Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras

My housemate Melissa (not to be confused with a different housemate Melissa, who has also written the odd book review for SIAB) wanted to borrow a book, and ended up with one I was given but have yet to read - Apricots at Midnight (1977) by Adèle Geras. As always, I encourage my friends to write reviews for SIAB. This is seldom taken up, but thankfully Melissa said yes, and wrote this fab review! Do (as always) make my guests feel welcome in the comments section... and enjoy the review:

Small pleasures. I picked this book off Simon’s shelf at his first words of description, without waiting for the rest: ‘That one is a children’s book.’ I love books written for children; the unpredictable-but-safe plotlines, the freshness of the detail, the firing of the imagination; and this one did not disappoint.

Actually, this is the sort of book that as a child I didn’t really appreciate. It’s one of those books which describes someone’s childhood memories, and why, I would wonder, should I read about another person’s everyday life when my own was so interesting and there were plenty of books about daredevil escapades, fantastic worlds, or true-to-life explorations? It’s only through growing up (a little bit) that I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of the everyday and of simple, happy memories.

This book is built around a quilt; a quilt sewn together, patch by patch, by the narrator’s elderly relative Aunt Pinny, from fabrics picked up throughout her life. Each patch is tied to a story, the cue to a memory of long ago. The apricots of the title relate to the first ball Pinny attended, a little girl sneaking down to join her working mother for a midnight snack.

A child’s perspective is so different: everything is fascinating, but nothing is truly surprising. For Pinny, the line between make-believe and reality is not particularly important; there’s no disappointment when the adventurer Major Variana admits his limp was gained by dropping a crate of oranges on his foot rather than being bitten by a crocodile, and no questioning of his reassurance ‘That was the only made-up story, I promise you’. In her old age, Pinny retains this childlike ability to take her experiences at face value, so that the tone of the book hinges slightly on the fantastic.

The individual salient events, people and places slowly build a picture of the beauty of Pinny’s daily life. The emergent character in the backdrop is her mother: thrown from prosperity at the death of her husband, and fighting to build a life for herself and her daughter on the strength of her dressmaking skills. She is the constant in Pinny’s life, tying the book together, providing stability and a structure. It is she who first suggests the quilt and teaches a tiny Pinny to hold a needle and make her first stitches. Like a fairy godmother, she can always produce something from whatever nothing is to hand: a garden for a convalescent Pinny from scraps of flowered fabric; an extra sixpence when Pinny’s allowance isn’t quite enough for the music box she wants to buy; an overnight job at Mrs Triptree’s ball so that Pinny can see the ladies in their beautiful costumes.

There is a chance for Pinny to be involved in everything she does – sitting in on meetings with unusual and exotic guests, contributing a not-so-successful stuffed zebra to the soft toy stall at the church fair, cutting out the jam tarts for a picnic. Her tears and remorse on the day she is delayed picking Pinny up from school, and gratitude to the teachers who took the child home for tea and entertained her, is a moment of revelation for Pinny:
It occurred to me then that I had not once, even in the worst depths of my misery, thought what it must have been like for her, knowing she would not be at the school gates, knowing that she was making me more and more unhappy every minute she was not there.
Her selfless love and care for Pinny comes out at every turn. On one occasion, she covers for her daughter, losing a rich client in the process, when the little girl recovers a roll of cloth that she believes belongs to the future king and queen of Borneo but was actually the client’s curtains. I fell in love with her at the point when she stretches a tiny budget to provide Pinny with bulbs for her garden:
I do not remember that we had trouble finding the money. I was too excited at the prospect of my own garden. But now I can see that my mother must have gone without something she needed or wanted, in order to save what was necessary.
Her generosity is not reserved for her daughter alone: when Pinny asks a visiting gentleman at a loose end to stay, she hesitantly but not unwillingly opens her home to him until he is able to find his feet again.

