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Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – A Round Up

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This month, we have been reading and discussing Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel, “In A Summer Season”. Although this is one of her later works, which are not reckoned so good by some readers, the book has been received in a surprisingly positive manner! In fact, it’s turned out to be a favourite of many.

The novel features as always Elizabeth Taylor’s deceptively simple style. But her subjects, as we have seen, are quite complex ones and this book tackled a number of difficult areas – an older woman marrying a younger man; the importance of sex in marriage; how important mental and emotional compatibility is; the effect of a younger, sexually motivated character on a group of people; and dramatic and unexpected death.

The novel also picked up themes from earlier works, in particular the compromises and sacrifices in marriage, and it may be because of its subject matter that it has such resonance with women readers.

There have been some lovely reviews:

http://laura0218.livejournal.com/85464.html

http://heavenali.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/in-a-summer-season-elizabeth-taylor-1961/

http://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/book-reviews-22/

If you’ve read and reviewed the book, don’t forget to add your post to the Mr. Linky on Laura’s site here.

I have enjoyed hosting the read-along (thanks to Laura for asking me and arranging the lovely short story book).  I am very much looking forward to following next month’s with Heavenali here – don’t forget to join in too!

A Short Trip Away!

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The slight gap in posts here is due to the fact that I’ve been off, with Youngest Child, to visit Middle Child in Leicester for a couple of days. We managed also to fit in a short call at the Aged Parents’ residence, which was lovely, as we haven’t seen them for a while. Middle Child has just completed her degree and is about to start fearsomely hard work on teacher training, so we figured it would be best to make our trip before the start of the new term.

Leicester is a rather nice city – very multicultural and very, very friendly. Everyone you seem to encounter, from people on buses to people in shops and cafes is just really nice. Maybe this is a by-product of a place being a University town, but I like it a lot. What I also like about Leicester is its book-shopping facilities (of course!) As well as a number of second-hand bookshops, there is also a good collection of charity shops. Needless to say, I had a good browse and came back with a few irresistible treasures. One of my favourite shops is the Loros Charity Bookshop:

Most books are priced at £2 and there is an excellent selection – I had to reject quite a few and spent just as much time prioritising and decided what I could manage to carry back home as I did browsing. So here are some pictures of my finds, and not all came from Loros.

First up, the Viragos. There were some very hard decisions to be made as I came across a lot of Viragos and couldn’t possible have them all:

The first four are rather lovely though – a beautiful hardback of “Diary of a Provincial Lady” (which many LibraryThing members seem to think you can never have too many of – and I’m starting to agree) – this was only £1 and so a bargain; a Margaret Atwood I don’t have (which is a novelty in itself as I thought I had everything); “The Tortoise and the Hare” by Elizabeth Jenkins; and “The Young Rebecca”, which sounded very interesting.

Then we have a couple of Christa Wolfs – my buying in Leicester was slightly dictated by whether the titles were ones I often saw second-hand, and these I certainly haven’t seen about in my usual haunts.

Next up, “I Will Not Serve” – a slim little Virago I’d not heard of, and it sounded intriguing.

That was all on the Virago front. However, I did come across some lovely old crime Penguins:

The Maigrets are particularly irresistible – I find I can’t put them down and usually read them in one sitting.

This is a miscellaneous selection – “The Moon and Sixpence” because it’s not in the set of Somerset Maugham I recently got; “Eating People is Wrong” because it looks nice and sounded funny; and the Ivy Compton-Burnett because I like that style of Penguin and I liked the first few pages!

Finally, “Berlin Noir” – this is highly rated and I like a good crime thriller. Since it was very, very cheap I thought I would give it a try.

So all in all, Leicester was a good book-buying city! It was lovely to see Middle Child and inspect the new house she’s moved into for her last year studying. I think she was a little shocked at the amount of books I picked up, but as I pointed out I read several just in the short time I stayed with her!

