Archive for the ‘books read’ Category

Lab Girl: A story of trees, science and love (book #164)

6 October 2017

Hope Jahren (2016).

Book cover, showing trees

Read this for the book club.

Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me and didn’t.

Hope Jahren on Wikipedia.

Interview in Time.

Guardian review.

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Censoring Queen Victoria (book #163)

11 September 2017

Book cover, showing Queen Victoria

Censoring Queen Victoria: How Two Gentleman Edited a Queen and Created an Icon. Yvonne M Ward, 2014.

I liked this passage from Arthur Benson‘s diary for 1904. He’s describing working in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle.

My own room is a big room, hung with Hogarth engravings and good furniture — a white chair with pink satin on wheels was used by the Queen. I did not use the room to-day as it was not ready, but worked in the strong-room, and went through an interesting lot of Melbourne’s letters — beginning with one on the morning of the accession. His writing is very hard to read. It was odd to sit in this big room, all surrounded with shelves, with the deep embrasure full of guns. The wind roared and the rain lashed the window. I was amused and happy.

(Diary is online at Archive.org.)

I also liked the fact that in an interview, Yvonne Ward describes a rather parallel experience of researching in the archives of the publishers John Murray:

The room I worked in had been a salon where previous John Murrays had held court with their various clients: Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Samuel Smiles. There were lithographs and paintings on the walls depicting soirées that had taken place in that room, and hundreds of books lining the walls. It was a wonderful atmosphere to work in.

There’s a review of the book here by Kathryn Hughes.

In other news, am finding things difficult at the moment, but have plans and tentative plan b et cetera.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (book #162)

8 June 2017

Cover of book - image of Warner

Claire Harman, 1989.

I’ve been meaning to read this for years, ever since hearing Harman speak (about food in literature). My book club read Lolly Willowes recently so I thought it was time to read the biography. Which is really good, particularly on Warner’s troubled, devoted relationship with Valentine Ackland (problems including Ackland’s other relationships, her lack of literary success, their imbalance in earnings, Ackland’s alcoholism and later religious faith). Also good on the houses they lived in, often inconvenient and cold. And good use of Warner’s and Ackland’s writing in the text. And I know this should be commonplace but it’s also good to see a lesbian relationship where the women, and the biographer, seem to have very little interest in what others thought about their sexuality.*

Some pieces I liked:

Ackland’s letter about bomb damage in London (she’s writing about Inverness Terrance and Mecklenburgh Square in October 1945):

completely flattened … smell of smoke and fire still hanging over the streets and pieces of the fixtures of the houses still littering the basements and gutters. Front doors ajar, and stately rooms beyond, with pit-holes down to the earth instead of floors, and small trees and jungles of dying loosestrife grown up almost to the front windows.

Ackland’s poem (included in her posthumous 1973 collection The Nature of the Moment, but mentioned by Harman in her section on 1948) “Journey from Winter”:

As days become shorter and the cold ghost of the North
leans across from the Pole to strike us, and winter appears in the sky,
it is time to consider our journey. Take down the guide,
the schedule of trains and of sailings, the smart list of ‘planes;
and here by the first fire, our comfort and warning, consider:

The ways of coming at truth, attaining creating or re-discovering,
need no special equipment of faith or unfaith;
the amateur party about to set out to-morrow
will follow one route of the three; but all run together
somewhere in country uncharted, and all reach the end.

There are no true maps of the kingdom; guides have been and returned,
but some will not venture again, while others will shepherd part-way
and still others travel as exiles working a passage home.
The natives are foreign to us and will offer no kindness,
being without interest in strangers and unable to speak our tongue.

They say the first stages are easy; civilised travel
and pleasant companions en route. But once over the frontier
there’s nothing to help you except your own wits, and the wish
to reach your objective. Once over the frontier the others
who started out with you scatter, and each one travels alone.

Guide books agree that the contry is full of silence;
no written words to be found, no signposts, no place-names, no roads,
and scarcely a living man met. All you can do
is watch for the flight of birds or study the slant of the stars
or try to decipher the hieroglyphs drawn by sheep on the hills.

