Saturday, 28 February 2015

Locked rooms by Laurie R King: Part 2

published 2005

Locked Rooms equake 2
Locked Rooms equake 4

[Sherlock Holmes is looking at photographs taken after the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906]

Along the front of the picture, picnics were taking place. A group of young men, some of them hatless but all in ties and tidy suits, sat and lay back on their elbows on the grass around a cloth arranged with sandwich rolls and bottles of lemonade. In the centre of the photograph, with the smoke cloud huge and furious above them and the dapper young men glancing at them from the sides, stood a pair of young women—girls, really— dressed in their spring finery. It might have been an illustration of the careless self-obsession of the young, yet somehow it was not…

The profile of the hill on which the camp was laid was the familiar park a few streets away— Lafayette Park, little more than a grassy knoll with the incongruous house parked among the trees at the top, the whole of it two streets wide and two deep. In the first photo, the grass was a jumble of possessions—bedrolls and steamer trunks, strapped orange-crates and disassembled bed-steads. All the women wore the elaborate hats of the period, and most of the men were missing.

In the next picture in the sequence, a tent city had sprung up in front of the elaborate Victorian houses that faced the park. Here, the rising smoke was closer, possessions had been gathered into rough heaps, and a few canvas tents had been raised, the whiteness of their sides and the unbeaten grass around their bases clear signs that the photograph had been taken soon after they had been installed. The women were mostly bare-headed, and the men had returned, to stand about in their shirt-sleeves.

observations: This is the second entry on the book, and should be read in conjunction with the first, which explains (somewhat) the strange combination of Sherlock Holmes and the young woman, Mary Russell, that he has married. They are investigating possible crimes in San Francisco, where Russell lived as a child until the rest of her family was killed in an accident.

I really enjoyed this book: you might not think so to hear me complain about some aspects, but it’s true. I could have done without the endless food descriptions, people eating meals that have no relevance to the plot, and which I don’t find interesting. Is it just me? It annoys me when two characters are having a conversation, but every line or two has to be punctuated with ‘he took another bite of his chops.’

In addition, King has obviously done endless research into the time period, and then shovels the results in in large doses – but then she’s not alone there, is she, fellow readers? Far too many historical novels could be halved in length with some proper pruning of the lists of what’s on at the theatre and what books people are reading. In this one we have, Ooh crosswords, what are they? ‘Can’t see them catching on myself.’

But I did find the descriptions of the SF earthquake and fire very interesting and informative.

There is quite a lot in the book about the Chinese practice of feng shui, which is a feature of Nury Vittachi’s Mr Wong books. There’s one on the blog here, illustrated, as it happens, with some very nice pictures of San Francisco Chinese restaurants in the early 20th century. Exactly where Russell and Holmes go to eat those endless fragrant meals and discuss the case between bites.

locked rooms equake 5

The top pictures are from a contemporary book on the earthquake, and come via Flickr.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Harding’s Luck by E Nesbit

published 1908

****I would challenge readers to try to work out or guess what the people in the top picture are doing, before reading the explanation immediately below ****

Harding's Luck 1

[Dickie and his new friend Mr Beale are going tramping together]

"Can you write?"

"Yes," said Dickie, "if I got a pen."

"I got a pencil—hold on a bit." He took out of his pocket a new envelope, a new sheet of paper, and a new pencil ready sharpened by machinery. It almost looked, Dickie thought, as though he had brought them out for some special purpose. Perhaps he had.

"Now," said the man, "you take an' write—make it flat agin the sole of me boot." He lay face downward on the road and turned up his boot, as though boots were the most natural writing-desks in the world. “I'm glad I wasn't born a table to be wrote on. Don't it make yer legs stiff, neither!"

Harding's Luck 2

[many adventures later in the book] Before long two most miserable children faced each other in Edred's bedroom, dressed as Red Indians so far as their heads and backs went. Then came lots of plate armor for chest and arms; then, in the case of Elfrida, petticoats and Roman sash and Japanese wickerwork shoes and father's shooting-gaiters made to look like boots by brown paper tops. And in the case of Edred, legs cased in armor that looked like cricket pads, ending in jointed foot-coverings that looked like chrysalises.

observations: When I recently read Nesbit’s The House of Arden, a whole bunch of Nesbit fans came into the comments (it was sooo nice!) and several of them recommended Harding’s Luck, which is a sequel to Arden. The connection isn’t obvious for a long time (and you could certainly read either book as a standalone) but eventually E&E from the first book turn up, and you can work out Deptford Dickie’s role in the first book.

For some people, it is their favourite Nesbit: I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a good rollicking tale, not at all predictable, and she makes a brave effort to make a hero of a rough, common boy. Nesbit has strong socialist principles, and that comes over in her books, but her life was spent amongst moneyed people with servants.

There’s a tremendously affecting bit near the beginning where Dickie wants to grow some flowers, but buys ‘bird seed’ at the hardware store, because he hopes that means the flowers will be bright flowers like a parrot’s colours. He takes up with Mr Beale, above – a most interesting figure, and not one you could put into a children’s book now – and there is an adventure resembling one of Oliver Twist’s.

I don’t know why the children had to dress quite so strangely in the second excerpt above, but I was very impressed by the imagination shown.

The book takes the House of Arden a lot further, and resolves various issues, but the ending left me open-mouthed. Everyone is in quite a difficult situation, all the main characters have behaved really well, trying to do the right thing, and Nesbit has carefully explained the temptations and problems (I have to be careful what I say, as I really don’t want to spoiler this for anyone coming new to it.) And then she cuts through it with a completely unexpected move on the part of Dickie, one that I have been thinking about off and on since I read it.

