the characters. However, the one really dreadful thing that happens in the book is that Arnold gives away one of Denham’s secrets to the busybody Evelyn, and Evelyn then lets it slip herself. Unforgiveable. Evelyn also writes a thinly-disguised account of Arnold and Denham’s marriage: she accidentally puts real names in but that can be changed: only the typist has seen it and ‘that’s all right – she lives out at Turnham Green and knows nothing about any of us.’

There is something strangely contemporary about the issues raised by the book, even though it is so very much of its time: do people have the right to do exactly what they want? Do other people have the right to pick over your life? Denham is in the news at one point, and is completely bewildered by the public response to her, in rather a modern way.

I was prejudiced against Rose Macaulay because I did not like The Towers of Trebizond – a book famous mostly for its first line:

“Take my camel, dear", said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
Nothing in the book justifies this line, which really seems just an affectation, consciously quirky and would-be endearing. I strongly believe that a lot more people express a love for this line than have actually read the book.

Crewe Train was definitely better.

The picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is an advertising image of the era.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West part 2

published 1930 set in 1905

[Sylvia Lady Roehampton is attending a State Ball at Buckingham Palace]

So she loitered, having come out of the cloak-room only to face an unexpected mirror that returned to her, full-length, the image of the complete woman she might have postulated from the head-and-shoulders revealed to her in the mirror propped on the cloak-room table. There, she had scrutinised a lovely head, something after the manner of Lely, she thought – having been told so innumerable times – and the bare shoulders, oyster satin, and pearls of Lely, all of which she affected on state occasions because she knew they accorded with her type of beauty. Here, in the long mirror, she saw herself not only as a kit-cat, but full-length: oyster satin flowing out at her feet, pearls vanishing into the valley between her breasts, pearls looped round her wrists, a rosy scarf tossed round her shoulders. She wore no tiara… Lady Roehampton was an unconventional woman… Satisfied by the image that the mirror returned to her, she gave herself a little smile.

observations: I wrote a recent blogpost on bad mothers - here at CiB and at the Guardian - and this book was one I mentioned as being full of examples. The various mothers are heartless and unable to understand their daughters, ready to marry them off to the highest bidder. The daughter of the woman above, in love with a penniless artist, is told by Sylvia’s friend to marry the Lord who is also on the scene and, with a hideous wink, ‘we’ll see what can be done about the painter afterwards.’

Sylvia is later in the book said to have ‘suffered’ greatly by being brave and rebellious: she flouted conventions by appearing as a Queen in a public pageant, and had an affair with her friend’s teenage son. So I got quite excited by an incident at the Ball above:

Could she indeed give two fingers to the Viceroy-designate without thinking of the India he would govern?
Perhaps she really was a rebel? But no, it means that she greeted him by offering 2 fingers to shake. 

I love pageants in books so much (I'd do an entry every week if I could) that I am going to add in a photo (right) of how Sylvia might have looked as Queen Etheldreda, Queen of Beauty (yes really), even though it isn't described in the book.

There is an Author’s Note saying ‘No character in this book is wholly fictitious’. Meanwhile, one of the characters, Romola Cheyne (she doesn’t really appear, she’s a whisper in the background), is plainly meant to be Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward VII and, intriguingly, mother of Violet Trefusis, one of the great passions of Vita’s life.

The main picture, by William MacGregor Paxton, comes from The Athenaeum website – none of the Lelys looked at all the way Sylvia sounds.

The smaller picture is from a suffragette pageant in 1913, and comes from the Library of Congress.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Mr Campion’s Farewell by Mike Ripley

featuring Margery Allingham’s series detective

published 2014

Hand in hand, they continued carefully down the street, picking their way over the cobbles which were playing havoc with Perdita’s unwise choice of lemon yellow high-heeled shoes. She was at the point of cursing her entire choice of wardrobe – the wispy yellow summer frock… which might have fitted the image of a tourist promenading through Monte Carlo but which made her feel like a clumsy sunflower… It was noticeably cooler now, the twilight coming on quickly, causing Perdita to shiver involuntarily.

