Tuesday, April 23, 2013

It's a sad day when...

My very local Waterstones is closing down. The news was in the Leicester Mercury today and for all the world I felt like I was reading an obituary. Until June 1st Leicester has 2 branches of Waterstones both of which are perhaps most accurately described as adequate bookshops which is no reflection on the staff who have always been wonderful (Nottingham Waterstones by comparison is excellent but then it also feels like it's always had a bit more love from on high) my branch used to be a Dillons and once upon a time it was the best bookshop I'd ever seen. 

In all honesty Leicester doesn't need 2 branches within a quarter of a mile of each other and the closure of 1 branch has seemed inevitable ever since Dillons and Waterstones became one. I'm sorry that they're closing the larger branch partly because it has space for a better range but mostly because I have a deep emotional attachment to that shop. I used to spend Saturdays browsing there when paperbacks were about £2.50 each and when it had a theology department that also sold church candles - you know, back in the good old days when bookshops were really bookshops... 

Over the years I've spent thousands of pounds and as many hours in that shop. In the Costa (resented because it took good book selling space) I've drunk endless coffee's with friends, it's where the Scottish one first suggested we meet for tea and buns (how could he fail to be the right man for me after that?), I used to have a sneaky skive in there when I worked round the corner, and it's been the one shop in town I go in every time I go into town. 

Personal reasons aside though it's sad to see another shop go, it's a large building with enough age and charm to make it hard to imagine anybody else taking it on any time soon. The city centre is - well whatever it is, it isn't thriving, these are grim times, and however much sense this particular closure makes it still feels like something to mourn - and as much as I'll miss the shop I'll miss the staff more, I hope the next month isn't too hideous for them.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Where does the time go?

I realise I haven't been posting much here over the last few weeks, nor have I been reading as many books (though I've bought more recently than any time on the last few years), and there are emails I've been meaning to send for a week that I haven't done anything about. Having a cold hasn't helped - I will say again that I'm rubbish about colds, and although this one hasn't been as vile as it might I resent it's turning up as spring finally begins, also it's been enough to make work hideous. 

The final demise of Margaret Thatcher has had it's effect to - I've resisted posting about it because really others have said it all better and there's more than enough on the subject out there already. What I will say is that the Thatcher years bookended my childhood so I'm a sucker to be stirred up by all the media furore over her death. It's years since I've read the papers quite as avidly (eating into the book time). Thank heavens I'm on holiday soon (one week to go and I'm crossing the days off) which will hopefully mean time to catch up with myself for bit and time to read some of the, by now frankly overwhelming, pile of books I've been collecting.

Meanwhile today has been a lovely foretaste of what time off should be like despite most of my plans falling through - up to and including going out for milk; I went out for milk and came back with books, no milk. I'm particularly pleased to have found copies of Meike Ziervogel's 'Magda' in both my local Waterstones; they almost never have a book I'm actually looking for though plenty that I'm not but find I want once I've seen them (including today's example of L. M. Montgomery's 'The Blue Castle'). The highlight though was breakfast with the sun streaming through the window and a pile of cookbooks deciding what to cook for this evening. It feels like an age since I cooked anything new (or looked for a recipe which wasn't basically cake), inspiration came from 'Jekka's Herb Cookbook' for pork belly roasted with a garlic and myrtle crust (Jekka's version was for bay, but I have a myrtle on my windowsill and it makes a good swap). 

I had forgotten how exciting this book is and spent some time bookmarking pages (lavender and sweet wine jelly is sounding like a must) before taking it as a cue to go and have a more general sort out. Incidentally part of the charm of this book are the illustrations by Hannah McVicar - they can be ordered here and I'm sorely tempted which rather makes the point that it's not just books I accumulate. There is a lot of stuff in my flat and it's past time for some redecorating (I was burgled 6 years ago, there are still burgler fingerprints on one wall and they're still there because the effort of moving bookcases to paint properly has been to off putting, but this year it's happening), To make it happen there will need to be a damn good clear out (youngest sister has agreed to accept some 'presents' for her new flat) I don't know quite how this will go; I'm much better at getting things than getting rid of them but I'm optimistic. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Peking Picnic - Ann Bridge

'Peking Picnic' was written at much the same time as 'Heat Lightning' and both are in some way concerned with finding a code for living and loving by (both have also had glowing reviews from Book Snob)  but otherwise I found them very different books - 'Peking Picnic' troubles me which is not what I expected at all.