The illustrations are from a 1910 edition of the book. You can find the text free online.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Thursday List: The Best of Wolf Hall

Best of Wolf Hall

The TV version of Hilary Mantel’s historical novels has ended, and there’s no sign of the third book in the trilogy appearing any time soon. Yes, I have already done endless entries on the books, and yes there was recently a list of books on the Tudors (and there will be more non-Mantel Tudors coming soon): but still I had to console myself by making a list of my ten eleven favourite moments from the two books.
1) His children are falling from the sky.
That’s the first sentence of Bring up the Bodies. It’s a reference to Cromwell’s falcons, named after his dead daughters, and surely the best opening line of any book this century.
2) ‘There is the matter of all the other women who want to marry you. The wives of England, they all keep secret books of whom they are going to have next when they have poisoned their husbands. And you are the top of everyone's list.’
The artist Hans Holbein talking to Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Well yes he would be, wouldn’t he?
3) His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
A description of Thomas Cromwell, explaining the perception above. And, blogfriend Samantha Ellis (author of How to be a Heroine) suggests, a fine description for the ‘ideal man’ part of a dating profile.

4) The completely engrossing dinner party at Thomas More’s house in Chelsea in Wolf Hall – plot, character, joyous entertainment, sadness and jokes all come together in a tour de force of writing, a scene you could read again and again. ‘They laugh. You would think they were friends.’
5) ‘I picture you in a hovel, wearing homespun, and bringing home a rabbit for the pot. I picture your lawful wife Anne Boleyn skinning and jointing this rabbit. I wish you every happiness.’
Thomas Cromwell tells Harry Percy how life works (in Wolf Hall), when Percy is threatening to cause trouble. Another tour de force: total bullying, horrible to read, but hilariously funny.

6) The wonderful, brilliantly-portrayed, Duke of Norfolk has been visiting his armourer and is still wearing some bits of it ‘so that he looks like an iron pot wobbling to the boil.’
7) ‘You know what More used to say. “If the lion knew his own strength, it were hard to rule him.”’ 

‘Thank you,’ [Cromwell] says. ‘That consoles me mightily, Sir Purse, a text from the grave from that blood-soaked hypocrite. Has he anything else to say about the situation? Because if so I’m going to get his head back off his daughter and boot it up and down Whitehall till he shuts up for good and all.’
Cromwell being respectful about his old foe and colleague Thomas More.
8) ‘[Anne Boleyn] is selling herself by the inch. The gentlemen all say you are advising her. She wants a present in cash for every advance above her knee.’
‘Not like you, Mary. One push backwards and, good girl, here's fourpence.’
Cromwell outlines the difference between the two Boleyn girls.
9) No doubt they are discussing the new alliance; he seems to think she has another treaty tucked down her bodice.
Anne Boleyn meets the King of France: the King of England gets jealous. A superb scene, and perfectly portrayed in the TV series.
10) The months run away from you like a flurry of autumn leaves bowling and skittering towards the winter; the summer has gone, Thomas More’s daughter has got his head back off London Bridge and is keeping it, God knows, in a dish or bowl, and saying her prayers to it. He is not the same man he was last year, and he doesn’t acknowledge that man’s feelings; he is starting afresh, always new thoughts, new feelings.
Thomas Cromwell at the beginning of Bring Up The Bodies.

ADDED LATER: remembered a vital one:

11) She laughs. ‘They could tell Boccaccio a tale, those sinners at Wolf Hall.’
Cromwell and Anne Boleyn companionably chatting and sniggering over the gossip from the Seymour family. But is the whole court Wolf Hall, and this a vital comment on their morals?

And now we’re just waiting for the next book.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

published 1952

Margaret Millar

The women’s section of the cell-block was empty except for Virginia. Miss Jennings unlocked the door. ‘Here’s that man again, Mrs Barkeley.’

Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing yellow, and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes.

She raised her head and gave him a long unfriendly stare that reminded him of Mrs Hamilton, though there was no physical resemblance between the mother and daughter.

‘Good morning, Mrs Barkeley.’

‘Why don’t you get me out of here?’ she said flatly.

‘I’m trying.’

observations: I love this photograph so much, I once MADE UP a book extract to go with it.

I found it in the early days of the blog, but thought it was so specific I would never have a chance to use it – so: I had it as an avatar for a while. And, for an April Fool entry back in 2012, I wrote a  few paragraphs that could be illustrated by this photograph. That’s pretty extreme. I tried to imagine the book-within-a-book in Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent: you can see the fake entry for Fleur Talbot’s Warrender Chase here.

And finally, happily, here is a real book to go with the photo!

It’s Margaret Millar’s centenary year - she was born in February 1915 and died in 1994. She was American-Canadian, and was married to thriller writer Ross MacDonald.

It’s probably fair to say that Millar is revered among crime fiction fans, but not well-known outside that circle. She wrote sharp thrillers, dark and serious, with normal suburban people thrust into dangerous and difficult situations. She didn’t waste words, and crammed a lot of plot into relatively short books (some modern authors, stretching themselves out over 500 pages, could learn a lot from her). There was usually a very good twist or surprise at the end: one that would make you think back and work out with satisfaction that (for an example not from this book) no, X and Y had never been in the room together. She was a mistress of plotting.