‘Remind me, dearest, what exactly are we doing here?’ she sighed.

‘Just looking,’ said Rupert. ‘Just looking and reporting back to the Old Man.’

[later] She kicked off her yellow high heels, picked them up and jammed them in among the bay leaves.

observations: After Margery Allingham died in 1966, her widower Pip Youngman Carter finished one of her Campion books, and produced two more. He then began another, but only fragments were left when he died in 1969. Now present-day crime writer Mike Ripley has ‘completed’ the book: it sounds as though he has created most of it, though he has taken in some aspects from Carter’s other works. He says he has tried to reproduced Carter’s style rather than Allingham’s.

The end result isn’t half bad, even for a devoted Allingham fan (that would be me – see entries on Tiger in the Smoke and Fashion in Shrouds, and for others click on the Allingham label below). Some parts get the authentic magic, and I really liked Campion – now an older man, this is 1969 – getting help from a new generation: his niece, and the characters above are Campion’s grown-up son, Rupert, and his new wife Perdita, sent out as surrogate detectives to Monte Carlo.

The story is a farrago about a small town in Suffolk where a mysterious organization, something like the freemasons but attached to the wool trade, seems to be running things in the background. The air of mystery and threat, but open to another explanation, is very true to the Allingham oeuvre. Are they well-intentioned or dictators? And why is the number 9 so important? And what about the South of France connection and the aged Lady Prunella Redcar? (Strangely no-one ever comments on the fact that she shares her unusual first name with the former wife of the policeman Charlie Luke.) Amanda flits in and out of the book, and Lugg has one small scene. There is a nice section set in Cambridge – St Ignatius’ College, introduced in Police at the Funeral.

One issue – the books in the giftshop cost £5 each, which was an enormous sum of money, almost £65 in terms of modern spending power. For comparison purposes, a new Graham Greene hardback a year or so later would cost £1 10s, less than a third of that.

The picture is from Dovima is Devine, and shows the supermodel Veruschka in 1968, obviously after the shoes have been removed.

The Monte Carlo casino features – we’ve discussed these establishments before, in this entry and this one.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

published 1936, set in the early 1800s

[Mary Yellan has come to live at Jamaica Inn. Jem Merlyn is her uncle’s brother]

Mary leant against the gate and watched the ponies, and out of the tail of her eye, she saw a man coming down the track, carrying a bucket in either hand. She was about to continue her walk round the bend of the hill when he waved a bucket in the air, and shouted to her.

It was Jem Merlyn. There was no time to escape, and she stood where she was until he came to her. He wore a grimy shirt that had never seen a wash-tub, and a pair of dirty brown breeches, covered with horse hair and filth from an outhouse. He had neither hat nor coat, and there was a rough stubble of beard on his jaw. He laughed at her, showing his teeth, looking for all the world like his brother must have done 20 years ago.

observations: A new TV version of Jamaica Inn has just finished in the UK: a three-part film shown by the BBC. I would respectfully suggest that there will be a new film or TV version every 20 years or so for a long time to come. The story is ludicrous, melodramatic and completely over the top – so obviously it makes for compelling drama whether you read it or see it. I suppose it continues from the Gothic tradition so beloved of Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, and I don’t know if Daphne du Maurier invented this 20th century version, but she certainly made it her own. In the opening pages, Mary Yellan tells her travelling companions where she is going:

‘Jamaica Inn? What would you be doing at Jamaica Inn? That’s no place for a girl.' 
‘My uncle is landlord of Jamaica Inn.’
There was a long silence…. [the woman said] ‘I’m sorry. It’s none of my business of course.’
There are dark doings at the Inn: her aunt’s husband Joss is a bad, drunken, violent man, and only very awful people patronize the inn. It is obvious from very early on that they are smugglers – and worse.