You can live on the country, they say, and do better so
than to carry provisions which, under that sky, will rot.
You can travel fast or slow; there is nothing to tell you
how much further you have to journey until you arrive,
how much further before you reach –

Reach what? I do not know.
All I know is the blight of the North wind, the carrion
patience of winter hanging up there in the sky,
and the blow that is aimed from the Pole, that is aimed to destroy us.
These things, and the date of starting, are all I know.

Also this bit on love – the letter is from about 1950:

there was a sombre truth as well as a simple one in what Sylvia wrote to a friend at about the same time, imploring him not to be tormented by fantasies of losing his lover: ‘think of me,’ she said. ‘Here I am, grey as [a] badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best; but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand – except one. That I was better at loving and being loved.”

I’d like to know more about the Blitzed Libraries scheme, for which Warner and Ackland sorted books at a National Salvage Depot in 1943.

*I know that’s 4 x good in one paragraph, but it’s the right word for this book.

Links:

Review at Shiny New Books.

NY Times review of the letters of Ackland and Warner, with a link to the first chapter of the book.

The Incredible Crime (book #161)

5 June 2017

Book cover - Cambridge scene, river, punt, bridge.

Lois Austen-Leigh (1931).

This is one of the British Library Crime Classics. It has the “none of the characters are likeable” problem.

Lord Wellende’s description of the “school managers’ meeting” is interesting:

” … We’ve got to get a new mistress for the village school, and a golden-haired lady has applied for the post.”
“Who are the managers?” said Prudence.
“Well, the ones that attended this morning were Woodcock and Abel Lundy – farms Stanny House Farm, you know – and myself. She got me cornered, the lady did,” chuckled Wellende. “Suddenly asked me what my views were about Clause 8 under Schedule B – or something of the sort – but Woodcock came to my assistance by asking her if she ever took a hand at halfpenny nap. And they got off to talking about halfpenny nap, which saved me; hadn’t the foggiest notion what Clause B Schedule 8 might be.”
“You must be a priceless collection as school managers – you, Lundy, and Woodcock,” laughed Prudence.
“It’s the best we can raise, anyway; the golden-haired lady evidently agreed to with you, for she declined the job; an occasional evening in the big room at the ‘Plough and Sail’ for halfpenny nap is about the only dissipation there is to offer.”

There’s some snobbery – someone comments on how the police detective’s “keen, intelligent face doesn’t excuse various little things about him … For instance, his constantly saying ‘your lordship’ to our host [Lord Wellende]”. (The Past Offences review linked below talks more about class in this novel.)

Characters are impressed by Lord Wellende not being “effete”: ‘”he gets his hair cut by an under-gardener – an under-gardener, if you please – because seventy years ago the old fellow was in a barber’s shop, and he always has cut his lordship’s hair for the last forty years, and so he always will!”‘.

Wouldn’t particularly recommend this one unless you’re a BL crime completist.

There’s a Guardian article which talks a bit about Austen-Leigh’s life. Past Offences has a fairly critical review which is worth reading. A more positive review from Bookbag.

Edited to add a link to another critical review, at In Search of the Classic Mystery.

The Larks of Jubilee Flats (book #160)

11 January 2017

Marjorie A Sindall, 1956.

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I can’t find anything about Marjorie Sindall online. This is a short book, in the Panther series. Slight, but pleasant – everyone is very nice and everything turns out for the best. Nursing is a big part of the plot, with Jill, aged 14, planning to be a nurse. She attends a Junior Domestic and Technical School, called the Elmer Foundation, which dates back to the seventeenth century. Her family is working class, her father working at a brewery and her mother a hospital ward orderly:

‘But if I could have my time over again,’ she often said with a small sigh, ‘I’d be a nurse. Best job there is.’

Jill’s school spends two days a week on housecraft and cookery, and sends her for one morning a week to a day nursery. I was surprised that they are planning a school trip to Bruges, staying with Belgian families – cost to the children, £10 each.

There are some good details in the text and pictures. I liked Jill’s father “sprucing himself up” for Sunday visitors: “he donned his best brown suit, and the whole flat was filled with the scent of his violet hair cream”. Feather Ghyll points out the patients smoking on the hospital wards.

The illustrator is Frank Haseler. There’s a bit about him online. This post has some of his illustrations from 1972 (and his son has commented on it). There’s another 1970s image of his here. And a nude by him on eBay.