In this one, a young married woman has been out on the town, drinking too much, sitting in bars with someone else’s husband. When this other man is found dead, she is the main suspect, and that’s why she’s in jail. Her mother comes to try to help her, and a young lawyer is on hand too. All kinds of unexpected things happen, starting with someone else confessing to the crime. We are shown inside various households in a small town in Michigan, following some miserable marriages and unhappy people. The town is called Arbana, and from its position would seem to be Ann Arbor.

I loved this sentence from the jail visit above:
The overhead lights went off suddenly and the feeble rays of the morning sun filtered in through the barred windows like dim hopes.
… not that most people in Millar’s books can be very hopeful.

But the books will surely live on among conoisseurs of crime fiction.

The picture (it dates from 1950, this book from 1952) is from the George Eastman House colletion. It is called Woman in Cell playing Solitaire, and is by Nickolas Murray.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert

published 1976

Night of the Twelfth

[A private boys’ school: Mr Manifold has replaced another teacher, Millison, who had problems with the boys]

‘I hear you pulverised One-B,’ said Alastair McMurtrie.

Manifold inspected the seven boys who made up One-A. Most of them he could already identify. McMurtrie, freckled, snub-nosed, well-developed, with the build of a second-row forward. Jared Sacher, a dark beauty with alarmingly intelligent eyes. Peter Joscelyne, small, quiet and withdrawn. The Warlock brothers, totally unlike each other, yet each with a hint of their father’s often-photographed face. The fat boy with the permanent smile must be Monty Gedge and that left – forgotten the name – father a barrister – Paxton. Terence Paxton.
‘We had quite a lively first meeting,’ he agreed…

‘They’re a bunch of stupid kids,’ said Sacher. ‘It was only that Mr Millison was such an ass. I’m sorry, sir. But he was. You know what started the rot? It was in Scripture. One of them asked him what a harlot was. Well, really! That’s been a standing joke for years. All he had to say was, it’s the biblical name for a tart and they’d have known where they were.’

‘What did he say?’

‘According to those that were present he blushed and said, “Well, Paine, it’s – um - a girl who has – er – lost her way.” After that they pulled his leg until it nearly came off. When anyone on one of his walks took a wrong turning, they used to shout in unison, “Come back, you harlots”.’

observations: When Christine Poulson and I shared our lists of favourite books set in schools (last week, see here and here), neither of us included this one – but Christine remembered it later and mentioned it in a comment, so I decided to read it, and am still quite thrown by it. It is a strange mixture of a traditional school mystery (lots of funny dialogue, rather wonderful young teacher, very knowing and precocious but delightful boys) and a thriller – the son of the Israeli Ambassador is a pupil, and there could be danger – and something more weird: there are signs that a sadistic killer on the loose.

It’s a lot to fit in in a short book, but Gilbert does a masterly job of combining these strands, and has some excellent diversionary tactics, which only strike you when you think about the story afterwards – and I thought about it quite a lot. There are interesting discussions in the staff-room about corporal punishment, and a lot of attempts at psychological diagnosis. I ambled along with the plot, finding the thriller aspects and police investigation much less entertaining than the scenes in the school, and I had spotted a few good clues - and then the final quarter kept me pinned to my seat as I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen, in a way that I don’t often feel. Christine described the book as chilling, and it certainly was - positively unnerving at times.

The 14-year-old boys plan to drink some vodka as an end-of-term treat, which surprised me as much as the murders: a half-bottle cost £1.80, relatively a lot more than it would cost now - in modern terms that’s something like £17.

The boys are going to stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and my one criticism is that very little is made of this, it has no relevance to the plot. (Josephine Bell’s Death at Half-Term also deals with a performance of  Twelfth Night in a school).

This is a clever and very entertaining book, it is very funny at times, and Gilbert leads you astray in the smartest of Christie-like ways – you make assumptions about all kinds of things…

Michael  Gilbert's Smallbone Deceased - from 1950, nearer the beginning of his remarkable and lengthy writing career - is on the blog here

The picture is from the New South Wales archives.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

published 2014

Some Luck

[1925. Rosanna’s sister, Eloise, has been living with the family on the farm, but now has left]

Rosanna had never been especially patient; she felt herself stamping around the house in a state of permanent irritability, and had even written Eloise a letter down at Iowa State, where she was taking home economics (and doing very well – who was surprised at that?) living in a dorm with lots of girls, and learning to play the piano. To Eloise she wrote: “If I never sufficiently expressed my appreciation for your sense of order and unflagging energy, I am sorry. I appreciate it now.”

Eloise wrote back, “Can you make me a velveteen dress if I send you the pattern? I’m sure Ma would blanch at the very sight of the pattern! Tres au courant!” Yes, Ma would, thought Rosanna, but she made the dress. It was an easy pattern, and made her, too, feel tres au courant.

While she did the hem, she watched Irma and Joe with the everlasting box of dominoes, the box that she had given Joe last summer and that he would not let out of his sight.

observations: Jane Smiley is renowned for the wide variety of her books’ settings – from Greenland to Hollywood, taking in a New York apartment along the way. But Iowa – her home state – pops up a lot, as do horses and agricultural themes. This one is set on a farm in Iowa, and for a large part of the book it stays there. It’s the first part of a trilogy, following one family through the 20th century, and is both epic and small-scale at the same time.

She does something I’ve never seen before: she has one chapter for each year from 1920 to 1953, a scheme that will take the story forward in the subsequent books. Once you see it, you wonder why more writers don’t do it – in particular, it seems an ideal plan for Anne Tyler. In fact if I read the book without knowing, I would have guessed it was a Tyler book.