Old Favourites: The Garden Party and other stories by Katherine Mansfield

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Whilst turning out the garage recently (as you do) I came across a large box of Eldest Child’s books which have been lurking there since he finished at university, came home for a bit and then went off to a flat with a friend. So when he turned up recently I decided it was a Good Time for him to go through the box and see what he could get rid off and what he wanted to keep. Rather depressingly (or wonderfully, depending on how you look at it!) there were quite a number of volumes that I fancied reading and so quite a number were transferred to my shelves, (including a Virago Modern Classic for my collection – “Blow Your House Down” by Pat Barker). Anyway, one of the books was “The Garden Party and other stories” by Katherine Mansfield, another writer whose work I loved but whom I haven’t actually read for years. And heavenali had such a lovely review of “Bliss and other stories” here recently, that I really felt now was the time for a re-read and so spurred on I turned to Eldest Child’s volume, as mine is a little old and brown now!

This collection of Katherine Mansfield short stories was the last to be published in her lifetime and gathers 15 stories (plus this volume has a very interesting introduction by Lorna Sage). Of course, Mansfield’s language is quite lovely and you can quite see why Virginia Woolf considered her such a rival! The stories vary in length, from the more involved, atmospheric pieces like “At the Bay”, to the shorter pieces – many of which are no more than poignant vignettes, snapshots of an episode from a character’s life. The short story format was definitely the correct medium for Mansfield – she has the skill to capture all she needs to convey about a person or place with few words, and this economy of style is never boring. The locations vary from New Zealand to the south of France to London, and wherever they are set, most have an underlying sense of sadness.

I think that when I first read Katherine Mansfield I didn’t quite appreciate how much her stories reflected the situation of women in the early part of the twentieth century, the constriction of their lives and their lack of choice. In “At the Bay” the whole household of women relaxes when Mr. Burnell leaves for work; spinsters like Miss Brill fill their lives with play acting to convince themselves they are alive with a purpose; the “Daughers of the late Colonel” have been expected to sacrifice their lives to taking care of him and so on his death are, mouse-like, unable to take action about anything – life and love having passed them by; in “Mr. and Mrs. Dove” (which made me think of Virginia Woolf’s “Lappin and Lapinova”), despite Anne finding Reggie funny and feeling only friendship for him, she will most likely marry him rather than risk remaining single.

Not all the stories are so direct – some, like “The First Ball” deal with a potential loss of innocence, and how cynicism can be overcome by youthful joy. Others, like “Marriage a la Mode” and “The Stranger” deal with male jealousy as women start to spread their wings, dissatisfied with their lot or unwilling to completely surrender their whole being to their partner. There is a sense that so many of these women are vulnerable, living their life on a knife-edge and totally dependant on the whims of their men (“The Music Lesson”) – it takes very little to spoil their day, or their way of life (the young people laughing at Miss Brill’s fur).

But Mansfield does not only write of the well-to-do or would-be upwardly mobile. She has a very astute awareness of class differences – most noticeably in “The Garden Party”, when the sudden death of a labourer threatens the gilded cage of the Sheridans. More pointed is “Life of Ma Parker”, where Mansfield mocks the literary gentleman who has no idea of real life and grief. These stories pack a punch.

I loved reading these stories again, and actually found so much more in them that at first glance – maybe they need the perspective of age, or perhaps just a second reading, but Mansfield was a truly great writer and it’s a tragedy she died so young.

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season – Week 4 – Art Imitating Life (or Vice Versa)

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It’s week four of our read-along of “In a Summer Season” by Elizabeth Taylor, and hopefully everyone is getting along well with the book. This week I would like to consider a slightly controversial aspect of the novel as highlighted in Nicola Beaman’s biography of the writer. I suppose I should nail my colours to the mast here and state that I rate the biography very highly. I think Beauman did a remarkable job of presenting a balanced and fair book, straying on the side of discretion and handling the objections of the family as best she could. I accept that for some reason Taylor’s son and daughter objected to the book, but bearing in mind that Taylor’s husband had given his permission, I cannot see why. It’s not as if Beauman was portraying Taylor as a mad axe-murdered or child-abuser, after all, and it can’t be said that her behaviour resembled that of the narrator of “The Aspern Papers”! However, accepting that there are differing opinions, if you aren’t happy with the elements of the Beauman biog it may be best to look away now!

