Month: April 2010

A thoroughly lovely day!

Well, for those of us not trapped somewhere we don’t want to be by Volcanic Ash, hasn’t it been just a thoroughly lovely day?! It certainly has been here in London, where the skies have been a glorious cornflower blue and the sun has been shining down on us. My dear friend Emma and I, who have been inseparable since surviving university digs together from the age of 18, regularly spend Saturdays together having ‘tourist days’ in London, where we make the effort to go to areas of London we don’t habitually visit, or to museums and other sights of interest that would normally pass us by. We had planned one for today, and we couldn’t have been more blessed with the weather!

Today we stayed South of the river, travelling from Emma’s flat in Hackney to Cheyne Row in Chelsea, where we visited the absolutely wonderful Carlyle’s House, home of the famous Victorian couple of letters, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, which has been virtually untouched since their deaths and is now owned by the National Trust. Today Cheyne Row is a blissfully quiet, peaceful street of early Victorian terraces just off the King’s Road, and it would cost you several million pounds to live down it. However, back in the Carlyle’s day, it was an undesirable street outside of the heart of London that was populated with shops and warehouses and was considered to be damp and unhealthy due to its proximity to the river. The pair were not wealthy, and as such their house is fairly sparsely furnished and not showy or cluttered as I had expected. It felt cosy, intimate, and lived in, and I especially was touched by the very personal objects, such as Carlyle’s pen, that remain in situ. It is quite rare to find homes untouched since the Victorian age these days and I absolutely loved experiencing the ambience and decoration of a home of that era. I don’t know much about the Carlyle’s, but I have Thea Holme’s biography of the pair, The Carlyle’s At Home, published by Persephone, so I shall be reading that for Persephone Reading Week now.

After spending some time roaming through the house and relaxing in the pretty walled garden, we headed off to Brixton, where we ate superb pizzas with capers, olives and anchovies at Franco Manca, a well known pizza restaurant that cooks pizza the Naples way. We queued for about 20 minutes to the sounds of Caribbean music pumping out of the surrounding market shops and salivating at the sight of all these wonderful pizzas being devoured by the eager diners. I am something of a pizza obsessive and so I was nearly wetting myself with excitement by the time mine arrived; needless to say it was absolutely delicious and if you ever find yourself in the proximity of Brixton, I urge you to pay a visit!

Fed and watered, we then hopped on a bus to Vauxhall, where we came across the most gorgeous island of yellow tulips on our brief walk from the bus stop to the Tate. We popped into the Tate to see my favourite painting; Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, by Singer Sargeant, and then had a little lie down outside in the sun. It was just the most lovely afternoon and we couldn’t have had more fun if we’d tried.

Oh, and last night I saw Julie and Julia, at long last, which I absolutely adored. Meryl Streep is officially the most wonderful actress on earth and I just loved her portrayal of Julia Child, who came across as such a lively, warm hearted and joyful person. I would have loved to have known her; she seemed to have such a boundless enthusiasm for life and that is the quality I most aspire to cultivating in myself. I am now having absurd thoughts of cooking my own way through Julia Child’s cook book. All that butter…all that cream…


Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Well, what a magnificent and eye opening read this was! I have to hold my hands up and say this was given to me back in the 90’s – yes, that’s right – I’ve had this book for over a decade and not read it (and it’s not the only one – that’s why I really did need to do a book ban!) – and it has been long overdue a read. It was its choice as a V&A Book Club read that finally made me pick it up, and I am delighted that I did.

First things first, I am writing this post taking the view that most people know the plot and the ending of this novel, and as such won’t have anything ruined for them by me discussing the plot much more in depth than I usually do. If you haven’t read Of Mice and Men, and don’t want the plot to be spoiled for you, I’d suggest you don’t read any further!