Jem, Joss’s brother, is a rather splendid hero. The first time she meets him Mary says

‘What do you do for a livelihood?’

‘I’m a horse-thief,’ he said pleasantly.
Du Maurier does a great job of making him extremely attractive without giving him any redeeming qualities at all, he is a cheerful change from most dramatic heroes, and anyone who likes a bad boy can see why Mary cannot resist him. But she is a sparky young thing too –when he teases her expecting ‘an evasion or a stammered reply’ about why she will go round and about with him, she says ‘For the sake of your bright eyes Jem Merlyn’, and ‘met his glance without a tremor.’

When I first read this book as a teenager, I was astonished by its un-stuffy ending – let’s say there’s no prospect of marriage in young Mary’s future. Re-reading, I am struck by how the story is informed by what we now know of du Maurier’s own conflicted personality and bumpy personal life. And what a good writer she was. There’s a conversation Mary has with the Vicar, who says:

I can guess your thoughts… I have heard confessions in my day, and I know the dreams of women better than you do yourself. There I have the advantage of the landlord’s brother.
-- which in context is an enthralling moment.

The smugglers picture is by George Morland, from The Athen
aeum website.

Daphne du Maurier has featured on the blog before: Don't Look Now, and The Scapegoat.

Black Cap in Court

And then there were none by Agatha Christie

published 1939

[A retired judge has been found dead]

‘That’s the end of Mr Bloody Justice Wargrave. No more pronouncing sentence for him! No more putting on the black cap! Here’s the last time he’ll ever sit in court! No more summing up and sending innocent men to death. How Edward Seton would laugh if he were here! God how he’d laugh!’

His outburst shocked and startled the others.

The Wooden Overcoat by Pamela Branch

published 1951

During a half-hour of incomprehensible argument about the relevance of some item of evidence, Benjy had thought a good deal about the black cap. Where did they keep it? he had wondered, and concluded uneasily that the Judge had it tucked away somewhere handy. Somebody had put it there that morning, ironed out freshly, just in case. Who laundered it? Did they wear a different one every time? Who made them and how much were they and who paid? Cut on the cross like that, they would take quite a bit of stuff. Imagine Himself going along to have it fitted! That would be a treat for a wet Monday! What did they look like anyway? He still imagined a compromise between a jockey’s cap and a deerstalker, perhaps with a sort of wimple attached to add dignity. What were they made of? Satin? Watered silk? Or pongee like the remnant with which he had strangled Rachel Bolger?

observations: Last week’s Death Walks in Eastrepps entry mentioned the black cap worn by judges in English courts when they pronounced the death sentence, and here are two more examples of its being mentioned. The Christie extract featured in a previous blog entry, and the second one sounds like a spoiler but isn’t – it comes on the second page of the murder story (which has also featured before).

The black cap is one of those mysterious items that we really don’t know much about: Benjy’s questions above seem valid. This is the definition from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

Black cap or the Judgment Cap, worn by a judge when he passes sentence of death on a prisoner. This cap is part of the judge’s full dress. The judges wear their black caps on November 9th, when the Lord Mayor is presented in the Court of Exchequer. Covering the head was a sign of mourning among the Israelites, Greeks, Romans and Anglo-Saxons. (2 Sam xv 30)
The Biblical reference has David, mourning: ‘he wept as he went, and his head was covered and he walked barefoot.’ 

I consulted an expert on this, who said: 

A judge would show a sign of mourning when passing the death sentence? This doesn't sound right. Would a judge not rather show a sign of confident righteousness? Possibly, but not inevitably, tinged with sadness, at the dismal state of the human race, but not mourning. If a judge was mourning at passing a sentence, where would we be?  Good reasons for David to mourn - at the fact that his son has turned against him and is trying to usurp him...but, difficult to tease apart mourning and sadness.
--- and the leading Biblical scholar Robert Alter actually translates it as 'with his head uncovered' (my emphasis), he thinks the earlier version is doubtful.

