Friday, 23 April 2021

A mixed bag of books

 The zoom book club meetings in February and March involved reading new novels and an old favourite. I was distinctly under-impressed with a couple of the new novels and fail to see how they garner such praise and remain for so long in the top ten list. I read 'Where the Crawdads Sing' on kindle which never enhances my reading experience. I gain much more with a physical book in my hands, although kindle does save my groaning bookshelves. The territory of this book was a very alien place for me and the story line and characterisation at times felt very contrived. It is the story of a young girl essentially left to grow feral and how she reacts to events by what she has observed from the nature around her. Some of the group loved it and it did make for a lively discussion, but it isn't a book that I would recommend.

The second book, first published in 2017, 'The Keeper of Lost Things' by Ruth Hogan I thoroughly disliked. I think it falls into the category of 'feel good' writing but it did nothing for me.

I found it slight and obvious. 
The author seemed to have a tick list to work through.
NOT recommended.

It was a relief to return to a much loved classic. Up for discussion was 'As I Lay Dying' by William Faulkner and, unlike the previous one, this book really makes the reader work hard. It is densely packed and the language of interior monologues takes a while to comprehend but it is well worth the effort. it was interesting for me to compare this book about a poor, ignorant rural family with  the Crawdads book, two depictions of rural America.

A present came in the post, a book of of poetry. What a delight! I was unaware that I knew her work but when I looked inside I realised that I knew some of the poems but had not registered her name. She is a wonderful discovery for me. The book is a hard back edition, a pleasure to handle.

With the libraries closed I've been rereading books in the house. (Message to self, in future never buy an omnibus edition, they are too heavy to read in bed!) How I enjoy my distinctive dark green Virago books. I especially enjoyed 'The Doves of Venus', it reminds me of pootling around London as an art student in the sixties. Seems a long time ago now!

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

January reading


The traveling library has been out of action for months and when you take a look at our sagging bookshelves you will understand why we sometimes order books on Kindle. I far prefer to hold a real book in my hands, to know where I am in the tale, to flick back at will. If it is a hardback with good quality paper and a suitable/clever cover (ever the picky illustrator) then so much the better. But our shelves are laden to the point of sagging, so when we are to read a book chosen by one of our reading group and know nothing about it we resort to Kindle. I think it lessens my enjoyment. In December we discussed Walter Kempowski's, 'All for Nothing', a bleak tale about everyday Germans in the 2nd World War. It engendered a good discussion but was a depressing book to read in troubled times. 

It was followed in January by Daniel Kehlmann's 'Tyll',  a book of magical realism mixing folktale, wonderful imagery and historical figures, all set in a romp through the thirty years war. Does that sound a hotch-potch?  Yes, it is, but delightfully so.

 I had recently read Muriel Spark's 'Symposium' but completely forgotten what it was about. After watching a programme about her on Sky Arts I picked the book up again. What a tricky character she was, and yes, you can see it in her writing. The book is quite wicked, she obviously had a lot of fun writing it. It is set around the members of a dinner party, and what a bunch they are. Biting satire. This writer can bump people off without a care!

I used to love Margaret Atwood's writing, especially her poetry but am left absolutely cold by her more recent work. 'The Testaments' is a follow-on to 'The Handmaid's Tale', written after a gap of thirty-five years. (I read it in a good quality hardback but even that didn't help!) I found it mannered and clunky. It actually made me cross. In her acknowledgement Atwood states that no event was allowed into the book that does not have a precedent in history and while this is always clear it feels very heavy-handed. It is coming up for discussion with my women's lit group later this month and I'm interested to find out what others think of it.

I'm still on the look-out for a REALLY FUNNY BOOK!

Monday, 4 January 2021

Grey days

 The months of January and February are grey times for me. When the Christmas decorations have been taken down and packed away for another year the rooms look rather spartan.  It is cold outside, but worst of all, grey. I find low light levels, day after day very depressing. 

In the light of the frightening rise in Covid cases I doubt there will be a local seed swap this spring so last night I placed my order online. My, what a price packets of seeds are when you have to buy them rather than store and swap! I think another full country lockdown will be announced any day soon, so I'm pleased that I had a good two inches lopped off my hair before Christmas. The fringe I can attack anytime with craft scissors.