It’s a strange book: it kept me reading, but in a fairly dutiful way. There was an awful lot about the farm arrangements: ‘Walking dollars is what I call hogs’, and a funny ‘farmer joke’, about one who won a million dollars and, asked what he would do with it, replied “I guess I’ll just farm till it’s gone.”

There are many descriptions of the farm seen through the eyes of very small children, and I could have done without that. There were flashes of wonderful writing – ‘It was dim in the barn, but arrows and sparkles of light pierced the dark walls here and there’ – but most of it is written in a very flat, even tone.

And then around the middle there are a few magical passages. A description of the way siblings think of their parents ends with: ‘Six children, six different degrees of love and respect for her parents, and occasional discussions about exactly in what ways Mary and Otto Vogel deserved what they had gotten.’

There is a spell-binding description of Walter giving treasured mementoes to his children on his birthday, and I loved Eloise on ‘the perennial question of motherhood – how honest to be.’ Many of the conversations are excellent – great dialogue, with the randomness of real life and absolutely convincing.

And the picture of life seems very authentic too (even in its dullness) – a world where a young married couple have the wife’s sister living with them to help with the chores and the babies. Respectability and church, drought and Depression and fears for the future, the change from horses to a tractor and a car, attending family get-togethers bringing a pie for the shared meal: it is all there.

People do leave the farm. The oldest son Frank (a very intriguing character) goes to college, and goes to war. For me the book became a lot more entertaining when there was more from outside Iowa: there was a most unexpected turn when Frank gets caught up in the Red scares of the 1950s.

Although the book was something of a long haul, it is very memorable, and I expect I will go on to read the later instalments.

The picture is from the Cornell University archives, and shows, exactly, ‘simplified home sewing’ in 1925.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Dress Down Sunday: I Can’t Believe You Let Yourself Be Photographed Without Lipstick


from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

the book (again): Girl In A Band – A Memoir by Kim Gordon

published by Faber & Faber, February 2015

Kim Gordon DD 1

[“Making The Nature Scene” is a track from Sonic Youth’s second release and first album, Confusion Is Sex]

The lyrics sprung from real life. “Making the Nature Scene” came from walking past the hookers lined up on Grand Street. In the dead cold of winter, they would flock there most nights, standing in a circle around a makeshift oilcan bonfire in leg warmers and stilettos. They were staples of the neighbourhood landscape, standing tall like funky trees, leaning back, single hands on their hips, standing in a column “making the nature scene.”

The gold sparkle of the ladies’ leg warmers caught the light of passing cars, flashed in the dark spaces around nearby buildings. I’d been reading about the Italian architect and designer Aldo Rossi, who believed that cities never shake their histories, that they preserve the ghosts of their past through time.

Kim Gordon DD 2

[Sonic Youth played in London for the first time in December 1983, at The Venue, supporting Australian band SPK]

In the early eighties, the music scene in England was large for an island, chaotic and cutthroat. Musicians literally paid to get onto a bill. Via a friend, we landed a gig opening for an industrial band, with another girl named Danielle Dax opening for us. Before the show, Danielle cornered me in the bathroom. “Look,” she said, “ there are a lot of important people coming here tonight to see me.”

Her meanness and competitiveness were almost shocking – it was like junior high all over again. Like a lot of English acts, Danielle had a specific look about her, a mask, an almost freakish persona. For the English, rock and roll has a lot to do with climbing over that country’s class structure, kicking out the bars of their birth.

observations: These two extracts give you a pretty fair flavour of Kim Gordon’s style. She might be talking about fashion one minute, and shifting from there to some academic or philosophical thoughts about the arts and artistes. It all makes sense, but it does sometimes make you stop and think, before you can see the connection.

If Danielle Dax had been the least bit unfriendly towards The Slits, anyone who’s read Viv Albertine’s book would be expecting to read a dissection of the reasons why a female would have picked on them like that. Kim Gordon, however, hones in on the fact that Danielle Dax is English. She is kind and complimentary about many people throughout the book, but her remarks about the English music scene are surprising, to say the least; unless she would have us believe that all US musicians are generous sweethearts to each other, and that none of them have either a look or a persona. Neither of those ideas would stand up to the things she says herself about, for example, Johnny Thunders or Courtney Love.

Musicians can’t really win: there will always be people who want to hear more about band politics and less about music, or vice versa; or less about you, in your own book, and more about your famous friends. Personally, I’d have liked to read more about the making of the albums and the mechanics of Sonic Youth’s unconventional guitar tunings; but I don’t suppose this is the right book for that. (Another group member, Lee Ranaldo, satisfied some of those cravings in his interview for the book My First Guitar. I wrote about that book here.)

The main photo is of Danielle Dax who, as you can see, certainly did have “a specific look” – although I’ve cheated, using a shot from a little earlier in the 80s when she was in a duo, The Lemon Kittens. (The other member, a man with a luxuriant beard, wore much the same outfit and make up.) She continued to have wild hair and wear wild clothes.
The other photo is from the session mentioned in the previous CiB article about Girl In A Band, and was used in the gatefold of the album Daydream Nation. It’s shown here superimposed upon the location where it was shot. The composite photo is used with the generous permission of Bob Egan, who curates the brilliant website PopSpots where there are plenty more pictures like this.

