Friday, 18 April 2014

Happy Easter

It was at a vintage paper and book show in Toronto last year that I first discovered the whimsical art of Charles van Sandwyck.  His adorable-beyond-words cast of woodland animals make me smile but the price of his storybooks will make your eyes water, although the detail involved makes them worth every penny.  A box of cards would be quite reasonable and lovely for sharing with friends...or hoarding.

Have a wonderful Easter weekend!


Mr. Rabbit & Basket 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Back by Henry Green

For the past several years a large portion of my reading has been inspired by the World War II era.  And a great chunk of that has centered around the lives of women on the Home Front.  After reading the astoundingly excellent (favourite read of 2013) The Love Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel last autumn, centering on literary greats such as Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Graham Greene and Henry Green, I am stretching out a bit.  Time to learn more from the soldier's perspective.

Published in 1946, Back is about Charley Summers and the devastating effects of war and shell shock once those in active duty return home.  Returning to England after being confined as a POW in Germany for three years, and minus one leg, one of the first things Charley does is to visit the grave of his lover, Rose.

'For Rose had died while he was in France, he said over and over under his breath.  She was dead, and he did not hear until he was a prisoner.  She had died and this sort of sad garden was where they had put her without him, and, as he looked about while he leaned on the gate, he felt she must surely have come as a stranger when her time came, that if a person's nature is at all alive after he or she has gone, then she could never have imagined herself here nailed into a box, in total darkness, briar roots pushing down to the red hair of which she had been so proud and fond.'

Emotionally fragile and lacking focus, Charley has lost the one thing he treasured most.  But, Rose was never completely his as she was married to James.  While searching gravestones, Charley hears a man call out to him - it's James accompanied by his six year-old son, Ridley.  The child that Rose was carrying while having an affair with Charley.  

Parentage comes up again when Charley pays a visit to Rose's parents' home.  Mr Grant has been caring for his wife who has never been quite the same since their daughter died and she is exhibiting signs of dementia.  Pulling a card from his pocket, Mr Grant gives Charley the number of his daughter, Nance, conceived during a fling with another woman.  It's all a bit crass but Nance's husband, an RAF pilot, was killed in action and Mr Grant feels that, brought together, they could ease each other's loneliness.  Initially revolted by the idea of another woman he inevitably finds himself at her door and nothing in his wildest imagination could have prepared him for what he sees...a woman bearing Rose's exact features. To say anymore would deprive a future reader of the pleasure of watching a tortured soul rise to the surface of an immense black hole.  

I began this book thinking that perhaps it wasn't quite what I was hoping for; it was far from cosy, there was nary a description of furnishing or surroundings.  But before reaching the midway point, Back was a book that I couldn't put down.  This book is stripped down to the characterization and anything else would have distracted from the main point. Sebastian Faulks put it so eloquently when he wrote about Green's work in an article for The Guardian...

'He seemed to have redrawn the familiar triangle between reader, writer and character, so that you somehow had the impression that you knew his characters better than he himself did. So real were they, so grand yet so fragile, that one felt protective of them - protective even against the plotting of the author.'

Enough said.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Elora Antiques and E. M. Delafield

Yesterday my husband and I took a drive out to Elora for their annual Spring Antique Sale, although, it was a first-time experience for us.  The skies were threatening rain but the temperatures were forecast to hit 22C and after one of the worst winters in recent history we were desperate to get out.  Anywhere!

We didn't have our eye out for anything particular but there was certainly lots to feast on.  One of the first booths we visited had a ladies WWII swastika-laden link bracelet and all sorts of images of 1940s Berlin went through my head.  The booth next door had a WWI sweetheart pin of miniature pilot's wings with happier connotations.  I would have loved to own it but it seemed such a shame to put something so precious away in a box for safekeeping and away from other appreciative eyes.  The Norwegian Bridal Casket pictured below is from the 1700s and meant to store items for a young lady's trousseau but...oh dear, the term 'casket'.  
 

 A few dealers had a supply of books and as one would expect they mostly covered various bits of Canadiana (not that there is anything wrong with that).  But then, as my finger trailed along the spines on one shelf I found this...