Of Mice and Men is well known to be a novel about friendship, loyalty, loneliness, and the American Dream. It appears to be a very simplistic, very thematic, not much going on between the lines sort of book. Two guys, one huge, strong, and simple; a friendly giant, if you will, named Lennie, and one small, wiry, wise guy with a dream, named George, travel together across the Depression hit United States, drifting from ranch to ranch, getting their $50 here, and $50 there, working other men’s land. They haven’t got anything but each other; a deep affection, despite their obvious differences, exists between them, and as much as George protests about Lennie being a millstone around his neck, without whom he’s be able to live his life the way he really wanted, they both know that they need each other in their own ways, and will never willingly be parted.

From its very first pages, this novel has a sense of foreboding about it that lets the reader know that no good will come from this job, and that no happy endings will come to fruition for these men. The two guys carry on to the latest ranch where they will work for a month, get their ‘stake’ and hopefully save enough to get a patch of land of their own, where Lennie can raise his beloved rabbits and they can both have a secure home that gives them the ability to do as they please. It all just seems too simple; too good to be true. The ranch is a place of barren masculinity; the big, draughty barn, the clinical bunks, the apple boxes nailed to the walls as shelves for their personal bits and pieces; razors, soap and dog eared top shelf magazines. It is a place where every man is for himself. They are all alone in the world, living transient lives that discourage relationships and attachments to people, to places, to things. To the men already at the ranch, Lennie and George’s situation is completely odd, and as such, they are suspicious of their relationship from the start. What are they hiding by keeping together? Why does George speak for Lennie? Is Lennie really as harmless as he appears? Around every corner seems to lie suspicion, questions, danger.

Quickly, however, George and Lennie’s arrival appears to create a new sense of camaraderie amongst the men, especially as Curley, the boss’s son, takes an instant dislike to the new arrivals, and threatens to ruin their chances of making their ‘stake’. The men band together to protect Lennie and George, and when Lennie crushes Curley’s hand after he accuses George of flirting with his wife, the men round on Curley to let him know it won’t be worth his while squealing to his Daddy. Lennie and George walk into the ranch with the confidence of having a dream, and believing they will achieve it. This rubs off on the men around them, who seek their friendship, and even ask to join them on their piece of land, which is almost in sight. Hope exists, if only for a little while, and this only serves to underline the previous hopelessness and loneliness of these rancher’s lives.

The men live in a world closed to females, and women are not welcome unless sought in the stripbars of the local town. Curley’s wife, a coquette, dressed in red, prowling around the barn in search of someone, anyone, who will pay attention to her, is not an attraction but a danger zone; her presence signals trouble, and trouble is what these men can’t afford to stir up. It is somewhat inevitable that she will be the catalyst for the novel’s tragic ending; she picks the wrong man to flirt with in the childishly innocent Lennie. Lennie, as we find out from the beginning of the book, likes to pet small animals. Mice, puppies, rabbits; if it’s got fur, he’ll stroke it. Sadly, he doesn’t know his own strength, and so his pettings too often turn to crushings. When Curley’s wife offers to let Lennie stroke her hair, she doesn’t realise how strong he is, and soon her distress angers Lennie, who shakes her violently to make her stop screaming, breaking her neck in the process. This is a bad thing Lennie knows he’ll be in big trouble for, but this time there is no easy way out, and George’s decision to kill Lennie humanely before Curley does so brutally, is an eerie and not entirely comfortable echo of an earlier incident in the novel when Candy, a fellow rancher, is forced by another of the men to put his faithful dog, his only friend, down. Afterwards, he laments allowing another of the men to do the deed –  it was his dog, and he should have been the one to shoot him – and it is this sentiment that influences George to go and shoot his own faithful friend, who has stuck by him through thick and thin, to prevent him from suffering at the hands of another.