According to Beauman, in the mid 1950s while the Taylor family were living in Penn Cottage, they were friendly with the Blakely family. The son, David, is best known nowadays as having been killed by Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of the case or the hanging – I would simply refer you to the case of Edith Thompson and advise a reading of F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to See The Peepshow” (incidentally one of the best books I have ever read). But David was a friend of the Taylor family, had spent time with Elizabeth’s son Renny while he was ill, and Beauman asserts that the character of Dermot is based on David Blakely. Taylor’s daughter disputes this, but whatever the truth, Beauman quotes a letter from Taylor to Ivy Compton-Burnett admitting that she had been attracted to David and much of IASS is concerned with the aspect of the attractions of a younger man for an older woman. David Blakely was no young innocent (Wikipedia describes him as a hard-drinking racer, and he is reported to have beaten his girlfriend) and Dermot in IASS has some traits in common with him, with his fast cars and constant need for the nearest pub or bottle of whisky. Indeed, Dermot’s fecklessness and bad behaviour is portrayed as attractive and indulged at the start of the book but becomes dangerous and even fatal by the climax.

The milieu the characters occupy is that in which Taylor and her friends and family moved, and it is hard not to feel that Taylor is using her life and her surroundings in her art. Nicola Beauman considers this to be one of Taylor’s strongest books owing to the fact that she was writing about characters and places she knew well. I tend to agree with this view and I actually felt that this is the best Taylor I have read so far. But it is a common tendency in readers to conflate the writer and his/her characters and so it is hard to actually quantify how much of her own life Taylor put into her books.

So many of the Virago books we read could be described as presenting everyday life as art, and it occurs to me that this might be a particularly female type of writing.  Of course, I do feel that all authors use their lives in their work to a varying degree, and because of the limitations and constrictions of women’s lives in the past, their experience would be largely domestic. What do other readers think?

Old Favourites: Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin

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Edmund Crispin has long been one of my favourite Golden Age detective writers, though I’m not sure how popular he is generally as he is a little quirky! I came across his books many moons ago, and fell in love with his style, his eccentric detective Gervase Fen and the whole ambience of his works. Crispin was in reality a composer called Bruce Montgomery, and I only found out recently that he took his pseudonymous surname from one of the characters in Michael Innes’ novel “Hamlet, Revenge!” Oddly enough, one of the characters in that book is also called Gervase! In “Holy Disorders”, Appleby, Innes’ great detective, gets a few name-checks, so obviously there was a mutual admiration society going on here!

Crispin’s detective novels are characterised by their unusual plots, literary allusions, joking asides to the reader and many other quirks which make them instantly recognisable. His earlier works are generally considered his best, and “Holy Disorders” was his second, published in 1945. Gervase Fen is an Oxford don who moonlights as an amateur detective. He is larger than life, unpredictable, liable to rash behaviour and very, very funny (as well as being very smart). At the start of the story, which is set in the fictional Cathedral city of Tolnbridge in the West Country, Geoffrey Vintner (based on Crispin, I am sure), a minor composer, has been summoned there by Fen following an attack on the local organist. Vintner has been warned off by an anonymous letter and it soon becomes clear that someone is out to get him – possibly murder him. After encountering and gathering up a vague and unattached minor earl (Henry Fielding – yes, really!), the two set off for Tolnbridge where it becomes clear that all is not well in the precincts of the Cathedral.

This is a marvellous, marvellous book – full of just about everything you could want. It has – murder! spies! romance! witch trials! black magic! ghosts! humour! literary references! You name it, it’s in there! Crispin was a master of his craft and it’s always a joy to read his books. The plot itself, which I won’t reveal in detail, is ingenious and mystifying and the denouement not at all what you might expect. Because the book is set during the War there are elements of German spying and these sit well within the storyline (in much the same way they inform “Hamlet, Revenge!”) There are some genuinely creepy moments which had me a bit twitchy about reading late at night! And the characters are wonderful – Fen, Vintner and Fielding are teamed with the local Inspector (who is a slightly morose type); there are the various denizens of the Cathedral including Garbin and Spitshuker who have regular theological debates; the village locals including a somewhat suspicious pub landlord; and even a rogue don who has escaped from Oxford and is discovered behind a hedge!