...a hard to find E. M. Delafield title (not that I knew that at the time).  It was priced at $3 so there was really nothing to think about.  It was published in 1939 and a first edition - unless it was a complete one off collection.  In any case, I was as pleased as punch with my new treasure.  The dedication made me laugh and have all the more affection for the author....

TO
Priscilla
although
SHE FOUND FAULT WITH ALL OF THEM
I DEDICATE
THESE STORIES

Once we had finished having a super time scouring through the rest of the booths we drove into town for something to eat.  Elora is Amish country so you can expect to find buggy parking next to car parks.  


Since going gluten and dairy-free last September it has been ever so slightly challenging at times when it comes to dining out.  My husband loves nothing more than a menu full of pub grub but I steered him towards The Desert Rose Cafe.  Its friendly staff, cosy kitsch decor and communal tables made for a delightful time spent with another couple who also happened to just arrive from the antique show.  The food was so delicious and the downtown so charming, no doubt we'll be back again soon.  

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London by Judith Flanders

This book first caught my eye in Hatchards while on a trip to London in 2012.  It was hot off the press with a gorgeous cover that roped me in for a closer look.  Full of fascinating tidbits I was dying to take it home with me but its bulky heft meant foreseeable issues with my luggage allowance.  Then as is so often the case I added it to my wishlist and moved on to obsess about other books and authors.  Last month, while browsing the discounted history books at Indigo, there it was.  I wish this was a case of patience being a virtue but it was more like sheer luck.

One of the first pages made me smile with a note on currency.  I don't know how many times I have previously read about a shilling for this or a farthing for that and been completely ignorant as to the impact of that amount on the average Victorian citizen.  A couple of years ago a colleague and I spent a shift at the library nabbing everyone over a certain age, with an English accent, for a tutorial but to no avail.  We went through lots of scrap paper and knitted some brows though.  I digress.

Within the first few pages I was transported to London and whipped back in time..

'It is 2.30 in the morning.  It is still night, but it is also 'tomorrow'.  By this hour at Covent Garden market, in the centre of London, the streets are alive.  Long lines of carts and vans and costermongers' barrows are forming in the surrounding streets.  Lights are being lit 'in the upper windows of public houses - not for the inhabitants retiring to rest, but of active proprietors preparing...for the day...The roadway is already blocked up, and the by-streets are rapidly filling.'

In a time before alarm clocks, I loved the image of an arrangement between parties (with a bit of currency changing hands) that had someone on their way home from a hard night's graft rousing their neighbour from slumber with a hard knock on the door.  This book brilliantly gets across the image of a city that is rarely quiet or ever sleeps.  One of the many occupations that took place during the night was the hot-potato seller.  A large tin heated by a charcoal burner from underneath would attract patrons spilling out of the public houses into the cool night air; August to April being the best months for sales.  If the proprietor could afford a bit of tarp to enclose an area it would attract prostitutes as a way to keep warm while upping the chance of doing some business with men full of drink from a public house.

Riding in a hired coach or taking an omnibus was risky business.  In some instances when the route included a steep incline, much as I imagine in the case of Highgate Hill, extra horses would be stationed at the bottom to be hitched up for extra 'horsepower'.  Going downhill was a different matter- young men would be employed to place pallets of wood in front of the wheels to slow down the rate of speed on the decline and rarely was it a notable experience to be thrown now and again.  Also, experiments with different types of road surfacing such as granite cut down on dust and mud but created a thunderous roar from hundreds of hooves up and down Oxford Street.  Such was the noise that shopkeepers could scarcely hear their customers when placing orders.  One passage in a Dickens' novel casually mentions a character requesting the coach driver to pull over onto a side street so he could hear his companion speak (too engrossed in the reading to make note of which novel, apologies).  Just the sort of vignette that would mean absolutely nothing to me as a reader in the twenty-first century but a tidbit of minutiae that educates me in the nuances and difficulties of Victorian travel.

Chapter fifteen sheds light on the world of prostitutes, real and perceived.  I say 'perceived' because of the ridiculous notion that if you were a woman working in certain low-paid occupations you were likely spending some time selling your body to make ends meet.  Flanders couldn't resist a comment which had me applauding...