We had quite a heated discussion at book group for a book that appeared so thematically simple. There is a lot going on underneath the surface that we picked up on. We thought about why it was that these men preferred to work in such an environment, travelling alone, moving on regularly, never settling down. Were they not able, or just not willing, to form deep enough attachments to people to want to stay somewhere permanently? Their keenness to get to know Lennie and George shows their deep seated need for human relationships, so why have they chosen to turn their backs on a conventional, community based life? Was it fear? We thought about the deep loyalty Lennie and George share, and how indicative it is of the natural human reaction to protect those amongst us who are weak. We (well, cynical me, anyway) also thought about whether Lennie was as innocent as he appeared. It interested me that every time he caused harm, he did so in anger; he crushed Curley’s hand despite being told by George to let go; he threw his puppy against a wall after he realised he’d be in trouble for hurting it; he shook Curley’s wife because her screaming threatened to get him in trouble. I don’t claim that Lennie is malicious; all he ever wants to do is not get in trouble so that he can pet his rabbits; but his natural response to harm others when angered did make me question whether he was the ‘gentle giant’ he is superficially painted as. I felt a latent danger in Lennie that George was desperately trying to cover up the whole way through. And what about how easily George and Candy give up that dream of living on their own patch of land at the end? Did they ever really want the American Dream anyway, or is it easier for them to just carry on drifting, no ties, no responsibilities, forever? Finally, was it right for George to take Lennie’s life? Can a man be treated the same as a dog? As lovingly as George did it, can it ever be justifiable for a man to make such a decision on behalf of another? We weren’t sure. Lennie died happy, but need he have died at all? Much to discuss. We argued, disagreed, and came to the conclusion that we all loved it anyway, regardless of our views on the plot and the motivations behind the characters’ actions.

So a short, but incredibly powerful, and moving novel that explores what it is to be human from a variety of different angles. I loved it. I loved the writing style. I loved the setting. I loved the brooding, masculine atmosphere. I loved everything about it. And now I want to read everything Steinbeck ever wrote. Anyone got any recommendations?

Spring Cleaning

A bit of a mish-mash of stuff for you today. A little spring clean of thoughts from my brain, if you will!

Firstly, an update on how my no book buying is going. I am pleased to say that, at almost a third of the way through the year, I’m still going strong! I have been helped by review copies here and there and wins from blogs, which I am thankful for, but they have been few in number. I have bought a few books as gifts for other people, of course, but nothing for myself apart from a copy of the Patchwork book I have a starring role in, which I don’t think can be held against me! It hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be, actually. For someone who used to buy A LOT of books every month, I have found it surprisingly easy to curb my desire to accumulate more books. I think moving house really helped on this front – boxing up my books made me realise how many I have, and how many I haven’t read. Some had sat on my shelf for about five years and I hadn’t even opened them. It was absurd! I was obsessively looking for hidden treasure in bookshops when I had plenty on my shelves as it was. I really did feel quite ashamed at how I had allowed myself to accumulate so many unread books – I felt like a greedy child who had eaten all the chocolate in the cupboard! It was the thrill of the chase that did it – I loved the excitement of finding books I wanted, of spotting those rare titles, of getting bargains – but now when I go in a bookshop that thrill is still there, but it’s accompanied by a very big helping of Common Sense that reminds me how many unread books I have at home. When I think ‘Oooh what a beautiful copy of Insert Book Name Here, I really want that book’ , Common Sense says ‘Rachel, you have five unread books by that author at home already. Do you really need another?!?!’ And then I think ‘No! I don’t need this!” and walk away. It’s a revelation!

I have enjoyed rediscovering my bookshelves; I’ve even enjoyed decluttering them, and giving away or selling books I didn’t feel the need to hold on to. Books will always be precious to me, I will always love collecting them, and I will never be able to resist going into a bookshop, but I now can say no to buying up everything in sight and this is liberating indeed. I don’t even know whether I’ll be in a hurry to start buying again once I am ‘allowed’ to – I’m sure there will still be plenty of unread books on my shelves after the year is up, and it makes no sense for me at this stage in my life to keep amassing so many books when I have nowhere permanent to keep them and have to keep lugging them around with me every time I move, which is frequently.  If I see a book in a shop that I want, I just remind myself that it will still exist for me to buy in five years’ time when I will probably get around to reading it – so I can just wait until then. No book of the type I buy will ever truly be unobtainable. So, I can afford to sit tight until I’m actually ready to read a book, and then buy books as and when I need them. In short, I am a changed woman. Quite a feat!