Wikipedia says:
Although it is called a "cap", it is not made to fit the head like a typical cap does; instead it is a simple plain square made of black fabric. It was based on Tudor Court headgear. When worn, it is placed on the head on top of the judicial wig, with one of the four corners of the black fabric facing outward. The death penalty has now been abolished in England and Wales, but the black cap is still part of a judge's official regalia, and as such it is still carried into the High Court by each sitting judge when full ceremonial dress is called for.
In the nature of things, there aren’t really any pictures of it – on Wikipedia there is a blurred photograph, presumably taken illicitly, from a 1912 trial, apparently showing a judge in the black cap, but it is very unclear. The picture above is from a TV drama.

Clothes in Books was quite rude about The Wooden Overcoat in the earlier entry, so perhaps we should redress the balance by saying there were a couple of good moments:

1) the jolly young couples decide to see if they can work out who did the murders –including themselves among the suspects – and come up with algebraic results:

Here are the final scores. Peter and Hugo tied with 3M + 2O. Fan and I get 2M + 2O and Rex gets Msqrd + 3Osqrd…
M and O are means and opportunity.

2) One character’s alibi is: 

‘I was with the Colonel. All night long’.

‘Is this true, Colonel?’

‘Sir’ said the Colonel, looking gratified, ‘must refuse answer. Honour of a lady.’

With thanks to TKR.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Alistair MacLeod: No Great Mischief

published 1999

[The narrator is working in a mining camp with his brothers and other family members]

He took his fiddle and went outside and sat on one of the benches. He was, as Calum said, “a wonderful player” and my brothers brought out their own fiddle and took turns playing with him. And then out of the bunkhouses of the French Canadians came their leader, big Fern Picard, with some of his men. They watched us for a moment from a distance, and then went inside and returned with their own fiddles and their spoons. Two of them brought harmonicas and one of them a button accordion. They sat on the benches beside us, which we had never seen them do before, and joined in the music….

The music dipped and soared and the leather-soled shoes snapped against the reverberating wood. Sometimes a fiddler would announce the name of a tune and the others would nod in recognition… at other times the titles seemed lost or perhaps never known, although the tunes themselves would be recognizable after the first few bars.

observations: Alistair MacLeod, to my mind Canada’s finest writer, died this week.

Like most avid readers, I’m always saying a book is in my top 10, and thinking that probably I have assigned at least 30 books to that category. But this one truly is top 10: a beautiful, astonishing, tremendously touching and completely original novel about a Canadian family and the different fates awaiting the different members, about emigration and immigration, about honour and the demands of family, about humanity and love. The happy scene above – and the good relations between the French-Canadian workers and those of Scottish descent – will not last. You have to read the book to find out what the title means: it’s a quotation from the 18th century General Wolfe of Quebec.

The narrator Alexander is for a time the youngest of the family, the gille beag ruadh, the little red boy. His ancestors, MacDonalds, came to Cape Breton from Scotland long ago, but the family ties hold strong, and the red hair goes down the generations. He becomes a man of substance: his older brothers have very different lives. The relationships amongst the various people, for example the two grandfathers, are beautifully drawn, and so is the sadness and waste of Calum’s life.

I have read the book several times. My eyes start to mist over every time I get to the point where the grandmother says:

“The gille beag ruadh is thousands of miles from here. Yet I would know him if I met him anywhere in this whole wide world. He will always have a piece of my heart.”

Then Alexander repeats the key phrase of the book: ‘All of us are better when we’re loved.’

And there are still ten pages to go, ten pages of perfect resolution: and you are emotionally wrenched while at the same time full of admiration for the writing.

It is a perfect book.

