Tuesday, 22 July 2014

A Street Festival...and Books

Every summer we look forward to Midnight Madness in Oakville.  Lakeshore Road is closed off downtown and the shops bring their sale items out onto the sidewalk.  The restaurants set up dining areas on the road and the wafting aromas from BBQs and cotton candy machines is everything one of the memories of summer should be.  Surrounding area clubs and their members exhibit their skills and every year I watch men and women dance their informal version of Strictly Come Dancing.  One dancer held out his arms to invite me for a whirl but I did his toes a favour by declining.

The photo (above) gives you an idea of what the night is like and it goes on, block after block.  The cherry on top for this book lover, who thinks no trip out is complete without a bookish souvenir, was that the Oakville Public Library had a booth.  Hardcovers were $1 and paperbacks half that much, so I bought...

The Girl at the Lion d'Or - by Sebastian Faulks

(A nice compliment to the stories set in France I've been reading lately)  A beautifully controlled and powerful story of love and conscience, will and desire which begins when a mysterious young girl arrives to take up a post at the seedy Hotel du Lion d'Or in a small French town in the mid-1930s.

Excellent Women - by Barbara Pym

One of Barbara Pym's richest and most amusing high comedies, Excellent Women has at its centre Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman's daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England.  She is one of those 'excellent women', the smart supportive, repressed women whom men take for granted.  As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbours, the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

I read several Pym novels a few years ago and can't for the life of me remember if this was one of them.  Worth reading twice, in any case!

Blow Up the Castle - by Margaret Moffatt

Set in the quirky country village of Wickerton in 1930s England, this hilarious novel follows the stories of three friends, the eccentric Reverends Peacock, Peabody, and Peasly, as they bounce from adventure to misadventure.

The hapless reverends often find themselves fraught with misunderstanding as they encounter the colourful characters populating Wickerton and its surrounds.  Amorous and overbearing housekeepers, suspicious and inept officials, not to mention Joey, the pernickety and vociferous parrot, all contribute to the calamitous events.

Reminiscent in its wit and style of a Noel Coward play, this engaging novel is a delightful excursion to a more elegant era.

There are so many favourite key words and phrases in that description - how can it be bad?

It would be a safe bet to say that most of my friends stopping by here have read Excellent Women but what about the other two?

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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


Do you ever think of your childhood?
  I think of it when I smell porridge.  Sometimes after I've been by the docks I walk into town and use my nose tracking fresh bread and bacon.  Always, passing a particular house, that sits like the others in a sort of row, and is the same as them, I smell the slow smell of oats.  Sweet but with an edge of salt.  Thick like a blanket.  I don't know who lives in the house, who is responsible, but I imagine the yellow fire and the black pot.  At home we used a copper pot that I polished, loving to polish anything that would keep a shine.  My mother made porridge, leaving the oats overnight by the old fire.  Then in the morning when her bellows work had sent the sparks shooting up the chimney, she burned the oats brown at the sides, so that the sides were like brown paper lining the pot and the inside slopped white over the edge. 
  We trod on a flag floor but in the winter she put down hay and the hay and the oats made us smell like a manger.
  Most of my friends ate hot bread in the mornings.

The Passion

Breakfast Piece by Herbert Badham (1936)

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann

Finally taking the bait as I felt a bit 'meh' about Rosamond Lehmann, I paid my $2 at the reuse centre and brought home this 1953 hardcover (dust jacket intact, no less).  It was reading her short stories in The Gipsy's Baby with its World War II content that won me around.  The stories in that book are charming, they made me smile, a bit warm and fuzzy even.  The Echoing Grove is nothing like that.  It is brutal, unsettling, abrasive, raw, exhausting, claustrophobic - and absolutely brilliant.  Written in the period after her nine year affair with Cecil Day-Lewis had come to an end there is no stone left unturned when it comes to relationships.

The book begins at the end with a middle-aged Dinah visiting her sister Madeleine.  A fifteen year estrangement has been brought to an end by the death of their mother.  The women are both widows; Madeleine's husband due to a perforated ulcer, Dinah's husband killed during the Spanish Civil War.  One of the first situations the women find themselves in takes place during a walk in a nearby cemetery.  Dinah's dog sets upon a rat but when it is only partially maimed it is the usually reserved Madeleine who delivers the coup de grace. The reader knows that Lehmann is saying so much more.  