In my reading life I have just finished a lovely self published book written by my dear friend Traci, who decided that she was going to finally achieve her ambition of writing a novel last year. She wrote it during NANOWRIMO and then had it beautifully made up into a book, and I am so proud of her and her dedication to achieving her treasured goal. The book is called Foreclosed: A Mitzi Neuhaus Mystery, and is a fun and drama filled tale of a bubbly young Real Estate agent, Mitzi, who gets caught up in a web of theft, lies and missing Romanov jewels when trying to save an old mansion from being sold to her arch rival. For a first novel, I thought it was fantastic, and the plot is so inventive! I would encourage anyone who likes a good mystery to give it a go, and I have a copy to give away if anyone would like to read it – just let me know in the comments and I’ll do a draw if there’s more than one. Anywhere worldwide is fine.

I do think self publishing is interesting – anyone can now see their name in print – and I think there should be more opportunities for people to sell their work in bookshops. I for one would love to be able to walk into Waterstones or Foyles (I don’t think the UK has any other book chain stores left now!) and see a display of self published books by local authors. As it’s so hard to get published by one of the big houses these days, more and more people who are very talented aren’t getting the opportunities to have their work made known and this is a great shame. It does annoy me that there are huge marketing pushes on terrible books like reality TV star biographies and celebrity ghost written novels when people who are genuinely good writers can’t even get their foot in the door. Has anyone tried self publishing? I’d be interested to know if anyone has and how they’ve gone about trying to market and sell their work. Just out of interest,  mind you – I’m not planning on hawking my wares any time soon!

In other news, it’s a sunny day in London today, which is always a pleasure, I’ve stuffed my face with a huge cream slice from the posh bakery down the road from work and am now regretting it, and I am looking forward to Book Club tonight, in which we will be discussing Steinbeck’s incredible Of Mice and Men, which shockingly I had never read before. I’ll be reviewing that in the next couple of days. Currently I am reading Angela Carter’s Wise Children for Claire at Paperback Reader’s Angela Carter month, which is proving to be a riot – what an original and neglected author she is! Right..back to work for me!

Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge

As Ann Bridge’s books are so hard to get hold of I have not been in a rush to read the few books of hers I have managed to locate, so it took a long plane journey for me to finally crack Peking Picnic open. And I’m so glad I did. It didn’t supercede my love of Illyrian Spring, but it came very close. Ann Bridge is such a superb writer and her characters are all absolutely, marvellously, touchingly real, so much so that I could hardly bear to close the pages on them.

Like Illyrian Spring, Peking Picnic is set on foreign shores, this time in 1930s China. It is ostensibly about a group of people attached to the Foreign Legation in Peking going on a three day trip to a temple in the countryside on the outskirts of the city. However, it’s really about so much more than this, and this is what I love about Ann Bridge’s writing; her novels are never what they seem on the surface. As with Illyrian Spring, Bridge weaves a beautiful picture of a foreign country and of a journey through it, but the real story lies in the inner lives of her characters, and the complexities of their emotions and thoughts as they progress through the events of the novel. For many of them, it will turn out to be a journey of self discovery and personal growth that they never imagined when they set off, and it is this aspect of the novel that provides the real drama, despite the genuinely dramatic incidents that will end up happening over the three days.

The story centres around Laura Leroy, admired by all, and a wonderful, sensitive and wisely written character. She is a 37 year old diplomat’s wife, who has lived in Peking for eight years. She misses England, and it pains her to be away from her beloved children, who are at boarding school, but she also loves the Chinese people, speaks Chinese fluently, and adores Peking and the local countryside. She feels like she is caught between two worlds, and it is this otherworldly quality that makes her such an interesting and complex woman to know. Laura’s marriage is barely described; we never meet her husband, except for hearing his voice through walls, which is telling in itself. They are merely ‘fond’ of one another, and for a woman capable of great love and affection, this is clearly not enough. Interestingly, Laura doesn’t have any moral objection to falling in love and having significant relationships with other men despite being married; she believes that as long as she loves everyone she is in a relationship with genuinely and deeply, it doesn’t lessen the existing ties she has. I thought this was a very daring philosophy to express considering that this book was written in the early 1930’s, and normally I would baulk at it, but somehow, it made complete sense in the light of Laura’s nature.