'Milliners, for example, routinely worked fourteen-hour days, and sixteen in the season.  In view of the difficulties of life that we have seen - and finding time to collect water and so on - it is worth questioning how much time, if not energy, they had for extra-curricular prostitution as well.'

...Hear, Hear!  In coming up with a figure of how many prostitutes were circulating in London during a given year, a panel immediately began their count with the fact that there had been 42,000 births registered to unwed mothers.  Therefore, I can only assume that should a woman have the misfortune of being raped by her employer and becoming pregnant she was deemed a prostitute.  Is it any wonder young women were shortening their already minimal life-expectancy by throwing themselves off of bridges and into the Thames on a regular basis?

My experience with Dickens' work amounts to reading A Christmas Carol and Masterpiece Theatre so it was off to the library shelves for a closer look.  Finding a copy of Sketches by Boz proved to be just the thing when tackling a chunkster isn't quite in the cards.  Filled with articles, essays and short stories from his early experience as a journalist I chose The Bloomsbury Christening about a grumpy bachelor and his brutally honest observations about babies and parenting.  By the time I finished the second page I was so glad to have been educated by Flanders' book as to the ins-and-outs of cross-sweeping boys and omnibus cads.

The Victorian City is page-turning fun if you are interested in that era, have a fondness for London (I am so envious of readers from the Greater London area who will instantly visualize the streets mentioned) or have a fondness for Dickens' storytelling.

Friday, 28 March 2014

On Going Gluten-Free...ish

I am mere pages from the end of The Victorian City, and what a fascinating read it has been, but the time between posts has been far too long so this is my tidbit offering in the meantime.

Several months ago I shared my arduous and utterly frustrating experience with two frozen shoulders.  What I didn't disclose was that last summer, my juvenile arthritis that had gone into remission forty years ago seemed to rear its ugly head once again.  As swiftly as turning on a light switch I was fine one day and the next morning when I went to bend down to play with Deacon my knees felt as though they were swollen with fluid.  The pain that I thought was a case of stiff hamstrings was the lead-up to my hips becoming ever more stiff.  Great.  In a matter of days I had gone from having two dysfunctional joints to six and while I was a youthful and active fifty year old woman my body was acting as though it was ready for a nursing home....or had been hit by a massive truck.

Attitude is everything and thankfully I have always been a 'glass half full' sort of person.  I never missed a day of work and through months and months of pain and frustration I only welled-up three times with pity for myself in such a pathetic state.  Waking up a dozen times a night to get more comfortable forced me into the spare room before my husband got to be as sleep-deprived as I was.  My iPod got me through stages of sleeplessness and pain and I highly recommend podcasts for taking your mind off of pain in the middle of the night.  Things were looking rather bleak.  Then a case of serendipity played out.

Last September, a new employee was scheduled to work with with me at the library.  After the initial pleasantries she mentioned that she wasn't feeling all that well and had had a rough night...all down to one Smartie.  Victoria had been diagnosed as having celiac disease in childhood and was vigilant about keeping gluten out of her diet.  Trying one Smartie while out with friends was enough to cause stomach pain so it's a good thing she didn't overindulge but who knew there was gluten in Smarties?  I had always assumed gluten was something that was produced through kneading dough or in batters with vigorous beating.  Wrong....well, right and wrong.  Victoria told me about learning the hard way that it's in soya sauce as well as a man-made product.  We talked about the food industry off and on over the next few hours and when I mentioned my arthritis pain and how much I dreaded the powerful drugs to help control it she suggested I try eliminating gluten, or at least wheat, from my diet for one month before seeing my doctor.

I don't know about you but where I work there were a few women who seemed to always be trying the latest fad eating trend.  The rest of us playfully gave them a hard time as we ate brownies with abandon during our staff meetings and enjoyed seconds of cake brought into the staff room.  Now I was about to become one of them and it was sort of embarrassing.  That first evening, standing in front of the pantry with my hands on my head I was completely dumbfounded about what I could have for dinner and then the thought of no marmalade on toast the next morning was disappointing to say the least.  The want, no...desperation, to lessen my pain was far greater than the need for toast, or cinnamon wheat square cereal.  Oh, and I have to mention...in for a penny, in for a pound...I gave up dairy as well.  Once I started reading about foods with inflammatory properties it was a no-brainer.