Finally, let me declare a very very small interest. Of the hundreds of things Kim Gordon has achieved, there are no less than two that I had already done: headlined at the ICA in London, and met Niagara, the exotic singer from the US band Destroy All Monsters (who once memorably said to Kim Gordon: “I can’t believe you let yourself be photographed without lipstick.”) So I think I can safely say I blazed a trail for her…

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

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon – Leisure Suits

published 2012

Telegraph Avenue 4

[Musician Cochise Jones has a wardrobe full of leisure suits. This is his favourite: ]

The gem of his collection, it was profound and magical in its excess. White, piped with burnt orange,Telegraph Avenue 3 it had a rhinestone-cowboy feel to it, except at the yoke and at the cuffs of its sleeves and trousers, where it flamed into wild pseudo-Aztec embroidery, abstract patterns suggesting pink flowers, green succulents, bloodred hearts. Cochise had worn this suit, which he always called “my Aztec number”, three times before: once backing Bill James at the Eden Roc on the night when Hurricane Eloise hit; once at the Sahara in Las Vegas, where it attracted favourable comment from Sammy Davis Jr; and once, with improbable consequences, before a hometown crowd at Eli’s Mile High.

Telegraph 5
After that storied night in the annals of Oakland rumpus, Cochise had retired the Aztec number, sensing that it was a leisure of destiny. A suit not be squandered on an ordinary day in a man’s life, even if that man, on an ordinary day, rocked the B-3.

observations: First entry on the book explains more about the plot.

Ancient but revered musician Cochise Jones visits the key setting of the book, Brokeland Records in Telegraph Avenue, the whole time, and wears leisure suits. I had to pursue this – it’s not really a concept in the UK, I didn’t know if it meant a track suit. So I looked it up on Google Images, and I can only recommend that any interested reader to the same. The array of clothes that comes up is startling. What you see here is a mere taster, though sadly there was nothing quite living up to the number described above. I have no idea what B-3 means in this context. is not just a great title for a website, it is a treasuretrove of images.

Telegraph Ave Monk

Just to even the sartorial/style balance, there is also a description of Archy wearing very sharp suit and adjusting ‘the angle of his genuine Basque beret’, which seems the perfect reason to produce another picture from the William P Gottlieb collection of jazz photos – two of which we used in the previous entry on the book. This one is Thelonius Monk. (Really I’d just like to run all the pictures from this collection at the Library of Congress).

The book seems to take place in 2004, and Barack Obama, then the Senator from Illinois, makes an entertaining cameo appearance.

The small record shop is beautifully described, though it is familiar stuff from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, from the film Empire Records, from real life. Archy says: ‘our kind of people, we already got a church of our own… and that church is the church of vinyl.’ The book is very well written, but – unlike Chabon’s other works - it isn’t surprising. But still, as I said last time, Chabon on a bad day is better than most people’s best.

There's much more of Michael Chabon on the blog – click on the labels below.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis

published 1946

HOrizontal man 2
[reporter Jack is in a student bar, trying to get information for his story]

He sat down discreetly, not giving the girls any kind of obvious eye. One of them was quite a tomato – what is referred to as a long-stemmed American beauty. This was going to be what you call mixing business with pleasure. The other [Kate] was on the dumpy side, with a frowsy feather cut and horn-rimmed glasses like the young man’s own. She was wearing dungarees and a sweatshirt; the first had on a pink sweater and skirt

Horizontal man 1
[later he arrives at Kate’s student residence and asks her on a date]

‘Now will you go fix your face for me?’ he grinned.

‘Yeah,’ she said, flushing, ‘yeah!’ and turned to fly up the stairs when he caught her on the landing and kissed her resoundingly.

‘Take those damn pants off,’ he said, smacking the logical place, ‘and drop them in the nearest incinerator!’…

In something more than a jiffy, Kate reappeared, looking respectable in a sweater, skirt and cosmetics. She took her polo coat from the coat rack and they went out of the door in silence….

observations: Helen Eustis died recently, at the age of 98: this was her best-known book, and it won the Edgar Award for best first novel in 1947. It’s a campus murder mystery set at a women’s liberal arts college in New England - it was interesting to find out from her obituary that the womanizing academic who is murdered (plenty of those he has treated badly might have a motive) was based on her own professor husband.

It reads quite strangely to modern readers for a number of reasons: the main one is impossible to discuss without spoilers, so all I will say is that it must have been rather startling at the time, whereas in 2015 the direction of the book gives itself away. I also found it had a great unevenness of tone: there are some very dark passages, a look at lives that are difficult and disastrous, and a serious attempt to see psychiatry and psychology as a way of helping people. But then Eustis will turn to the couple above, who seem to have wandered in from an episode of Scooby Doo or Nancy Drew (Scooby Drew?). We need to judge books by the standards of their own time, but it still is rather depressing that Kate, above, who is obviously one of the brightest people in the book, has to put up with the dialogue above, and from a woman writer. Kate is also told by her new boyfriend that she is too fat, and he over-rides her food choices in a bar for that reason.

Their route to coupledom is obviously meant as light relief, which works only occasionally, as at the point where Jack asks Kate if she ‘wants to be a virgin all your life?’
‘There’s a difference between abstention and discrimination’ said Kate huffily.
And although it is a serious book, there were occasional funny moments. I liked the colleague being asked over the phone to take part in a memorial event for the murdered professor Kevin Boyle:
‘I wondered if you would be willing to say something [to the group]? What do you think?’
I think it is a maudllin, disgusting self-advertising notion, and quite typical of your very vulgar mind, he thought. ‘Very well; at what time?’
Eustis is plainly trying to be uptodate about gay people: there’s a student who says Kate can’t be a lesbian because she is full-busted, and a claim that where you found the picture of Van Gogh’s young man in a straw hat ‘you would find a homosexual.’