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A Girl Governess; or, Ella Dalton’s Success (book #159)

10 January 2017

AE Ward, 1894.

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16-year-old Ella has been booked to sing, for pay, at a drawing room concert. She wants to do it in order to earn money for her ill sister’s treatment.

There’s a good bit about clothes, reminiscent of Polly and Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl:

perhaps I can borrow [a dress]; or if not, I must make my old white muslin do, though it has been washed so many times that it is getting rather thin in places. I can shorten the sleeves and put a bit of fresh lace into them, and you will see how nice it will look.

Fortunately a friend secretly gives / lends her “a beautiful new dress of white muslin, and the sweetest little cashmere mantle”. I like her brother’s phrase, “all that grand toggery”.

A mean girl, Carrie Mason, is not happy about Ella singing for money, and tries to interfere, but Ella is a success and earns two guineas. A chap in the audience then randomly (given her age and inexperience) employs her as governess to his grandchildren, spoilt Geoffry and “meek-spirited”, emotionally neglected Helen. Although at this point Ella is clearly a good girl, thoughtful and kind to her family, her mother thinks she is too self-confident about being a governess, but she, the mother, can’t do anything about this as she herself has not found God so can’t “bid [Ella] distrust herself and look to a higher strength than her own”. So on the one hand Ella’s prospects are looking good, but on the other hand she’s onviously going to be humbled before her relationship with God can be solved.

Fortunately, the rector tells her that she has to give herself to God, and she does so. Rather anti-climatic, but we’re only half-way through the book at this point, and Geoffry is still a right pain. One of the servants has been telling him he is the heir to the estate and shouldn’t have to obey anyone. Fortunately an orphan comes to live with one of the village families, and is a suitable charitable case on which Geoffers can learn unselfishness. Also Geoffry sprains his ancle and twists his back (which explains the scene on the cover) and has to stay in bed for weeks. He learns the value of his sister too. So all’s well with the world, including for Ella’s mother and ill sister, who move to a better house because of the kindness of her employer. The latter remains a bit of a randomer and cannot see that there has ever been anything wrong with Geoffry’s behaviour. All a bit by the numbers generally, I was disappointed that Carrie Mason didn’t reappear. One pleasing thing though – no love interest for Ella.

The book is nicely produced, with the standard random pictures at the start of chapters, as you can see from the first image here.

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Ella looks more than 16 in this picture:

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I think I have read AE Ward’s other book, Arthur’s Victory.

The Young Clementina (book #158)

16 October 2016
Cover of Young Clementina

Cover of Young Clementina

Originally published as Divorced from Reality and revised and re-published, I think in 1966 – this edition is 1970. Cover does not reflect book particularly well.

As the change in title might suggest, the book is not really about Clementina (who is a child). The (literal) divorce is treated in some detail, with a transcript of some of the evidence given – strikingly realistic for 1935 I thought. I can only recall brief mentions of divorce in other novels of the time (eg in Busman’s Honeymoon).

The comments in this review suggest that the revised version of the book has some significant differences from the earlier one.

Stevenson is good on tiredness, I think, rather like Goudge.

I liked the brief descriptions of the private geographical library Charlotte works in, though am worried it’s not financially viable.

I’d have liked things to be slightly harder for Charlotte than they are. She talks about being incompetent with the servants and how difficult things were with Clementina (who is 12 at the time Charlotte becomes her temporary guardian), but you don’t really see that. Even her imaginary friend turns out to be real.

Some DES fans seem to think this is one of her best, but it was a bit slight and without enough detail for me.

Artists and illustrators around the New Forest and Solent (book #157)

20 August 2016

Robert Coles, 1999.

Impressively illustrated book about New Forest and Solent artists since the 17th century.

I liked this illustration by Heywood Sumner of his excavations in the New Forest (from Excavations in New Forest Pottery Sites, 1927). You can see the archaeologist / artist himself, musing or drawing.

Heywood Sumner - Excavations in New Forest Pottery Sites (1927)

Green Money (book #156)

17 August 2016

D E Stevenson, 1939.