Laura is wise and contemplative, and the journey to the temple undertaken by the party of various different men and women, all of varying ages, nationalities and personalities, finds each of the characters at some point relying on Laura’s qualities to advise, encourage, inspire and help them. It’s difficult to say much more than this without ruining the plot, but each character is going through a different stage of their lives during the Picnic; some are discovering themselves, others are discovering what it is to love, and what it will cost to sacrifice themselves for it. Laura finds herself at the centre of these personal discoveries, while also falling in love herself, and trying to work out whether her own life is giving her the satisfaction she so clearly gives to others.

This is a beautiful, thoughtful, and quietly moving novel that is filled with the tremendously gentle, worldly wisdom of Ann Bridge that I so enjoyed reading in Illyrian Spring. There isn’t a huge amount of action, but there doesn’t need to be; all of the plot and all of the interest is in the characters and their relationships both with each other and with their inner selves. I also greatly enjoyed the depiction of China and its people; as a diplomat’s wife herself, Ann Bridge was very well travelled and clearly has a real knowledge of and affection for Peking and its natives. Peking Picnic was a real treat to read and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a novel that reveals the vagaries and beauties of the human soul; Ann Bridge very much reminds me of Dorothy Whipple in that respect.

As many of you will know, I LOVE Ann Bridge and it really is criminal that she is largely out of print; thankfully Capuchin Classics have seen sense and Peking Picnic will once again be available in paperback in May, so do watch out for that. In the meantime my one woman campaign to get Illyrian Spring, one of the most marvellous books I’ve ever read, back in print continues. I’m no Erin Brockovich but I am determined to succeed; if you agree with me do petition Persephone as I would love for them to reprint this absolutely marvellous book to allow its beauty to touch many, many more people than just us lucky few who have come across it second hand!

More musings on travelling, with a cameo from Nancy Mitford

I’m back in the swing of things now; it’s my first day back at work today, and in between answering the deluge of emails in my inbox, I am allowing my mind to wander back to those sun filled African skies that now seem so far away. It’s funny how quickly you reacclimatise to life; this time last week I was wandering around a traditional African market in the blazing heat, soaking up the culture and enjoying being able to meander at my leisure through the busy streets of a foreign city. I couldn’t imagine ever going back to my normal routine, and had my usual holiday daydreams of going back to London, chucking it all in and boarding a plane to Anywhere But Here, with nothing but a small suitcase and a spirit of adventure to accompany me.

But here I am, back at my desk, and already it feels like I never went on holiday as I whack on my ipod, elbow annoying slow people out of my way as I travel around on the London Transport system and let my head get resubmerged into work and London and the life I have here. It’s not a bad job, or a bad life, and I am far from dissatisfied, but it always surprises me how, whenever I go on holiday, I feel a unique sense of freedom and connection with a ‘me’ I never normally get to be. It makes me realise how stifled I am by my everyday life; how little of what I do on a daily basis actually reflects my dreams, my ambitions, my beliefs, my desires.  What if I didn’t have to sit at this desk from 9-5.30 every day? What if I didn’t have to pay extortionate London rent every month? What if I forgot about what I am supposed to be achieving and started living the life I want to live rather than the life I am expected to? What could I be capable of? If I never make any changes, I’ll never know. I decided at the beginning of this year that this was going to be the year of radical change, and my trip to South Africa has cemented my desire to dare to be different and take the plunge into new waters. I’ve already started putting quite a few wheels into motion, and, if things work out the way I hope they will, I’ll have exciting news to report before long about where my life is heading!