I've been part of a postal book group for the last four years - it's a nice old fashioned idea whereby a circle of readers send books to one another with a notebook - when the circle is complete you get both back with a whole lot of comments. 'Peking Picnic' is the last book for me in this round so I can see from the notebook that plenty of others like it very much indeed. I however have two issues with it, one is pacing - very little happens for 180 pages and then all of a sudden there is hostage episode with some murderous brigands, some surprising gymnastic feats, love affairs are started, and an unexpected death - it made the book feel very unbalanced to me and raised questions about how genuine some of the characters emotions could be.

The second issue is the heroine and her philosophy. Laura Leroy is the wife of a British diplomat and at the centre of the diplomatic community in Peking. She reminds me of Vita Sackville-West as a young woman, but is more likely a version of Ann Bridge herself. She's cool and wise, physically active, capable in a crisis, attractive and intelligent, but all this is mixed with a streak of self indulgence that I find problematical. Laura loves China (the description of Peking and it's surrounding countryside is a wonderful snapshot of life there in 1931 and the book's worth reading for that alone) seems reasonably happy with her life and husband, although she misses her children back at school in England, and yet there's something amiss.

I've long cherished a theory that in a society where divorce is a major scandal, adultery is likely to be tacitly accepted as long as it's discreet (it's probably not a theory that bears much examination but this book seems to bear it out). Laura's theory is that love is never a waste, she has had 3 loves in her life and by the end of the book is contemplating a 4th. Not for the sex - that's something she considers agreeable but only a small part of loving - but for the whole spectrum of emotions that go with love. Her husband is 1 of the 3 loves, she won't leave him, won't do anything that jeopardises access to her children, but won't be faithful to him either which sits at odds with her apparent integrity. When another character asks if her husband knows about the infidelity she's just confessed too she explains how cruel that would be - she doesn't mention that it might be inconvenient as well - and that's my problem. I feel that when you prod Laura's philosophy it doesn't hold together, my overall impression is of someone who has her cake and eats it too.

After finishing the book I read a bit more about Bridge who was apparently annoyed by her own diplomat husbands philandering which has made me wonder if this - her first novel - was partly meant to let him know it could work both ways, or maybe just a hint not to take his wife for granted (either way it made me warm to Laura Leroy a little). It's a book I found more interesting than enjoyable, and though I wouldn't rule out reading more Bridge if it comes my way I'm not sure I'll go looking for her. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Heat Lightning - Helen Hull

'Heat Lightning' is exactly the sort of book I associate with Persephone (and then I'm constantly surprised by how varied their list is) and I'll say it now - quite an odd one to read whilst there's still traces of snow on the ground (although thankfully it's starting to warm up) because oppressive heat is inescapable in the novel.

Amy Norton is visiting her parents somewhere in the mid west, she's recuperating from an operation and also running away from something uncomfortable in her marriage. Back at home in the stifling heat of that mid western summer Amy is able to observe her family with some of the impartiality of an outsider and hopes that this will give her some clarity to help deal with her own problems. It's also 1930 - the drought stricken summer that followed the stock market crash of 1929  - still the beginning of the depression and all sorts of storms are about to break over the Westover family.

Patricia McClelland Miller raises a couple of points in her introduction which I found particularly interesting. The first is about the American search for a national identity in the face of a lack of common tradition. This is something that was a major theme in American art (or perhaps more properly in the arts) at the time, the Westover family has acquired first and second generation immigrants amongst it's daughter in laws who bring their own cultural values and expectations with them. One of the problems Amy is grappling with is her attempt to work out her own set of values to live by in a constantly shifting society. The second point, and it's worth some consideration, is about the changing fortunes of domestic and 'feminine' fiction. McClelland says that ' When Helen Hull's earlier novels were described as 'women's books', reviewers meant that they were written on controversial topics from a woman's point of view.' By the 1930's though it became a somewhat more pejorative term, it still is, but really - why should it be? 

When Amy returns home it's to find the family suffering from the heat and all a little bit on edge. Things aren't going well in her father's business, nor are they looking good for her uncle. Cousin Tom may be having an affair with the maid, and Grandmother Westover promptly reveals that the increasingly erratic man she has to do the garden is in fact her husbands illegitimate son - his learning difficulties persuaded her that something had to be done for him and she's not the woman to renege on her responsibilities. 