I am hugging the fireside and doing lots of reading, dressed, in tune with the weather, in grey; a Gap blouse, a cashmere jumper and my cosiest wool and alpaca trousers from Nicole Farhi. The trousers are  big and baggy and gloriously comfortable. They are years old and the fabric is now dangerously thin in the bum - good job I'm not going anywhere! I regret that Farhi is no longer designing clothes but now works as a sculptress. I love everything I have that was designed by her.

A friend  sent me the Patchwork book by Claire Wilcox, an autobiography described through a series of short written pieces or more appropriately, 'patches', as her career is in the fashion department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Several well-known people are mentioned in the book but not named, so in places it is a bit of a guessing game and it did make me feel that I was viewing her information rather cloudily through carefully wrapped tissue paper. 
I did a short study course at the V&A when I was a student in London and have visited many times in the years since to wander through familiar rooms or to see special exhibitions, including  the Frieda Kahlo which was co-curated by Claire Wilcox.

This month the book club in Yorkshire, now held on zoom, will be discussing 'Lark Rise to Candleford', the semi-autobiographical trilogy of country life in Oxfordshire in the 19th century written by Flora Thompson (1876-1947). I bought this illustrated copy for my mother, since when it has gravitated, together with other family books, back to me. The red and white spotted cover copies the pattern of the large cotton handkerchiefs that could be tied at the neck or used to wrap up a chunk of bread and cheese for lunch out in the fields.
I enjoyed the book although I did think that the life she described was over sentimentalised or over-sanitised in places. She writes of the menfolk of the hamlet never getting drunk a biography states that her father was an alcoholic. She also states how healthy all the children were, despite them often going hungry, yet I seem to recall that when young men were called up for the First World War a great many of them were found to be severely malnourished.
It is going to be interesting to hear what the other book group members think of it. They live in a rural part of Yorkshire and may well consider that some aspects of Flora's life still continue in much the same way today.

The illustrations comprise old photos, reproductions of period paintings and pressed flowers and they cheered me up - the promise of spring to come!

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Fun fur!

 It is cold outside, but outside is the only place where I see and talk to anyone other than Himself. The current Covid death toll means that we are being ultra careful and no-one has been inside our house for months.  Thank goodness for my new fun fur coat, a present from  a daughter! It reminds me of my mother's voluminous old beaver coat. In it I look like a bear about to hibernate - but a warm bear, so that's okay.

For the first time ever we are going to be having Christmas without any family or friends around us. Government rules would allow us to meet but we have made our decision. It seems unwise just to throw caution to the wind after having been so careful all year. I think that we shall be eligible for a vaccine fairly early on in the New Year. (Elderly - moi! Decrepit - how dare you!)

When we and half the country have been jabbed we shall party. There will be many reasons to get together. The village plans a big party to welcome newcomers to our small community, we have friends whose deaths this year we intend to commemorate  in style and other friends who have been successfully dealing with cancer treatments. Bur really we don't need any excuse at all just to PARTY.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

A present from Yorkshire

 A parcel arrived last week from Betty's, a present of goodies from that well-known Yorkshire teashop. What a delight! Betty's was the shop that the family went to throughout my childhood if we wanted a treat, afternoon tea with my mother, but more usually a box of cakes chosen by my father, in which there would always be a vanilla slice, which was his favourite. When we visit Yorkshire now, (sigh - not since last January) the nearest Betty's is in Northallerton and it always tempts me in to buy a few things.

Of course, what has always made the food so delicious, delicately made and beautifully presented, is that it was created by a Swiss!

Presentation is something that I care about, having made my living in the past by illustrating a motley collection of  things; packets, wine bottle labels, cans and tins. All the Betty's packaging is very pleasing to the eye.

The purchase that I always make, however, is traditionally Yorkshire, a large curd tart. I think that Betty's is the tastiest one you can buy! Here in the south-west I make my own with  cottage cheese but when I was living in Yorkshire the farmer's wife used to give me the beestings, the rich milk produced when a cow has calved, and hers is the recipe that I use. 

Beestings would have been the original curds and whey that Miss Muffet ate. 

Dorothy Horner's Curd Tart.

5oz sugar and 4oz butter beaten to a cream.

12oz curds, a pinch of salt, half a teaspoon nutmeg

4oz currants and two or three eggs. Mix well.

gas mark 6 approx 25 minutes.

The secret is to be generous with the nutmeg!