So, enough about me and more about books. On my behemoth of a solo plane journey from London to Istanbul, Istanbul to Joburg, and Joburg to Cape Town (it was a very cheap flight), I only managed to read one and a half books, as I watched a couple of films (Amelia, which was so-so, and The Proposal, which I LOVE), had a little sleep, and did a lot of wandering around foreign airports. If you ever do a stop over in Istanbul, check out the Bazaar with the baskets and baskets full of free turkish delight in all different flavours; it’s amazing! As I was feeling a bit nervous about the flight and all the changeovers I had to do, I took along some comfort reading in the shape of Nancy Mitford’s masterpieces, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. I read the former many years ago, and never got around to reading the sequel, so I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in the world of the Mitfords again.

The Pursuit of Love instantly became a favourite with me when I first read it, and I loved it all over again as I laughed out loud at the exploits of the Radlett family: “always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair, they loved or they loathed, they lived in a world of superlatives”. It centres around the beautiful Linda, taking in the lives of her lovers, siblings, and parents, all lovingly narrated by her eminently sensible cousin Fanny, whose mother, nicknamed ‘The Bolter’, a glamorous commitment-phobe, is the stuff of family legend. Having read the biography of the sisters by Mary S Lovell last year, I instantly recognised many of the characters. Vague Aunt Sadie and explosive Uncle Matthew are Lord and Lady Redesdale to a T; the ravishing and implusive Linda is, of course, Nancy’s younger sister Diana Mosley. Fanny weaves a tale of a loud, dysfunctional and irrepresibly funny family, who are bound together by a love strong enough to forgive their many indiscretions. Uncle Matthew rules the household with an iron fist, or so he likes to believe, but his soft heart is his undoing, as his inability to avoid allowing his children to find ‘the thin end of the wedge’ of every punishment inevitably results in them always getting their own way. Aunt Sadie has her head in the clouds, but comes down every now and again to give out half hearted reprimands and support her children in their various endeavours. Linda and Fanny are desperate to ‘come out’ and enter the real world; they dream of falling in love and getting married, and discuss this endlessly in the ‘Hon’s Cupboard’, along with the other Radlett children. They manage to marry fairly quickly, but it is Linda’s disastrous love life, weaving its way through 1920s London, the Spanish Civil War, pre war Paris and finally war torn England that provides the plot of this hilarious and at times very moving novel that so clearly captures the eccentric and lively world the Mitfords inhabited. It’s absolutely chock full of hilarious quotes I could copy down and delight you with for hours, and it really did entertain and charm me all over again. Nancy Mitford has such an eye for people, and for picking out their ridiculous qualities; she had some excellent inspiration, but still, she had a great gift.

Love in a Cold Climate, a loose sequel to The Pursuit of Love, wasn’t quite up to the same standard in my opinion, largely because there wasn’t enough of the Radletts for my liking! It is again narrated by Fanny, and Polly, the main character, is a distant relation of hers who she stays with often, and is a neighbour of the Radletts. I thought this was a bit tenuous as there was no mention of such a character in The Pursuit of Love, but I soon got over it. Polly is a beautiful heiress about to ‘come out’, but she shows no interest in men, much to her vain and difficult mother’s distress. Unfortunately it soon turns out that she is in love, but with the highly unsuitable ‘Boy’ Dougdale, her Uncle through marriage, who ‘fooled around’ with the Radlett girls as children and has been her mother’s longstanding extra marital lover. This causes terrible problems amongst her family, and also for the Radletts, who are intimately involved, and things only get more complicated when the outrageously gay Cedric Hampton, heir to Polly’s father’s entailed fortune, turns up on the scene. It’s very funny, and wise, and filled with the same brilliant larger than life characters as The Pursuit of Love, but it lacked the charm and cosiness of its predecessor for me. Still highly recommended, though.

I know a lot of people have posted about Nancy now that Penguin are republishing her, and I am glad she is having a mini renaissance. I am anxious to read the nice new edition of Don’t Tell Alfred, which completes the triology of novels Fanny narrates. The previously unavailable Wigs on the Green has also intrigued me, though I have heard from several reliable sources that it’s not quite up to the mark. All I know is that a novel by a Mitford is always going to interest me due to their shameless use of personal friends and relatives as material, so whether they’re well written or not, they’ll always be entertaining! I’ll be asking for these two for my birthday and I’ll let you know how I get on.