I had barely recovered from the shock of some rather horrifically descriptive writing when the sisters meander through the past fifteen years of their separation.  Winding along oh so gently it's only a matter of time before we get to the meat of the matter.  Madeleine's husband had been having a lengthy affair with Dinah and the time was nigh for a forensic on the matter.  Lehmann keeps the reader on their toes as the next act goes back in time and opens the curtain on Dinah calling Rickie to help her clear out the last of her things from their love nest.

Much to my frustration, Madeleine allows her husband room to think things through and to mourn the end of his affair.  She is so accommodating that they conceive their daughter, Clarissa, while Rickie is being coddled.  Now usually this sort of behaviour would have me groaning and wanting to throw the book over my shoulder...but the writing is so riveting.  I am completely invested in what will happen to this trinity of characters.  The feelings wrapped up in the parallel situation of a man unwilling to leave his wife for his mistress, as it was in Lehmann's case with Day-Lewis, was irresistible to explore.  The fact the two women are sisters makes the reading tense and claustrophobic.

This novel largely takes place during World War II but I wouldn't say it is overly present.  There is nary a scurry to the Anderson shelter or much talk of rationing although one of Madeleine's sons is killed in North Africa.  The atmosphere is most definitely one that is heavily influenced by the era it was written in and Lehmann's relationship with the Bloomsbury set.  Dinah's character in her artist's overalls is bohemian in attitude with an aura of sexual freedom; Madeleine is all reserve with the restraint of nipped in waists, etiquette and a half-veil...

'...taking courage from the flawless mask that gleamed back at her from behind a finely-spotted black veil.  Very becoming, these veils; a disguise she had come to rely on for self-confidence.'

The Echoing Grove is a challenging and complex story and most definitely one to read twice to savour the nuances.  Rachel mentioned that it had a Bowen-esque feel to it and she is spot on.  High praise indeed.  If you're interested in the story but want to skip the novel you can always try the film.  It's under a different title, goodness knows why, but it looks quite good.  I'll be giving it a try!

Friday, 11 July 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1862 - 1937

She had expected to view the company through a bower of orchids and eat pretty-coloured entrĂ©es in ruffled papers.  Instead, there was only a low centre-dish of ferns, and plain roasted and broiled meat that one could recognize - as if they'd been dyspeptics on a diet!  With all the hints in the Sunday papers, she thought it dull of Mrs. Fairford not to have picked up something newer; and as the evening progressed she began to suspect that it wasn't a real 'dinner party', and that they had just asked her in to share what they had when they were alone.

The Custom of the Country

Thoresby Dining Room by Marie-Louise Roosevelt Pierrepont 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

1835 - 1915

During the course of her fifty-five-year career, Mary Elizabeth Braddon adopted a variety of literary styles.  This extract is from The Doctor's Wife, an English version of Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

It was nearly three o'clock now, and high time for the opening of the hampers, Mr Raymond declared, when he rejoined the rest of the party, much to the delight of the orphans, who were always hungry, and who are so much, and yet remained so pale and skeleton-like of aspect, that they presented a pair of perpetual phenomena to the eye of the physiologist.  The baskets had been carried to a little ivy-sheltered arbour, perched high above the waterfall; and here Mr Raymond unpacked them, bringing out his treasures one after another; first a tongue, then a pair of fowls, a packet of anchovy sandwiches, a great poundcake (at sight of which the eyes of the orphans glistened), delicate caprices in the way of pastry, semi-transparent biscuits, and a little block of stilton cheese, to say nothing of sundry bottles of Madeira and sparkling Burgundy.
   Perhaps there never was a merrier party.  To eat cold chicken and drink sparkling Burgundy in the open air on a bright Mary afternoon is always an exhilarating kind of thing, though the scene of your picnic may be the bleakest of the Sussex Downs, or the dreariest of the Yorkshire Wolds; but to drink the sparkling wine in that little arbour at Hurstonleigh, with the brawling of the waterfall keeping time to your laughter, the shadows of patriarchal oaks sheltering you from all the outer world, is the very ultima Thule of bliss in the way of a picnic.