The picture, from Canada’s Library and Archives, shows ‘Lumbermen of Quebec playing a violin and using sticks to make music in their lumber camp. Located in isolated areas, lumber camps must be self-contained units with sleeping accommodation, food supplies and home-made entertainment’ – very similar to the mining camp in the book.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Påskekrim – Norway’s crime weekend

From regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

A high proportion of Clothes In Books’ followers may be wishing they lived in Norway, this weekend. Since 1923 there’s been a tradition there of publishing and reading crime stories over Easter, and latterly of dramatising them on radio and tv. This may sound like a joke, but it’s not. 
Påskekrim, or Easter Crime, is a real thing.

Some sources claim the origin lies in an April Fool. It was certainly a publicity stunt: a crime novel was advertised with a bogus front-page newspaper story, on Easter Sunday, reporting an overnight mail-train robbery as though it were a real crime. It caused a sensation, and big sales for a novel in the supposed off-season for publishing, and started an annual trend that continues. In 1923, Easter Day was April 1, but I don’t see any other evidence for its being expressly an April Fool.

This Easter on NRK (the Norwegian equivalent of BBC) they’re showing a couple of Poirots for 
Påskekrim and already during Holy Week they’ve shown all four episodes of Hinterland, the highly-regarded Welsh contribution to the Subtitled Crime genre that was on BBC Wales and S4C last year. Infuriatingly, it has still not been on UK TV apart from that, but it finally starts on BBC4 on April 28.

I watch a lot of crime fiction on TV, particularly the modern Scandinavian strand, but rarely read it. To celebrate
Påskekrim 2014, I decided to read a Norwegian crime book. This one features a middle-aged male detective, but unusually, he is neither particularly grumpy nor an unreconstructed male chauvinist and overactive womaniser: he seems to be just nice, as opposed to “nice despite these so-called charming little human weaknesses” as is the norm.

the book: In The Darkness by Karin Fossum

published 1995 as Evas Øye English translation 2012 by James Anderson

[Inspector Konrad Sejer is honouring a promise to give a young boy – whose father disappeared some months ago – a ride in a police car.]

‘It’s so quiet in the garage,’ the boy said suddenly.

‘Yes. A pity Mum can’t do car repairs.’

‘Mmm. Dad was always in there doing things. In his spare time.’

‘And all those nice smells,’ Sejer grinned, ‘oil and petrol and suchlike.’

‘He promised me a boiler suit,’ he went on, ‘just like his one. But he didn’t have time before he disappeared. The boiler suit had fourteen pockets in it. I was going to wear it when I was working on my bike. It’s called a mechanic’s suit.’

‘Yup, a mechanic’s suit, that’s right. I’ve got one myself, but mine’s blue, and it’s got FINA on the back. I’m not sure it’s got fourteen pockets. Eight or ten perhaps.’

‘The blue ones are nice, too. Do they have them in children’s sizes?’ he asked precociously.

‘I’m not sure about that, but I’ll definitely look into it.’...

[Eva is talking over lunch to a childhood friend she’s just bumped into after 25 years.]

‘Naomi Campbell – you’ve seen her, haven’t you – she appeared in something thigh-length and minced out on to the catwalk on the skinniest legs I’ve ever seen. The woman looks as if she’s made entirely of PVC. When I look at those kind of girls, I wonder if they ever go to the toilet and shit like normal people.’

Eva exploded with laughter and sprayed vanilla sauce over the tablecloth.

observations: Nine of the ten subsequent Sejer books were published in English before they bothered getting around to In The Darkness (the Norwegian title literally translates as Eva’s Eye). It’s fair to say that fans do not rate it at the top of Karin Fossum’s oeuvre, but I thought it would make sense to start with the first in the series. It’s better on story than writing, as you will gather from the extracts - unless it’s a bad translation. Fossum was a successful poet before publishing this first novel, but I can’t say you’d guess.