My favourite part of the book is probably the chapter where Fen and Vintner pay a visit on the gloomy Garbin and on entering his study discover that he has a pet raven. As the scene progresses, our two detective discover that Garbin has a wife called Lenore and has never heard of Edgar Allan Poe! Things go downhill from there, and by the end of the chapter I am always laughing as much as Fen and Vintner – priceless!

Crispin is one of those authors I know well and I can rely on. I can just pick up one of his books and dip into without any hesitation and shut out the world around instantly. There are several authors that I feel like this about, and they’re nearly all crime writers – Dorothy L. Sayers (particularly “Gaudy Night”) and Agatha Christie spring to mind. He’s never been as well-known as his Golden Age counterparts but I believe he has something of a cult following, and I rate him very highly. If you want a funny, scary, exciting, puzzling, absorbing read, Crispin is for you!

Recent Reads: Let’s Kill Uncle by Rohan O’Grady

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I seem to be on a roll with Bloomsbury Group books lately – but this sounded so intriguing and as if it might be a little darker than the other two volumes I’ve read, so I decided this was the next to read. Again, a lovely cover, with a very clever design revealing One-ear the Cougar. My only disappointment was the fact that I read that the original book featured illustrations by Edward Gorey. Unfortunately, the Bloomsbury edition only has one  illustration as a frontispiece – bearing the wonderful legend “In an idyllic, peaceful island setting two charming children on a summer holiday conspire to execute the perfect murder – and get away with it.”

The book tells the tale of Barnaby Gaunt, a ten-year old orphan, who is travelling to a Canadian island to spend the summer with his Uncle. We meet him on the ferry to the island where he and another child, Christie, are causing havoc on board. Christie has also been sent to the island for the summer, by her mother, and she is staying with the wonderfully named Goat Lady. On arrival, the children encounter the local Mountie, Sergeant Albert Coulter, and soon set about causing havoc on the lovely island. The arrival of the slightly skewed Uncle, who is determined to kill Barnaby for his fortune, forces the children into drastic action – who will succeed in killing who?

This is a beautifully written book with a fantastic supporting cast of characters: Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, who run the island’s shop, have never recovered from the loss of their son in the War, and take Barnaby in as a kind of substitute; Lady Syddyns and Miss Proudfoot are the island’s two venerable old dames, one quiet and a lover of gardening, the other forceful and taking no nonsense; Mr Duncan the farmer and his poor, downtrodden daughter Agnes; Mr. and Mrs. Rice-Hope, the vicar and his wife; the lovely Goat-lady who mothers the children very effectively.

This is quite a dark tale; one which on the surface could be considered quite shocking. The subject of murder is discussed quite casually, and no obvious moral judgements are passed by the author on the actions of the various characters. However, there are hidden depths here – the book is set after the war, and there are no children on the island as all the young people (with the exception of Albert Coulter) were killed in the fighting. The sadness of those who lost their loved ones is portrayed very movingly through Mr. and Mrs. Brooks. In a dramatic dream sequence, Albert recalls the effect of man’s inhumanity to his fellow-man and the anti-war sentiment runs throughout the book. The character of Uncle Sylvester is the most disturbing – at first somewhat cartoon-like, he soon becomes revealed as an evil piece of work, reading de Sade and mentally torturing Barnaby in a really unpleasant way. It came as no surprise to find he had made his way successfully through the War but had obviously been perceived by his colleagues as something of a psychopath.

Although superficially a macabre little tale, this novel actually packs quite a punch with its sub-plots. There is an underlying theme of loneliness – all of the characters, in one way or another, are suffering from this. Barnaby, through lack of family; Christie has an absent father and an overworked mother; Sergeant Coulter has no family, is somewhat isolated from the rest of the Village owing to having survived the War and he nurses a hopeless romantic passion; the Brooks couple have lost their son; Miss Proudfoot loses her pet; Lady Syddyns is a widow; the Goat-Lady’s son is away most of the year; Agnes Duncan through the iron control of her father who basically uses her as slave labour; and so on. Even One-ear the Cougar lives in isolation and unhappiness, and his interior monologues are surprisingly effective.