As the heat shows no sign of breaking the tension increases, the cracks in Amy's marriage show, the financial implications of the depression get closer to home for Dewitt Westover who's about to show just what a man will do for money and then something happens which utterly alters the family dynamic. There's a lot going on in this book, Hull uses this extended family to work through all sorts of ideas - and the genius of it is that everybody has a domestic setting of some sort, whereas our individual experiences of the world outside of the home isn't always easy to translate into the experience of others, what happens within the home is far easier to empathise with. 

It's not the biggest spoiler to reveal that Amy's husband has been unfaithful , and as the book I'm struggling to finish at the moment is also about what I'm coming to think of as good old fashioned adultery, it's interested me to see the differences. In this case the marriage has hit a rough patch where both Amy and Geoffrey are out of sympathy with each other. When Amy catches him out she's not in a position to immediately have it out with him, but when they do they do at least manage to be honest with each other. The implication is that they might be able to repair things but that it won't be easy. As examples Amy has, amongst others, her grandmother who was able to accommodate her husbands indiscretions within their marriage somehow, her mother who has made her father her life, and an aunt who's marriage failed after a series of infidelities. Examining all those relationships allows her - and the reader - to consider what she wants from her own husband and what she's prepared to give. 

It's a rewarding book as well as a really enjoyable one, it's also a book to go back to and one that I whole heartedly recommend.   

Friday, April 12, 2013

Lost in the Stacks

Danielle at A Work In Progress has asked me to take part in her Lost In The Stacks series, as I love looking at other peoples bookshelves almost as much as I love talking about my own books I was entirely chuffed by this invitation - so just in case you don't get enough of me here please go and have a look over there.

In this picture (it's actually quite odd to see images of my flat on someone else's blog, though I'm not quite sure why that should be?) you can just make out two paintings by one of my favourite artists Ruth Brownlee I think her work is extraordinary and long for more of it (in the event of fire or flood it's the paintings I'd grab, not books) she really is worth looking up (and buying from whilst she's still affordable) so I'm quite pleased to have sneaked these in even if they are hard to see.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Warpaint - Alicia Foster

As any regular reader here will know I don't read much new fiction at all, less that could come under the 
heading of historical fiction, and even less that's set in the twentieth century. For the most part I feel that there were plenty of perfectly good novels written at the time which cover the things I'm interested in and which don't have the distracting element of somebody trying to get the period details right or drawing my attention to the details to show how spot on they are. Sometimes though a book comes along that throws something new into the mix, generally things that couldn't, or wouldn't have been openly discussed, and with 'Warpaint' those are more things I'm interested in.

Alicia Foster has a history of art PhD, published works on Gwen John and catalogued theTate's collection of work by women artists 'Warpaint' is an offshoot of some of that research - an intriguing mix of actual and imagined events. 'Warpaint' deals specifically with 4 female artists - the real Dame Laura Knight and 3 fictionalised characters - Faith Farr, Cecily Browne, and Vivienne Thayer (based reasonably closely on the actual artists Grace Golden, Evelyn Dunbar, and Isabel Delmar). It takes place over the winter of 1942/43 and opens with a courier delivering something highly secret to a discreet gothic villa somewhere in the vicinity of Bletchley park before heading off to the London office of Sir Kenneth Clark in his capacity as head of the War Artists Advisory Committee...

A repellent young man (Aubrey Smith) has been given the unwelcome job of trying to get some work out of Dame Laura, Faith, and Cecily none of whom seem to be as grateful or fawning as he would like. For Dame Laura this is the chance to paint something important and she'll be damned if she lets the ministries desire for wholesome and uplifting pictures get in the way of that. Faith is embroiled in her own drama and traumatised by what she's seen and experienced - she wants to record the world she sees and isn't very interested in producing propaganda. Cecily, from the WAAC point of view is the least troublesome - she's happy to produce uplifting pieces showing women doing their best in difficult circumstances - even if the women she meets aren't behaving quite as she's like them too. Vivienne works for her husband at 'Black' - based in that discreet villa. It's her job to turn out postcard images designed to play on the paranoia of enemy servicemen.  