My first cup of tea with almond milk was interesting but after a week the look of despair disappeared from my face after the first sip.  The soup pot was out constantly and my husband would help me ladle spoonfuls into freezer bags for down the road.  If the oven went on for a roast I would grab a couple of sweet potatoes to bake as well...and a squash, or anything other veggie that was handy.  My knees had swelled quite badly after enjoying some bruschetta at a restaurant so the nightshade foods were out as well.  No tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant; the list was getting longer.

So did the change help?  After one week of removing wheat and dairy from my diet the stiffness that had begun in my left hand disappeared.  My knees and hips were still sore but at least I was being proactive and the research distracted me from what I couldn't do, this change empowered me and kept me from going mad and losing hope.  My doctor is only a couple of years older than I am and while she was previously a bit too quick with the prescription pad she was very supportive of my endeavour to try and do what I could to heal, or at least help, myself through diet.  She even suggested adding curcumin supplements to my plan of action.  Beware though, when you take this your t-shirt will carry the musky scent of a leftover curry dinner should you work up a sweat!  We also chatted about what I had learned about menopause affecting connective tissue and could my troubles be connected with a drop in estrogen?  The body is a weird and wonderful thing but a little more wonderful would be nice.  She has given me until the end of May to decide what happens next.

My new physio-therapist has been heaven-sent.  After my initial assessment she is treating me as having two strained rotator cuffs and tight trapezius and is suspicious that bi-lateral frozen shoulder was ever the problem although the two diagnoses mimic each other in symptoms.  Whatever the case, she started me off with nine stretches and one month later has me doing fifteen different stretches with great success!  Each week Dorothy gets a kick out of my jubilant stories of being able to reach into the Tupperware cupboard and root around without pain, pull the car door shut without grimacing or reach behind my head to pull out the extra pillow.  Never take mobility for granted!  With Dorothy's help I am quite sure that my shoulders will be almost as good as new by the end of April.  If there has been any sort of link between the inflammation in my upper body causing my knnes and hips to act up then hopefully I will be seeing the backside of that as well.  But if I do have to face my future with arthritis then at least I am doing my utmost to hold its worst effects at bay and stay strong.  

Tying my health update up to include a book review I have to say that Gwyneth Paltrow's recipe book It's All Good  is absolutely fantastic if you are trying a gluten-free or vegan lifestyle.  After the fifth delicious recipe that worked out perfectly I returned my library copy and bought my own.  Cleo's Afternoon Shake tastes like a liquid Snicker's bar if you need something decadent but healthy in the late afternoon and her recipe for Japanese Meatballs was a hit the other night; my husband kept going on about how good they were the next day for lunch.  My lunch today is going to be Roasted Cauliflower and Chickpeas with Mustard and Parsley.  In a strange way, rather than being a challenge, eating gluten and dairy-free has opened up so many avenues and introduced me to all sorts of new foods.  My husband wasn't as thrilled about tempeh burgers from a local vegan restaurant as I was though but he's a good sport for trying.

The title of this post is On Going Gluten-Free...ish and I say 'ish' because while the elimination of wheat in my diet is a definite I have no doubt there is still gluten lurking in many of the products I use as condiments or dips but we're trying.  One last thing to add, and it's a big one, when you hear about the 'brain fog' that comes with eating wheat - it's a reality.  There is a clarity in my thinking now that wasn't quite there before and who knows, perhaps it's what I am putting into my body rather than what is being left out, all I know is that I have experienced it for myself and it's all good.

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Gipsy's Baby by Rosamond Lehmann

When Rosamond Lehmann's brother, John, asked her to contribute a few short stories for a monthly periodical he was editing, the timing was far from perfect.  World War II was being waged, her second marriage had failed a few years earlier, and she had two young children to look after.  On the other hand, this tumultuous backdrop along with memories of her childhood made for bountiful scenes of everyday life, enough to fill The Gipsy's Baby with five short stories to sink into and ponder.