The book also makes a strong point about things not being as they seem. The children are basically good, their bad behaviour stemming from their environment and circumstances, and once they are in stable, loving surroundings they blossom and change. The metaphor of the statues in the New York museum so beloved of Sergeant Coulter, which turn out to be fake, is another case in point. And Uncle Sylvester is the prime example – fooling the islanders with his acting and convincing them that he is a good man, only concerned for the safety of his poor nephew, when his behaviour is revealed to be quite appalling. He is already a mass murdered by the time he comes to the island and presumably represents the madness of a War that would allow such a man to thrive. Even One-ear has hidden depths and is not what he is seen to be by the islanders and children. Fortunately, the book ends very satisfactorily, with justice being meted out as necessary, and the fact that I slightly guessed who would kill who didn’t spoil things at all!

I loved this book – the quality of the plotting, writing and the storyline were wonderful on their own, and it was very much an unputdownable read. But the different levels added so much and got quite a few messages across without getting in the way of the entertainment. I believe a rather sensational film of the book was made, which I haven’t seen and I’m not sure I would want to now – if it didn’t contain the subtle messages about life and the human condition, it wouldn’t be doing this marvellous book justice!

Recent Reads: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris/New York by Paul Gallico

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Following on from my first read of a Bloomsbury Group reprint (“Miss Hargreaves”) I thought that it might be time I made the acquaintance of Mrs. Harris, who also comes highly recommended. It seems that Paul Gallico wrote four books of Mrs. Harris’s escapades, of which this book contains the first two, and it’s a very pretty Bloomsbury Group edition. I own three of these volumes now, and the design is super – a pastel cover with black silhouette design on the front, which varies and is relevant to the plot – very nice!

Anyway, Mrs. Harris (or ‘Arris, as she appears often) is a Cockney char from Battersea in London and has spent a straightforward, hard-working life, until she spies a Christian Dior dress in one of the client’s wardrobes. From that point on, her life changes – possessed with a need to own a Dior dress of her own, she scrimps and saves and has a small pools win until she has enough to fly off to Paris to find her dress. Needless to say, all does not go smoothly at first, but Mrs. Harris in her straightforward way affects people for the better – like a kind of magical creature she changes lives and attains her desires. while helping others with hers.

There’s a lovely array of supporting characters, some of whom are – Mrs. Butterfield, who is Mrs. Harris’s best friend, fellow char and back up when she needs help with her work; Mme Colbert, M. Fauvel and Natasha the model who all work at Dior; and the Marquis Hipolyte de Chassange, a venerable gentleman who has a pivotal role to play in the follow-up, “Mrs. Harris Goes to New York”.

The second volume, “Mrs. Harris goes to New York”, has a more convoluted plot, involving an attempt to get an orphan boy away from a hideous family and back to his American father, plus Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Butterfield helping Mrs. Schreiber, an American client, settle back into New York and get some proper staff. Along the way, Mrs. Harris explores a surprising amount of American and matters are eventually resolved, although once again, not in too predictable a way.

These were fun books, an engaging read, but not quite what I expected. I suppose I thought they would be something like “Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day”, which is one of the best feel-good books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t quite work out what it was about the Mrs. Harris stories that didn’t feel quite like “Miss Pettigrew” and reflecting on it, I think it was the fact that Gallico had to keep sticking a moral in. The spoiling of the dress; the constant set-backs and problems that beset Mrs. Harris and all her endeavours; the fact that in the end, Mrs. Harris has to be kept in her place, despite the fact she could charm the birds down from the trees, and have the captain of a ship in the palm of her hand. She has all these fine qualities and all these wonderful effects on people, but somehow is always let down. I also found Gallico’s homilies and cultural comments to be just a tad patronising at times – but this could be due to my reading the books from a 21st century viewpoint and not from the 1950s/1960s.

Maybe I’m being a little hyper-critical – “Miss Pettigrew” had a wonderful resolution where you felt everything ended up quite as it should be, and there’s no doubt that the Mrs. Harris books I’ve read so far have had happy endings. I just didn’t get quite as big an emotional lift from them as I expected – but there was some lovely description, a lot of humour that had me actually laughing out loud, and I did enjoy them – it will be interesting to see the effect Mrs. Harris has on Russia when I get to read the later books!

(Just don’t mention the cringingly clichéd Cockney accent…….)

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