To my delight, one of the stories turns out to take place in Oxford. This is Pinny’s first taste of what she calls ‘the country’. ‘”It’s not the proper country, Pinny,” my mother warned me. “Oxford is a large town, and quite near.”’ Unperturbed, Pinny’s imagination runs wild: ‘Milkmaids in mob caps and farmers in knee-breeches, small houses with roses growing round the doors, stiles, carthorses, shepherds coming down from the hills at sunset, wooden bridges curving over brooks.’

The reality is quite different, of course, but turns out to be no less exciting. Not least, St Giles’ Fair, ‘the most splendid, exciting, glorious fair in the whole world’, as Pinny’s Oxfordian friends, Miles and Kate, delightedly inform her. The description is priceless, a snapshot of the fair a century before I experienced it. Some things are quite different – the long-banned prizes of live goldfish, the penny charge for each game, the steam powering the organs. The exhilaration of the fair, however, is unchanged over generations, and the bright colours of the rides which draw the children’s attention, the reckless spending on hopeless attempts at skewering a prize, the loud music and bustle of the crowd, sound tantalisingly familiar.

Ten patches, ten stories; yet a quilt is so much bigger than that. I’m left wondering what else is in there; the stories that Pinny would not tell till her listener was older, the ones she perhaps would never tell at all? 

Monday, 30 March 2015

Virginia Woolf's Garden

For one of my Christmas presents, my brother made a very impressive sacrifice - by buying me a book about an author he is, ahem, not fond of. Sadly, he does not love our Virginia, but that is not a unique perspective. (More on Colin's reading, or lack thereof, another time perhaps... if I can bring myself to admit that my twin brother hasn't finished reading a book in over six months...) (Sorry Colin!)

Anyway, this was one of my favourite Christmas presents, and will probably appear on my end of year favourite books - mostly because of how sumptuous it was to read. And by 'read', I mean 'look at photos'. 

Which isn't to say that there is no writing - not by a long chalk. Caroline Zoob, who was tenant of Monk's House for quite a few years and whose efforts largely helped restore the garden, writes winningly of the process and the Woolfs' lives. But the beautiful photography by Caroline Arber was certainly my favourite thing about the book. It really is beautiful, and made me (with my complete ignorance of all things gardening) want to take up horticulture. I pretty swiftly shifted to wanting to take up visiting more gardens that other people have put effort into, but never mind.

Using Virginia and Leonard's diaries and letters, alongside other resources, Caroline recreates what the experience of creating this garden was like for both of them, and traces its development alongside their lives - past Virginia's death in 1941 and all the way to Leonard's in 1969. There aren't all that many contemporary photographs of V and L in the garden,but what resources there are have been wonderfully mined. And it becomes very clear that the garden was Leonard's passion particularly - with his experimentation with rare bulbs, unusual arrangements, and complex garden design. Virginia's primary delight was her writing shed, and she jokes about envying the garden for the attention it receives from Leonard.

If one knew nothing about the pair, there is enough biographical detail in Zoob's writing to make the book completely accessible, but without overdoing it for those of us already very familiar with the Woolfs' lives (which, after all, is probably a high percentage of those who would want to read a book called Virginia Woolf's Garden). The area I would have loved more detail is what happened to the house after Leonard died; how it came to the National Trust, and how various residents experienced living there. There are only two or three pages which discuss Zoob's life there - and, considering this is an almost unique perspective, I would have loved more...
When we arrived at Monk's House we knew very little about Virginia. To begin with, I found the intensity of some of the visitors disconcerting. On a day when the house was closed, I came home to find a woman weeping at the gate, overcome by the thought that Virginia's hand had touched that very gate as she left the house on her way to the river. I did not have the heart to tell her that Virginia had left the garden through a different gate at the top of the garden, long since disused. Instead I made soothing noises and offered to make her a cup of tea.
Perhaps Zoob modestly thought people wouldn't be interested - but, oh, I would certainly have been!