The Doctor's Wife

Holiday by James Tissot (c. 1876)

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

It was the Spring of 2009 that I caught my first glimpse of Kenwood House in Hampstead.  Meandering the streets from the tube stop I was beginning to regret my choice of footwear.  Directed into the park by local strollers and then onto a path I began to get the sinking feeling that I was going round in circles and would end up lost.  The blisters and whimpering were about to start when, just past the largest rhododendron bushes I have ever seen, the stunning white mansion appeared.  Any whimpering stopped there.

Having walked from room to room in Kenwood House and taken in the portraiture definitely created an extra layer of enjoyment in the reading of this book.  My Grade Nine African Studies lessons also came flooding back such as the graphic images of how slave traders would pack hundreds of people, stolen from their villages, into the hull of a ship allowing next to no room for movement.  Proper care and hygiene, forget it.  The gross negligence is bad enough but the barbaric treatment of women such as continuous rape and the ripping of babies out of mothers' arms to be thrown overboard made me livid.  There were some women though who, I can only imagine through guile, offered themselves as mistresses to the upper hierarchy of the ship's crew.  These women were provided with clothing, food, and even the opportunity to breathe the sea air instead of the noxious fumes of slop buckets and disease below deck.  Some of these women were even brought into the men's homes as their 'black wife'.

The circumstances of Dido Elizabeth Belle's birth in 1761 are unknown but whatever the case, her father Captain John Lindsay brought her to England from the West Indies to live in the lap of luxury.  His uncle, Lord Mansfield, and his wife were childless; another niece also came to stay but it's not known which girl arrived first.  The two girls grew up together, playing in the vast rooms at Kenwood House and taking regular carriage rides into Bloomsbury where the Mansfields also had a townhouse.

Shown above is the gorgeous portrait that has so many people wondering about Dido Belle's role in Lord Mansfield's extended family.  Paula Byrne does an excellent job of taking what little information there is and padding it out to create an informative and compelling read about slavery, abolitionists, a riot in Bloomsbury, the Georgian legal system in London and more.  The reader is also introduced to an interesting man, Granville Sharp, one of Britain's leading abolitionists who signed his name G#.  Pretty clever, I thought, considering his musical abilities.  As for the sugar trade it was the women of England who made their stance known from their kitchens and parlours...

'William Allen urged women, sipping their tea at home, to consider their responsibilities as consumers.  And it wasn't just the upper classes: a white working-class abolitionist called Lydia Hardy wrote to Olaudah Equiano to tell him that in her village of Chesham more people drank tea without sugar than with it.  So it was that women took the lead in the campaign to refuse to buy sugar or run, another product of the plantations.
  Lady Margaret Middleton hosted dinner parties at which she spoke and spread awareness of the horrors of the slave trade.  The novelist, playwright and evangelical writer Hannah More joined forces with her, and wrote anti-slavery pamphlets and poems.  The official seal of the abolitionists was Wedgwood's medallion bearing the figure of a manacled, kneeling slave and the slogan 'Am I not a man and brother?'.  Women abolitionists wore the medallion on chains around their necks, as bracelets or as hair ornaments.'

Last, but not least, the appendix features an interesting examination about a link between Dido and Jane Austen.  I'll leave it to any future readers to discover the details for themselves but think about this....Jane's novel Mansfield Park just so happens to contain slavery as a shadow story.  Very interesting...

The movie of the same name was playing here recently and naturally, since I have to jump all over anything related to English history featuring London porn, my husband and I went to see it.  We both really enjoyed it, Dido's story is a fascinating one, and it made me eager to learn more.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

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

d. 1936


Take a middling sort of parsnips, not over thick, and boil them as soft as you would do for eating; peel, and cut them in two the long way.  You must only fry the small ends, not the thick ones.  Beat two or three eggs, put to them a tablespoonful of flour, dip in your parsnips, and fry them a light brown in butter.  Have for your sauce a little vinegar and butter.

Pot -Luck

The Lean Kitchen by Jan Steen (1650 - 1655)