This is a lighter Stevenson (despite the first of my quotes below), bordering on farce at times. There are reviews at Leaves and Pages and Worthwhile Books which give a flavour of it. A couple of passages I liked:

When George had gone the house felt strangely empty and strangely silent. Cathy finished her flowers and bestowed the bowls of roses in their usual places about the house; and all at once, as she placed the big brown pottery bowl on the hall table and stood back to admire the effect, the futility of the thing swept over her. “What is the good?” she demanded of herself. “What is the point of wasting all that time doing flowers? How often have I filled these same silly bowls with flowers – spring flowers, summer flowers, or great shaggy-headed chrysanthemums – and how often shall I go on dong it? Does anyone ever notice them? Would anyone care if I stopped doing it? Would father or mother or Peter or anyone look round and say, ‘Hallo, no flowers!'”
She stood quite still, looking at her handiwork, and it seemed to her that life went on and on and nothing ever happened, and the thought depressed her beyond measure. She seemed to see, in the cycle of the flowers, the cycle of the years of her life – daffodils, sweet peas, roses, delphiniums, chrysanthemums, and beech leaves – and then daffodils again – hundreds of bowls of flowers representing hundred of hours’ work – and all quite useless. Cathy had never felt before that her life was useless and static, but now she could not dismiss the idea. Her reason told her that she was a useful member of society, for her family depended on her in all sorts of ways, and she gave each member of it something that he or she would have missed had it been withdrawn; but, in spite of this, her life seemed suddenly flat and stale and empty – and, worst of all, uneventful.
If Cathy could have stood apart and looked at her life from a distance, or stood still, poised between the past and the future, she would have been able to see that her life was not uneventful, and that it was certainly not static. Nobody’s life is static. … for, if nothing else is happening to them, there is change taking place in their own souls.
Cathy was unused to self-analysis. She was too busy thinking of other people to bother much about herself, so her sudden mood of self-pity took her by surprise, and after a few moments she gave herself a slittle shake and lifted her chin . . . . After all, I’m me, thought Cathy, and that’s always something. Nobody has ever been me before.

Mr Ferrier and Paddy are walking on the Roman Road and he is telling her about the Romans:

“So far from their homes!” said Paddy sadly.
Mr. Ferrier took the point. (He had often found that Paddy’s remarks, even when they seemed irrelevant, were not really irrelevant at all, but usually following a definite train of thought missing out several stations on the way.) “It is curious to think that the Romans, here in Britain, were farther from their homes than is possible in modern times,” he said thoughtfully. “I have not studied the matter seriously, but I believe it may be taken as a fact. There is no place in the world to-day so far from another place in time as the distance from here to Rome in 55 B.C. … ” [I’m not sure this is correct.]

George is trying to redirect Elma’s focus on him:

“Look here,” said George, “I’ll give you a book to read – a modern book that will teach you about the modern world. It’s no good filling your mind up with Sir Walter Scott and – and all that. Things are different now. You’ve got to live in To-day, so you had better learn about it.”
“Yes,” said Elma meekly.
George looked at his shelves and selected a couple of “Peter Wimsey” books. They were his own favourites and, as far as he could remember, they contained nothing which could bring a blush to the cheek of the most innocent maiden on earth. “You take these,” he said. “They’re all about a fellow called Peter Wimsey. You read them carefully and you’ll see what’s what. He’s a modern sort of chap, you know – not like Pendennis.”
“I like Pendennis,” Elma declared. “I think you resemble Pendennis. I thought so from the very – ”
“Oh, no, I don’t. And I don’t resemble Peter Wimsey, either,” said George.

(Later on, someone avoids a party by shutting himself in a room and reading Gaudy Night.)

The Lake District Murder (book #155)

16 August 2016

John Bude, 1935 (British Library reprint, 2014).

Book Cover

I was a bit disappointed by this as found it rather dull. I did like the way the detective doesn’t detect all the time: “On Sunday Meredith took a well-earned rest and spent a lazy day before a roaring fire with the newspapers and the wireless”. Also we are twice told about his “customary high tea”. I also liked the reference to zips, which makes it clear that they are a novelty:

” … Do you know what it is?”
Mrs. Arkwright shook her head …
“It’s a “zip” fastener,” said Meredith. “Ever seen one before?”
“‘How silly of me! Of course I have, now I come to think of it. Mrs. Grath next door but one has got a hand-bag that opens with one of them things. … “