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

September reading list

 Three of the books that I've read this month have been for the book clubs where, pre Covid, I was a rarely attending member. Now, thanks to zoom, I never need to miss a meeting. Following on from reading Dicken's 'Great Expectations' the Yorkshire group discussed 'Jack Maggs' by the Australian author Peter Carey.  In this book Jack is the convict Magwitch that we met in the Dickens novel now returned to London with a New World attitude and the wit to create a different outcome. This was a re-read for me and I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. From the opening sentence there is the pleasurable knowledge that you are in the hands of a capable storyteller. Knowledgable fun is poked at Dickens and Victorian attitudes and beliefs and I love the idea of an Australian writer giving a felon deported from England the whip hand over a variety of dubious home-grown characters!

The Lit Group discussed Tracy Chevalier's 'A Single Thread', a novel set in England in the 1932.

I had great hopes for this novel because it is such an interesting period in history. The first World War gave many women their first experience of independence, working outside the home in jobs that had been previously carried out by men. It was clear from the acknowledgements at the back of the book that the author had carried out diligent research but it did not, for me, translate into a convincing central character. The research also felt at times to be very heavy-handed .

The group were all pretty much of the same opinion, especially of the ending being so sweetly and unrealistically tidied up! There was lots to discuss; attitudes to lesbianism, the expectations of a single woman and what society expected of her.

I bought my copy second-hand online as I'm not going out and about shopping these days. It arrived looking rather battered, I think a previous owner has spilt a pot of coffee over it! It interests me that the line of thread links all across the dust jacket, complete with needle and scissors, echoing a design produced by my friend Janet Haigh for a novel by Howard Jacobson. (Janet's cover is far superior!)

For the FAB group, where a few of us were able to meet in person, we discussed  Cees Nooteboom's 'The Following Story', translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke. It is a novella in two parts and in the first part I didn't have a clue as to what was going on. As soon as I started on the second I said, "of course!"

I'm not going to tell you anything about it in case you are going to read it, except that in the first part there were bits that made me laugh and in the second there were things that made me cry.

Rather a beautiful book.

A friend lent me an Anne Tyler book. When I looked at the first page I realised that I had read it before, but it didn't stop me from enjoying it for a second time. I love her writing and it doesn't trouble me in the slightest that I forget which book is which, after all, some of her favourite characters pop up in more than one book. Unlike the Chevalier characters I can totally believe in the people whom Anne Tyler creates.

On kindle I've just finished reading, 'The Friend' by Sigrid Nunez. I've you've ever owned and loved a dog I think you will love this.

My other reading this month has been poetry and Carol Ann Duffy's, 'Answering Back' is a nice idea. She invited a number of poets to choose a poem and create their own response to it. It is a good way of reading old favourites and discovering new delights.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Dame Diana Rigg

Last week the death of the actress Dame Diana Rigg was announced on the news. I have always followed Diana's career with interest. We went to the same school, a small Moravian establishment in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It's strap line was that it was a school for 'young ladies' which always made my father snort derisively because he was accustomed to seeing me at the weekends clambering about up trees or wading in the stream wearing my brother's hand-me-down boy scout shorts, a very comfortable item of clothing in soft, beige corduroy.

Diana and I both had speech and drama lessons with Mrs Greenwood, an inspirational teacher who gave me my life-long love of poetry. I attended her classes because of my inability to pronounce the letter r. Calling myself, ' Losemaly' at age three or four might be considered cute, but it was a source of embarrassment by the time I got to seven and Mrs Greenwood and her tongue rolling exercises soon sorted me out. For the rest of my schooling I continued with speech and drama which involved parts in the school productions, Wharfedale festival competitions and theatre visits. 

Diana was a natural, as this entry in an old school magazine of 1951 demonstrates.

At the end of each academic year the school assembled in the hall and the headmistress would comment on what had been achieved throughout that year. If your name was called out you had to stand up and have the eyes of the entire school upon you.  In due course Diana had to stand while the headmistress announced that it would be good if her academic standard would only match her acting ability. Then Diana sat back down. How insulting. I was furious!

When she had left school and started her season at the Royal Shakespeare Company Mrs Greenwood organised a coach and we went to Stratford to see Diana playing the role of Helena in  'A Midsummer Night's Dream', the same role that I played at school. 

When she was made a dame I was delighted, she had given pleasure to thousands. I hoped that our old headmistress was still alive to eat her words!