Something I wasn't quite so interested in was the element of garden design in the book. I certainly recognise that many people would love these sections, but it was like double Dutch to me - or, indeed, like Latin. At least they came with pretty pictures. And I was very impressed by the tapestry garden design, also (I think) by the photographer Caroline Arber, that appeared throughout - for example:

Of the making of books about Virginia Woolf there is no end - and I, for one, am delighted about it. This one has to go near the top of Woolfenilia, and I heartily recommend it as a coffee table book (if such things still exist) and as a fascinating, detailed account to read thoroughly too.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Song for a Sunday

I don't love The Beatles, I have to confess... but this version of Let It Be by Aretha Franklin is incredible.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

A Curious Friendship (sneak preview)

I'm going to be writing about it more fully in the next issue of Shiny New Books, but (since today is publication day for this book) I thought I had to bring A Curious Friendship by Anna Thomasson to your attention. Especially since I saw her give a lovely talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday, to a gratifyingly large number of people.

Why gratifyingly large? Because the people A Curious Friendship is about aren't really household names. It's a biography of the friendship between Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler. Now, a lot of my blog readers will know who they are, and may have read Olivier's glorious 1927 novel The Love-Child (which I wrote about in my DPhil at length) - but perhaps won't know much else.

Thomasson's book takes us from their meeting, when Olivier was in her early 50s and grieving her beloved sister, and Whistler was a 19 year old art student newly arrived in a Bright Young Thing set. Their friendship would last two decades, and encompass many achievements and emotions. And A Curious Friendship is a really, really excellent book. Whether or not you're interested in them, you can't help but be impressed by the compelling way Thomasson tells their story, and the way she brings two quite different trajectories into one whole. As she said in the talk, it is neither about Olivier nor about Whistler, but about a third entity: the two of them together.

As I say, my full review will be out soon - but don't wait til then; go and grab a copy. It's a real delight, and an emotionally involving one (I cried a bit, not gonna lie). My one hope now is that Thomasson will be allowed (and willing) to edit a collection of their letters. Please.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers

I'm afraid (to give you advance warning) this is going to be one of those reviews about a book that I finished ages ago. So, apologies if I get a bit vague. It's also a review about a novel that I'd been intending to read for about a decade: Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers. Back when I joined dovegreybooks in 2004, it was the novel that everyone was talking about. Dutifully, over the following ten years, I bought five novels by Vickers - but had never read any of them until somebody chose Miss Garnet's Angel for my book group. So, was it worth the wait?

Well, I remain conflicted. I didn't love it as much as I thought it would, but that is largely because it wasn't quite what I expected. I thought it might be a charming tale of a spinster wandering around Venice, heartwarming and witty in turn, and perhaps not without a healthy dose of the fey and whimsical (which I am sometimes - nay, often - in the mood for). Well, that's not quite what it was.

It does start off in a similar vein (as you may well know). Julia Garnet's closest friend dies and, lonely and unattached, she decides to go to Venice for six months. Before long she has managed to become entangled with a handsome art dealer named Carlos, a young boy who runs errands for her and whom she unsuccessful tries to teach English, and a young man and woman engaged in restoring a church or something. Incapable of making friends in England, she seems beset with them here.

So far, so charming. But did I mention that Miss Garnet's Angel mirrors the Apocryphal account of Titus? And that that story is also retold in sections between chapters (that, I have to confess, I started skipping)? This is a technique with some literary precedence - Stella Benson did it in the 1930s with Tobit Transplanted, which I've yet to read - but I don't know the original story well enough to notice how close the influence was.

So, why was I not entirely sold? Well, I guess I found the writing and plotting just a bit blah. Here's an excerpt I noted, though I forget why...
The notion which had come to Julia Garnet, as she lay looking at her fingers twisting the fringe of the pearl-white coverlet (which, she had learned, during the course of the Signora Mignelli's care of her, was a survivor of the Signora's once extensive dowry), was that there existed in life two kinds of people: those who tangled with their fate, who took issue with what life brought them, who made, in short, waves, and those who bore heir circumstances, taking life's meaning from what came to them, rather than what they wrested from it.
It seemed to her, lying watching the bars of the sun cross the white walls and making them jump from side to side as she tried the child's experiment of winking alternate eyes, that from her limited knowledge St George, Florence Nightingale and Old Tobit fell into the first class, while Socrates, Jane Austen and Tobias fell into the second. Jesus of Nazareth, she decided after further contemplation, belonged to both categories - and so possibly did Karl Marx.
And I suppose there's no reason why Vickers should have created a sweet character in Miss Garnet; I have myself to blame for my expectations. I'd have loved either a sweet character or an amusingly cantankerous one. What we actually got was rather an unpleasant woman, I thought. She thinks, of a friend who visits, 'There were horrible depths of meanness in her character - no wonder she found herself on her own now.' Well, Julia G, you're also on your own now. And how come you absolutely loathe your closest friend, who has made the effort to visit you?