The students all drink like crazy – beer, and whisky, and brandy Alexanders. This is interesting – now they most certainly couldn’t, not in bars, as stringent rules apply. Then, as now, the minimum drinking age in Connecticut is 21– but obviously not much notice was being taken of that in 1946.

The book is readable enough and quite gripping, although it’s a pity so many of the characters are grotesque and miserable. Eustis led the way in creating a new kind of psycho-sexual thriller, and like many trailblazers looks a bit clichéd now. I still enjoyed the picture of life at a small college in the snow, and the contemporary details.

Pictures from the New York World’s Fair in 1940, a fashion show for college students, via the New York Public Library. A 'typical student' in the book is described as wearing a ‘nondescript tweed coat and the usual socks and moccasins’ and brown mittens.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Lent: The Italians by John Hooper

published 2015

Italians 1

The very Italian talent for dusting life with a thick layer of stardust is deployed liberally throughout the year. But perhaps it comes to the fore with greatest effect during Lent. In the Catholic tradition, this is meant to be the grimmest forty days in the calendar – a time of repentance and self-denial leading up to the commemoration of Jesus’s trial and agonizingly painful death. But in Italy it never seems to be quite that bad.

First of all, as in many other countries, there is Carnival - a brief spell of self-indulgence before the long weeks of abstinence. This is when, in Italy, you see small children on the streets dressed up in a range of bizarre outfits: some as princess, others as ghouls, superheroes, priates and so on. Depending on the calendar, Carnival falls some time in the period from early February to early March, and the children’s costumes introduce a touch of colour to one of the more doleful phases of the year.

Carnevale, like every other festival in the Italian calendar, also brings with it a range of seasonal delicacies like sfrappole (thin strips of pastry that are fried and sugared) and castagnole or fritelle (little doughnuts sprinkled with sugar and filled with crème patisserie). These hypercalorific delights are meant to be swept from the shops once Lent begins, yet somehow they remain temptingly available for weeks after Ash Wednesday…

Italians 2

observations: In this recent entry I explain more about this book, which is a foreign correspondent’s conclusions after working for years in Italy.

He tells us many fascinating things about Italian food – for instance that in Rome you eat gnocchi on Thursdays, but no-one quite knows why. He looks at the importance of food and of family meals in the Italian culture: recipes passed down through generations, grown children coming to their parents for Sunday lunch every week. He tells us that the Italians really don’t like non-Italian food, or a meal that doesn’t follow the correct format – ‘where’s the pasta?’

But the intelligent reader, following all this, nodding in recognition, thinking that this Italian mistrust of foreigners and foreign food isn’t right, is still left with a longing for a delicious Italian meal – memories of wonderful Italian cooking arise unbidden….

Hooper also has a lot to say about religion in Italy: the heavy influence of the Catholic church for so many years, the importance of the Vatican being where it is, and the happy adaptation of most Italians to the bits of the faith that they are happy to go along with, and the bits they will happily ignore (rulings on contraception and divorce).

Ash Wednesday was yesterday, Lent has now begun, it’s quite cheering to think of the Italians enjoying their illicit patisserie.

Altogether The Italians is a really entertaining and informative read.

There was more about carnival, and more photos,  in Tuesday's entry.

The photos – of carnevale in Venice - are all from Perry Photography and used with her kind permission: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

published 2015

Hourglass factory 2

[1912: The Royal Albert Hall, London]
Ebony Diamond had waited in the dark, her wrists bound tight as shoelaces. Her fingers had numbed to blue; the pearls of sweat on her palms were turning the mixture of flour and poudre d’amour to paste. Behind her, Annie Evans was busy… [and singing] gently ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’, singing ‘lass’ instead of ‘man’…

The Lumley Wood Mystery ... Illustrated by J. B. Partridge

Ebony checked the binding on her legs, squeezed a handful of flesh into a more comfortable position, ran a thumb over the sailor’s knots she had tied, and wedged the wooden bar of the trapeze between the hollows of her feet. Annie passed her the banner and she bit its silk,and grimaced as its slippery perfume coated her teeth. She had done higher leaps than this and she had felt sick before each of them too…. She gave Annie a last look, climbed alone onto the wooden lip of the hole. And she jumped.

observations: Ebony Diamond is a professional trapeze artiste, but this time she is using her skills to make a protest on behalf of the suffragette cause. After this scene – the opening of the book – she makes only a few shadowy appearances before disappearing, and her fate is left uncertain for most of The Hourglass Factory.

Lucy Ribchester’s book is overflowing with activity, ideas, plot and historical details. She is looking at the suffragette struggle in great detail, but has also added a mystery, a thriller plot, and a journey through the London underworld. Frankie George, a slightly annoying heroine, dresses in men’s clothes and is trying to make it as a journalist. She senses that there is a big story behind what is happening to Ebony, and she pursues the case, helped along by various friends. Meanwhile we are also following police investigations into suffragette activity, and into several deaths.

The scenes change rapidly: Frankie’s digs, a Fleet St office, a corset shop, the mortuary, a very louche club, backstage at a theatre. All are very well-described, conjuring up complete pictures.

There is a lot about corsets – so much so that there’ll be another entry on that subject – and everyone’s clothes are fully described, something I am always glad to see. The sections on the suffragettes were very informative, and the backstage scenes seemed authentic. There was a hint of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and Ebony reminded me of Fevvers from that book.

Someone who gets bashed on the head is described as having ‘a boiled egg’ [ie a round bump] the next day – I hadn’t seen this phrase used in years, and it used to mystify me.

The top picture is from a book on circuses.