The story that lends its name to the title of the book is told through the eyes of young Rebecca Ellison.  Her family is well-enough off to afford the small pleasures in life whereas the Wyatt family further along the lane live in squalor.  Mrs Wyatt is a haggard woman, worn out from years of childbearing, housework and doing without but '...in the middle of each hollow cheek was a stain of rose, like one live petal left on a dead flower'.  The house is falling down around them but Mr Wyatt doesn't seem very bothered.  Reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield's The Dollhouse the less advantaged Wyatt children gain an invitation to have tea at Rebecca and Sylvia's house.  When they arrive it's not the bounty of food that widens their eyes but the toys and fancy dresses locked away in Mrs. Ellison's closet.  When caught out by the nursemaid, Rebecca burns with humiliation.

The Red-Haired Miss Daintreys is pure Englishness.  Once again the story is told through Rebecca's eyes when her family become friends with the Daintrey family while on holiday at a seaside hotel.  The four sisters all have red hair in common and stand over six feet in height.  Each has a distinctive personality though.  Miss Mildred is the unselfish one, Miss Viola shines as the beauty but Lehmann describes her as having a ',,,long curving goitrous neck.  Miss Rosie is the athletic one but much to the detriment of her now over-developed calves.  Poor Miss Dollie is weak-minded for being dropped when she was born.  There are two older siblings but while Arthur has been married for five years, sadly there are no children - 'not even a Disappointment'.  I have never never heard of a miscarriage being referred to that way before and I have to say it made me laugh.  The last line in the story says it all 'There will be no more families in England like the Daintreys'.

The next three stories show a slice of life in rural England during the World War II and I loved them.  Mrs Ritchie lives in a cottage with her son, John, and daughter, Jane.  Rosamond Lehmann freely admits that she didn't disguise herself very well in the writing.  Wnen the Waters Came eerily duplicates the sort of winter we're having this year with everything covered in ice at first and then the dreadful flooding that follows a thaw.  In A Dream of Winter Mrs Ritchie lies in bed suffering with influenza.  From her bed she watches through the window as the bee man removes a portion of roof to access a swarm of bees that have been humming through the walls for far too long.  It's the most fun John and Jane have had in ages as they climb the ladder to peek into their mother's room.  Ever the gentleman, John tucks his sister's bloomers into her kilt before her climb.  Wonderful Holidays is absolutely packed with storylines - everything from a horse with colic that requires turning every four hours to Jane's missing school trunk.  The poor thing is stuck wearing her only decent outfit for days on end while there is an investigation as to what could have possibly gone wrong.  In one hilarious scene Mrs Ritchie comees upon Jane wearing her friend's old skating costume as a change of clothes.  And then the vicar rings...

"'But I say, though! - beastly lot they're turning out everywhere to-day - public schools and all.  Damned impudent swearing young brutes.  All smoking like chimneys.  Girls just as bad.  If not worse.  Vile lot.  It's all the fault of the parents.  What goes on in the homes nowadays?  Nothing but beastly language - that's all they hear.  What can you expect?  It's a filthy outlook.  I say, look here, there's another damned nuisance coming on us.  Book drive in June, or some such rot.  Who ever heard of a book drive?  Heard of a whist drive, never heard of a book drive.'"

Mrs Carmichael has some drama when her little dog, Puffles, goes missing but eventually returns from a day of hunting with a canine friend of bad influence...

'"Oh, what a bad bad naughty boy!  And a good good boy to come home before dark.  Does he want his dindin?"
Mrs Carmichael flew to fetch it for him.  Wagging frenziedly, he devoured it, then, still wagging, took a hearty draught of water from his bowl, and retired to his basket to lick his paws.
"He gets his poor paws so sore," said Mrs Carmichael.  
"That beastly Airdale he goes hunting with makes him do all the digging...."'