These things I could perhaps have forgiven, but the tone of the novel takes a serious knock on a couple of occasions, where Vickers launches into sexual controversy (including paedophilia) for no obvious reason - and certainly no sense of consistency in the novel.

I'm aware that these may not be popular opinions, particularly given the praise I've heard lavished on Vickers over the years. I didn't hate the novel by any means (if I had, I'd probably have reviewed it far more quickly! I love writing those reviews, when of sacred cows), but I did feel rather disappointed. It simply didn't do very much for me, and left me a tiny bit underwhelmed. It was fine. Which does not a compelling review make, does it?

Shiny New Books competition

Just a quick note to say, guys, there are four awesome books available in the Shiny New Books competition - one chosen by each of the four editors, including my choice of Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf - and all you have to do for a chance to win is tell us about your ideal book club members (in the comments on the homepage).

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Back from holiday (with, yes, books)

The Thomases had a very lovely time in beautiful Pembrokeshire. We were right by the coast, and in a gorgeous area - a house about every half a mile, and nothing else but unspoilt, craggy countryside. So we spent our time reading, walking, and playing games. Here we are...

Our Vicar and Colin did rather more walking than me and Our Vicar's Wife; we turned our attentions to painting instead. We have curiously different styles - Mum does beautiful, accurate watercolours. I go for bold colours and slapping it on and seeing what happens... here is what happened.

We went to Haverfordwest in search of secondhand books (well, the others may have had different reasons for going, but that was mine); sadly the two the town had were now closed, but I bought a couple in an Oxfam. Then we headed over to St. David's, a city with fewer than 1800 residents (my kind of city!), and stumbled across this bookshop. It's tiny, and crammed to the rafters - including one wall of books which all seemed to be from the early 20th century. That sort of faded red hardback that calls to me... and all very cheap, which helped me add another eight to the pile for less than £8 in total. And here they are:

Dames of the Theatre by Eric Johns
I remember seeing the name May Whitty on the front, and now I forget who else was there (and I'm sat in a different room now...) but it's dames of the theatre from the generation before Maggie and Judi.

My Dear Timothy and More For Timothy by Victor Gollancz
I keep buying biographies and autobiographies about publishing sensations, but have yet to read any of them... Gollancz addressed his to his grandson Timothy, which (as a concept) could be brilliant or mawkish...

The Loving Friends: A Portrait of Bloomsbuy by David Gadd
I can't resist a book about Bloomsbury now, can I?

The Knox Brothers by Penelope Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald's biography of Charlotte Mew was astonishingly good, and I'm sure she'll be equally adept turning her hand to the Knox brothers.

House in the Sun by Dane Chandos
I very much enjoyed Abbie by Dane Chandos, so would love to read more. 'His' (it was a duo) most famous book seems to be Village in the Sun, so I'm assuming this one is related?

The Humbler Creation by Pamela Hanford Johnson
I've read two books by PHJ - loved one, disliked the other - so I need to try and third and settle the score one way or the other.

O, The Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith
I read one of Smith's novels a couple of years ago and enjoyed it, so it seemed wise to nab another.

Adventures of Bindle by Herbert Jenkins
I've got four Bindle books now, so I really should get around to reading one of them.

The Mystery Man by Ruby M. Ayres
How do I know about Ruby Ayres? Not sure, but the name rang a bell and it was 20p, so how could I go wrong? Anybody read her?