The other picture seemed to be good to be true, as two of the main themes of the book are trapezes and corsets. It came from Flickr, from an early mystery book, though it seems to have been an advert printed in the book, rather than part of the text.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Venice Carnevale: Farewell to the Flesh by Edward Sklepowich

published 1991

Farewell to the Flesh 2

An Arab sheikh passed by with the women of his harem dressed in blue veils that revealed considerably more than they concealed. One of them blew Urbino a kiss. Two children, dressed as an angel and a devil, were guided through the crowd by their father wearing a broad, smiling mask. Behind them, three figures strolled along with red and purple feathered jackets, sequin-covered leggings, huge gauze fans, and black oval masks. They were followed by five purple-turbaned figures with gold-painted faces who were draped in shiny black material and sported sail-like purple wings. They walked haughtily, as if they were royalty, and stopped every few minutes to assume frozen poses. A group of nuns passed by with bawdy laughter and suggestive gestures.

Amid all this clamour five figures in long funereal capes, black capelets with hoods, severe white masks, and black tricorn hats walked in a silent cluster. Dressed in the bautta disguise worn by noblemen in the 18th century and seen in many Venetian paintings, they seemed to censure the madness around them, to be reminding the other revellers that although Carnevale might, by its very name, encourage a wanton farewell to the flesh, that the flesh wasn’t forever.

Farewell to the Flesh

observations: Carnivals take place all over the world in the run up to Lent, the long dreary period of preparation for Easter. They end on Shrove Tuesday, today, the day before Ash Wednesday (which is on a different date each year, depending on the date of Easter).

Three years ago we did a carnevale entry from another Venice-set book by the same author: you can find it here.

Two years ago we had our own personal Clothes in Books-commissioned photographer take fabulous pictures especially for the blog, to match up with Byron’s Beppo. You can see the spectacular results here and here. And there’s a little look at ‘miserable, meatless’ Lent in Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

Farewell to the Flesh (the phrase is a literal translation of the word carnevale) is a complex murder mystery, with a lot of literary references (Proust and Dante) and a lot of emphasis of masks, and hiding, and secrets. There is also a masked ball – always a CiB favourite – and quite a bit about the Commedia dell’arte, with Pierrot and Columbine. The atmosphere is very well done.

Of course in England we make pancakes to mark the end of the good times, and in this entry we looked at the Anglicizing of the Pierrot culture. (Not to say we’re boring or anything.) No wonder British (and American) writers want to write about Venice so much. Even the specific minor trope of statue restoration in this book – well, two other books instantly come to mind: Miss Garnett’s Angel by Sally Vickers, and Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth.

This is a good entry for the tags – favoured blog themes include fancy dress, Pierrots, Venice.

The photographs are (of course) by Clothes in Books’ favourite photographer – in Venice and out of it - Denise Perry – see her website here.

Sklepowich says that photographers taking pictures at carnevale in Venice always wear specially long or high boots to keep their feet dry…

Monday, 16 February 2015

I Wish My Mom Were As Cool As This

the book: Girl In A Band – A Memoir by Kim Gordon

published by Faber & Faber, February 2015

From regular Guest Blogger Colm Redmond

Kim Goprdon 1

[Gordon was born in 1953, and the first extract refers to the late 60s.]

At home I stared for hours at record covers and photos of Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Peggy Lipton, Joni Mitchell, and other cool girls, wanting to be just like them. It was an era of no bras, free-flowing hair, vintage lace, and crushed velvet borrowed from traditional boudoir scenarios of passive female sexuality and placed front and center. Anita Pallenberg’s look was wild enough to influence the Rolling Stones. Men wore women’s clothes, sheepskin vests, short white pants, lamé scarves, and exotic Moroccan jewelry, while women slipped into pinstripe suits … 

[At a photoshoot with Michael Lavine in 1988, ahead of the release of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation album]

“Do you want to look cool, or do you want to look attractive?” Michael asked me, as if the two were mutually exclusive. The silver paint; glitter-dabbed, faded cutoff jeans; and crop top with the sheer jewelled panel marked a turning point for me and my look. I decided I didn’t want to just look cool, or just look rock and roll; I wanted to look more girl. Looking back, I was trying to make more of a definite statement about what my look was and how I wanted to present myself. Tomboy, but more ambiguous than tomboy, too. The increased media attention, and seeing more photos of myself, and of Sonic Youth as a band, had made me more self-conscious.

  kim gordon 2

observations: For thirty years Kim Gordon was a member both of Sonic Youth and of probably the nearest alt rock has ever had to a power couple, with Thurston Moore. They and the band were regarded as exemplars of cool and class, longevity and stability, and people felt shocked and betrayed when the couple split in 2011 and broke up the band. Gordon’s memoir starts at the final gig, before heading back to her childhood. There is much to be enjoyed in the early years. Although her parents were not exactly bohemian, they belonged to a social set who spent as much of their free time as possible in the country, relaxing, drinking, fishing, eating and most of all just chatting. Then, when the family moved to California in the late 50s, her father befriended some younger people who were then “hipsters,” but would soon be called “beatniks.” Gordon went with him to visit one, and was fascinated by the guy’s “glam girlfriend with her long, straight black hair, her red-polished fingernails, and her guitar. She was the first beatnik I ever met. I sat in her lap, thinking, I wish my mom were as cool as this.

Girl In A Band makes a fascinating counterpart to Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, last year’s big music memoir, by Viv Albertine of The Slits – on the blog here, just out in paperback. The two women are similar ages, and have both been successful but never mainstream; and neither is averse to expressing strong opinions about how different their experiences have been from those of the males they work with or encounter. Although Albertine talks about clothes a lot more, Gordon is nonetheless fascinated with all visual aspects of art and image, and even founded a fashion label, X-Girl.