The narrative is quite blunt. Conventional and chronological, except for a lengthy flashback in the middle that’s neatly justified by its being the account someone produces when interrogated. Many incidents that can’t possibly be Relevant To The Plot are described in a level of detail I find bizarre and unjustified, but then… I am not really the target audience.

Nonetheless I enjoyed it a lot. I’d guess it would appeal to lovers of female US procedural writers, rather than Agatha Christie fans. No red herrings or scatterings of clues, the point is not particularly the reader’s attempts to work out the solution. But it’s distinctly un-violent and inexplicit by the standards of those fat blood-soaked American books, and missing the endless pages about crimefighters’ home lives. So I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to.

Unfortunately I seem to be unable to find a single picture of a man in overalls on the entire internet, so we’ll have to make do with Sophia Loren in the outfit she wore when working as a weldor between acting jobs in 1954. Probably. (Weldor is a real word; in fact welder, very strictly speaking, is the wrong word for a person who welds. Eutectic is a word too: it describes a kind of welding process. Those particular kind of welders/ors had a National Association who chose Miss Loren to be their pinup.)

The other picture is of course Naomi Campbell, also in fishnets, wearing her cosiest winter coat, not particularly looking like she’s made out of PVC. Although, to be fair, I’ve seen pics where she does.

For more from the Guest Blogger, click on his name below.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Sunday: Gone Are The Leaves by Anne Donovan

published 2014

On Good Friday the church had been bare, the statues covered, the tabernacle empty, Our Lord crucified. On the third day He is resurrected: bells ring out and the chapel is a bleeze of licht, flooers everywhere, mair lovely than any East I had kenned. This year the Archbishop was to say Mass …

The Easter service is the loveliest of the year, wi bells ringing and much incense; we light the Easter candle, reciting the promises made at baptism. Though the readings are ower-lang, ye can sit and look round at the flooers and candles, at all the folk dressed up in their best. I love to gaze at the statue of Our Lady, with the stars round her crown and the babe in her airms. The Archbishop’s vestments were white for Easter but with gold broidery; it would be fine indeed to mak vestments like those.


Don’t be put off by the language – it doesn’t at all stop you from enjoying this lovely book. Anne Donovan says this:
I use Scots words to suggest character and place as they are often more specific than the English equivalents. But perhaps more than anything I love the wonderful sound quality of the language, which is both beautiful and evocative. I hope that, in context, the meaning is often self-explanatory.
Anne Donovan is a great writer – see enthusiastic blog entry here on another of her books, Being Emily. There’ll be another post saying more about this book later: around its publication date, which is 1st May.

Previous Easter Sunday entries here and here.

The picture is of a liturgical cabinet decorated with sacred pictures, from the Google Art Project.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera

published 1985

translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

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

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

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

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

Marquez had the best titles – No-one Writes to the Colonel – and not one but two of the best first lines ever: this is from 100 Years:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
And the book above:
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
His style is distinctive: long hypnotic passages describing people’s lives and thoughts, funny and mesmerizing. ‘Tortuous’ sounds like an insult, but it’s not – you settle into his books for a long winding tale. It’s a good way into 100 Years before you get the significance of the firing squad mentioned above.

Love in the Time of Cholera has the edge for me, a lovely book. My favourite bit comes when he describes the home life of Fermina and Juvenal:

He would push aside his plate and say: “This meal has been prepared without love.” In that sphere he would achieve moments of fantastic inspiration. Once he tasted some chamomile tea and sent it back, saying only: “This stuff tastes of window.”

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

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

Friday, 18 April 2014

Eastertime Special: Village Diary by Miss Read

published 1957

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

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

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

The vicar looked slightly taken aback.

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

Joseph looked bewildered…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding: part 2

published 1931

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Incidentally – SPOILER – 

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Shoes in Literature

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

This is part of the piece:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Passover: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

published 1995

[The Warshaw family is celebrating Passover]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 April 2014

The First Name Challenge: Wiley Cash

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

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

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

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

the book: This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

published 2014 set in 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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