11 May 2015


I know, I know...I'm off to London tomorrow, the mecca for book shopping, but it was an excellent weekend for finds.  My favourite second-hand shops in Toronto is particularly popular with university students wanting to sell their books at term's end so BMV was heaving with required reading.  English professors could very well weep with the knowledge their students were so quick to sell off titles meant to inspire but sometimes the pocketbook speaks even louder, I suppose.

I don't think any of the books we brought home were likely to have appeared on a syllabus but it was fun wading through the stuffed shelves.  My scanning technique usually begins with looking at every single book until the titles begin to blur and then I switch to looking for publishers.  There were loads of nyrb classics!  The blurb by a New York Times reviewer on the back of Corrigan made me laugh out loud...'Domesticity for Miss Blackwood has never been cozy, she listens for the ticking of the time bomb in the teapot.'  My preference is all about 'cosy' but this is an author I need to explore.

So many of you have been busy consuming Trollope, writing about Trollope, entering draws for books by Trollope, and generally celebrating the bicentenary of his birth, but my favourite Victorian author is George Gissing.  You can download his work for free but reading that way is just not for me so I was thrilled to find a copy of In the Year of the Jubilee; it's rare on shelves around here.  Anita Brookner's writing reminds me of another favourite author, Elizabeth Bowen.  My library stocks quite a few of Brookner's works but when I want to start a new book at eight p.m. on a Sunday night...well, it's best to stock a few on my own shelves.  And my love affair with Barbara Comyns' work continues.  Fingers crossed, Charing Cross Road has a gem or two that I don't own stocked in one of its many fabulous bookshops.

My lovely husband bought a copy of A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson for me last Friday.  I think it's a combination of feeling a bit sentimental because I'm going away and thrilled with the prospect of a bit of peace and quiet for days on end!

Luggage allowance and book lovers....well, it's never going to be an easy relationship.  Knowing there are lots of lovely books waiting at home will ease my disappointment about books left behind.  My B & B is a short stroll from Persephone Books and will be one of my first stops to pick up a copy of Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes. For a full report on how successful (or unsuccessful) 'Project Restraint' was and details about the walking book club I'm taking part in, watch this space in a couple of weeks!  See you soon...

8 May 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


There are certain aspects of British cookery that never cease to fascinate me, and one of these is the extraordinary ability we have to gather up the delicate flavours of our countryside and transform them into exquisite dishes.  Sweet-scented violets, primroses, cowslips, lime blossom, elderflowers and roses have been picked by British cooks since time immemorial and converted into fragrant messes.  But while primroses, cowslips and lime blossom have slipped from common usage, the elderflower has remained popular.
  It is one of those subtle flavourings that makes a dish taste quintessentially British.  What Frenchman would dream of adding elderflower to his rhubarb compote?  What American would add a dash of elderflower cordial to his spritzer?  And surely no Italian would churn a gooseberry and elderflower sorbet?  Yet as far as the British are concerned, elderflower, with their sweet scent of Muscat grapes, add an indefinable charm to countless dishes from cooling drinks to creamy custards.'

Simply British

3 May 2015

Murder on the Home Front by Molly Lefebure

Apologies to the poor souls who ended up on the postmortem table after an untimely, and usually quite brutal, death but this book was a riveting read and thoroughly entertaining.  It came to the library as a donation and wasn't going to be added to the collection.  My reading tastes have become so predictable that a colleague knew exactly who would give it a good home and popped it into my Princeton file last month.

Molly Lefebure studied journalism at London University and had taken a secretarial course.  As a junior reporter at the beginning of WWII Molly worked an exhausting fourteen hour day, every day of the week.  The assignments providing the most interest and excitement involved the Coroner's Court and the police department.  An up and coming pathologist with the Home Office, Dr. Simpson, was looking for a secretary to take notes during examinations.  A perfect match was made.

It would be a fair bet to assume Molly's secretarial course never prepared her for taking shorthand while standing next to a pool of blood or tapping away on a typewriter while balanced on a casket.  A more dedicated employee would be hard to find as boyfriends were no match against a call from Dr. Simpson late at night to attend a suicide or murder scene. 
'"Spare time" mostly came at teatime, so, for the next few weeks, CKS arranged for us to take our tea beside the carbolic tank and its gruesome contents.  This, I thought, was a very unattractive idea to put the most insensitive off anchovy toast and tea cakes.  However, it was not my place to complain, so there I sat with my tea tray and memo pad, jotting the notes which CKS dictated to me as he stooped, all concentration, over the body.'
As a Canadian myself, I winced several times when it was a member of our army responsible for a young woman's murder.  And unfortunately it was women who ended up on the postmortem table far more often than men in this book.  The justice system during this era seems to have been carried out more efficiently than our modern times and Molly's accounts are straightforward, without drama, but perhaps, at times, a bit of gallows humour.

'The dead man would then be lifted off the cart by the warders who had wheeled it, and carried to the p.m. table.  He was clad in trousers, singlet, socks; no shoes.  Around his neck was the deep, livid mark of the noose.  Otherwise he always appeared perfectly peaceful and in many instances, I thought, positively relieved to be dead.'

 You can't help but admire Molly's dedication to the job.  As if blood, stench, mud, and maggots, weren't enough to deal with in a work day, this determined woman had to take cover under tables when doodle-bombs would whizz overhead.  Due to the blackout most of the postmortems had to be performed before 4 pm.  A much more idyllic side to Molly's occupation was a working holiday in Kent at Dr. Simpson's cottage typing notes for his next textbook while out in the garden.  She also thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to have a good snoop around a murdered prostitute's flat as research for a fictional story she hoped to write one day.

Molly Lefebure felt terrible about being unavailable for war work due to her erratic work schedule but was consoled by the fact she was exposed to much of the war's outfall.  Dealing with the bodies of young soldiers who took cyanide rather than report for duty on the front lines or piecing together bodies from a bomb blast made her extremely relevant.  And if you ask me, a top-notch secretary as this is undoubtedly going above and beyond the job description of a secretary.

I remember watching this dramatized on PBS a couple of years ago.  The television program was enjoyable but the book is so much better.  For those interested in reading more about Molly, please click here.

Molly Lefebure
1919 - 2013