The main picture is of Kim Gordon, and aptly looks like the kind of glamorous but self-consciously kooky author photo female novelists had to have in the 60s. Its origin is described here: “[Artist Isa Genzken] and I were taking photos of each other. Isa, always deliberate, went first. Perched before a typewriter in the dark blue gallery, I wore a light-blue button-down shirt with a white collar, a black dance skirt, tights, and black rubber riding boots. Isa and I both assumed the same pose … Isa was statuesque and way more photogenic than I felt in my plain clothes.”

The other picture shows four women in perfectly archetypal 60s clothes. If I tell you this is usually captioned “Beatles Wives And Girlfriends” you still might not recognise them all. And you might, like me, waste a lot of time trying to work out which one’s Jane Asher… none of them, is the answer. They are Cynthia Lennon and Maureen Starkey, plus George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd. The fourth is Boyd’s sister Jenny. [If Jenny Boyd ever had a romantic connection with Paul McCartney, it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere except in that caption. As well as being a model, she used to work in the Apple boutique, where these clothes apparently came from.]

In another Clothes In Books article, I’ll talk more about Kim Gordon’s career with Sonic Youth. Meanwhile over on my own blog, here, you can see another item where I mine Girl In A Band for some possible alternative titles. For more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Petrona Remembered: A Wreath for the Bride by Maria Lang

This post is also appearing today on Petrona Remembered, the website set up in honour of Maxine Clarke, tireless supporter of the crime fiction community. Those of us who remember and miss her contribute to the site by suggesting a book she would have enjoyed, and writing about it. Petrona Remembered is building up a terrific list of good books this way: please go and visit it.

Wreath for the Bride 1

A Wreath for the Bride

by Maria Lang

I love the idea of remembering Maxine this way: recommending a book that we think she would have liked. I didn’t know her long or well before she died, but she had already shown her generosity to me, welcoming me into the world of blogging and making her thoughtful and perceptive comments at Clothes in Books. She wanted to share her great ideas and great finds with the rest of us, and she hoped we’d do the same back for her - so what better way to commemorate her than to carry on that tradition.

The book I have chosen is A Wreath for the Bride by Maria Lang. It was first published in Sweden in 1960, and has recently been republished in English (my translation is credited only to the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton) – probably because a Swedish TV show has been made from her books, and was recently shown on the BBC under the name Crimes of Passion.
Wreath for the Bride
Maria Lang (1914-1991) wrote 42 detective stories: she was ‘the first queen of Swedish crime fiction.’ She was often compared to Agatha Christie – usually these comparisons make me sigh (you wonder if the people making the comparisons have actually read any Christie) but based on this book, it’s not so unreasonable.
The book has a very strong sense of place – but it couldn’t be further from the hard-boiled, noirish books many of us now associate with Scandi-fiction. It’s set in a small village, Stroga, where everyone knows each other. Everyone gossips and has an opinion on other’s affairs. You can’t walk down the street without being seen and noticed.

Or can you?

Anneli, young and beautiful, is about to marry rich, eligible Joachim. She is chatting with her friend Dina in the main street, then dives into the florists’ shop – her fiancé has asked her to look at her bouquet, which he has chosen. Dina waits outside for her, chats to some locals. It starts raining, and she can wait no longer. So she goes into the flower shop – and is told by the owner that Anneli has never been there. She has vanished into thin air. She does not re-appear in time for the wedding, which has to be called off, though everyone goes for the meal in the hotel anyway. A few days later a body is discovered.

Petrona Remembered Wreath for the Bride  3
So what did happen to her? What are the undercurrents in peaceful Skoga? Luckily, Chief Inspector Christer Wick is visiting from Stockholm – he has come for the wedding, as he grew up in Skoga and his mother still lives there. He investigates the crime, and also takes a great interest in the delightful and pretty Dina, Anneli’s devastated friend. In the end he finds the solution, and expounds the full explanation to the gathered townspeople in true Christie fashion. In a very Christie-like manner, there have been all kinds of different things going on, and the explanation is very complex. My only criticism is that if something very odd and inexplicable has happened - but it turns out that it didn’t happen, someone was just lying, then that’s not much of an illusion. But that’s a bit picky.

The atmosphere is beautifully done: the old-fashioned shops in the street, giving onto a yard, the old lady who sits outside watching what goes on. The action takes place in the high summer, and I love the fact that one character goes out at 3 o’clock in the morning and finds it is
wonderful out— the sun out and the birds singing away at full blast.
Quite a lot of people are out and about in this midnight sun, so very un-English and beautifully described.

I also watched the TV version of this one, which was enchanting, with gorgeous scenery, 1960 clothes, and Swedish houses to look at. It was somewhat expanded from the book, but true to the spirit, I thought, and great fun to watch.

The English title of the book is misleading: The bride’s flowers are very important, but it is her bouquet, not her head-dress, that matters so much. The Swedish title translates as the King of the Lily of the Valley, and refers to a poem which various characters quote, and indeed lilies-of-the-valley are of great importance (there is a song based on the poem, which you can hear on YouTube).

As we all know, Maxine loved her Scandi-fiction, and the books she read were often harsher and more contemporary than this one. But I think she would have liked A Wreath for the Bride: to see where it fits in the history of Swedish crime fiction, because of its great sense of place, and because it is engaging, but also haunting - it has a darker sadder side. It is the ideal short sharp read.