That last sentence made me burst out laughing and says that the author had a wicked sense of humour.  By the end of these stories I had completely warmed up to Rosamond Lehmann and put aside the angst I had for her - after all, her meddling into Elizabeth Bowen's affair with Goronwy Rees ended that relationship and friends of mine will know where my loyalties lie.  I'm willing to put that all aside now and read more of Lehmann's work and hunt down the biography written by Selina Hastings.  That's me clearing space on a shelf for more books!  If you are a fan of Jan Struther's Mrs Miniver and its charm then I can just about guarantee you will really enjoy this collection every bit as much.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen has swept me away, once again, and this is the third time I've reached the end of one of her books feeling absolutely sick with suspense.  For some reason I had the impression that the book's namesake was going to be a lonely figure who reflects a sort of spinster ideal.  Far from it.  There is enough psychological madness to unfurl and dissect within these pages to keep a reader on the edge of their armchair and Eva is a character who will stay with me for a very, very long time.

The novel is set in the late 1950s and begins in January with Eva driving most of the Dancey family through the English countryside, coming to a stop at a neglected castle.  'This is where we were to have spent our honeymoon' she states quietly.  The children in the group range in age from seven to thirteen and have absolutely no idea what she's on about.  Their mother is busy watching from the car, studying Eva is more like it.

At twenty-four, the heiress is supervised by an unlikable fellow named Constantine, a former friend and most likely lover, of her father, Willy, who committed suicide years ago.  Eva's mother, Cissie, died in a plane crash when Eva was only two months old while on a dalliance with her lover.  While Constantine quite likes the financial side of being tied to Eva he is more than happy to turn around and pay Mr and Mrs Arble to house and care for her daily needs.  They are also only to happy for the extra money but I felt so sad that the money came before Eva's well-being, especially given Constantine's knowledge of the family history...

'We must face this:  Eva's capacity for making trouble, attracting trouble, stewing trouble around her, is quite endless.  She, er, begets trouble - a dreadful gift.  And the more so for being inborn.  You may not realise for how long and how painfully closely I've known that family.  The Trouts have, one might say, a genius for unreality: even Willy was prone to morose distortions.  Hysteria was, of course, the domain of Cissie.  Your, er, generous defence of Cissie won't, I hope, entirely blind you to how much of what was least desirable in Cissie is in her daughter.  Eva is tacitly hysterical.'

Iseult Arble taught in a boarding school and developed a strong attachment to Eva.  Having no children themselves, the Arbles enjoy having her around but eventually they realize she seems to be coming between them.  Deeply upset by betrayal, Eva packs up her meagre belongings and sets out for a house she has rented in Broadstairs called Cathay..  Her first night in the house, which needs loads of work, quickly makes clear how unprepared she is for independent living and responsibility which in turn worries the agent.

'Not the least of this unfortunate agent's fears are, that you may blow Cathay up by tampering with, er, intricate gas appliances, or burn the place down - he scented pyromania in your excitability when he struck matches.' 

Henry Dancey is put in charge of selling her Jaguar to raise funds until Eva's trust fund matures in a few months when she turns twenty-five.  Mr Arble arrives one night after discovering an address on a postcard sent to Henry.  It is during an encounter with Mrs Arble a few months later when Eva is asked to join the couple for Christmas that Eva announces she will be having a child by then.  Nine months after Mr Arble's visit.  So begins the second part of the book, picking up eight years later and all involved are just as mystified by what Eva has engineered and why.

From here on in the book takes on a sort of noir feeling with frenzied telegrams, missed calls, quick escapes and extreme panic.  The comparison of a thrush that flies into a church and its subsequent struggle to find freedom while a character sits in a pew coming to terms with his own struggle is absolutely breathtaking.  Needless to say I was transfixed for the last few chapters and it would have taken the house burning down around me to make me put the book down.  The ending is explosive.

Once I finish a book I like to search around for other readers' thoughts and can only shake my head at those who didn't find Eva Trout to be one of Bowen's masterpieces.  Come to think of it, I don't understand why this title isn't as widely known as The Heat of the Day or The Death of the Heart.  Eva Trout made the Man Booker shortlist in 1970 but lost to Bernice Ruben's The Elected Member,  which I can only surmise must be bloody fantastic to trump Elizabeth Bowen.