Foster uses these different women 'to explore the efforts of those in power to create and control representation, in both it's official and wholesome, and it's covert and more sinister, aspects' she also has a bit of fun with a spy story and a love affair. I think the book really comes alive when talking about the art - it's a nice touch that Foster describes paintings by the real life counterparts of her fictional creations; I had a very nice time tracking down images, the visual element added something special. Beyond the fun of it Foster uses these images really effectively to make her point, she also picks up on imagery from films - the stiff upper lip, brave little woman stuff that we all know and which has become our memory of that collective past - and keeps prodding at it, pointing out how unrealistic those representations of women are. 

Initially I felt that the misogyny was overdone but actually it isn't. Looking at old posters is a stark reminder of how things were. I really liked this book, it's not all perfect, but it's got me thoroughly interested in it's issues and sent me off looking for all sorts of things and any book that does that is a gem.     

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On knowing art

A month or so ago Stuck-in-a-Book wrote a piece about not knowing much about art, there are a number of interesting comments at the end of it with some excellent recommendations for places to discover more. I particularly rate the BBC Your Paintings site which has catalogued over 210,000 of the nations oil paintings - this is a brilliant project (if you don't already know it) that has set out to catalogue all the paintings (oil, acrylic, and tempura only - to add watercolours and drawings would push the numbers unmanageably high) in public collections. So far the project has turned up a couple of old masters that had been miss-attributed, which has been nice publicity, but is in no way the most exciting thing about this catalogue - I'll come on to that in a bit. 

Why Simon's post stuck in my mind is this - I commented that analysing a painting was as valid as analysing a book - a position that Simon was unconvinced by, he felt that 'it would be a bizarre coincidence if they were equally analysable forms' because he believes that words offer more scope for analysis than images. My feeling is that he's entirely wrong, but then my degree is in History of Art, whereas Simon is on the last leg of his doctorate and reads Virginia Woolf for fun so it's an understandable difference of opinion. Still, it was one of those differences that stopped me short for a moment and it's been at the back of my mind ever since.
Evelyn Dunbar - A Canning Demonstration

At the Penguin bloggers do last week I had a brief conversation with Alicia Foster about her book 'Warpaint' and about art, and history of art generally. Both book and conversation gave me plenty to think about and also took me back to that earlier conversation with Simon. I accept that one of the wonderful things about the visual arts is that you can just look at them and enjoy them - on one level it's immediately accessible - but, and this matters, the more you know about what you're looking at the more you get from it. A little bit of context is a wonderful thing, and that's obviously true for books as well. I also think it's easy to take images for granted, after all what book is as well known as the Mona Lisa, or what icon more potent than the statue of liberty? These are images that have been used and manipulated so many times that they have as many layers of meaning as an onion has skins.  

When I went off to university roughly 20 years ago women weren't a big part of either the literary of artistic canon and it wasn't unusual to meet the opinion that there were no great women artists in either field because they just didn't have the talent (mostly met it should be said in undergraduate boys). It's the sort of statement that you obviously know is rubbish but is very hard to counter when you don't have the works to back you up. When it comes to literature the success of publishers like Virago and Persephone, the current cult for Jane Austen, and the high profile of writers like Hilary Mantel amongst others have changed that conversation. I think what the likes of Virago and Persephone have done is particularly important because they've made the point that quietly domestic fiction matters too. 

With art it doesn't feel like we've come as far, which is all the more curious when I think that in my day at least 90% of the students were female - though 80% of the lecturers were male. Art schools throughout the twentieth century were full of women, women have been making a living with a paintbrush for much longer than that, but they're not easy to find. One benefit of the Your Paintings project is that they should now be easier to track down and that's a very good thing, if we don't get the balance right then we don't really understand what our history looks like. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Goodbye Look - Ross MacDonald

Penguin modern classics have led me to some fantastic Noir crime finds over the last couple of years (long may it continue) of which Ross Macdonald may well be the pick of the bunch - simply because there are so many of his books to look forward to.

This is the third Macdonald I've read now and there are definite themes emerging. Physcology and physchiatrists are both important. As far as I can remember there's always a doctor around and although their role may be relatively small in this book at least it was pivotal. More important is that an initial crime, one often several years old, will come back to be the catalyst for whatever is happening now - the sins of the fathers are always visited on the children. In this case a gun that was used in a murder 15 years previously keeps turning up at new crime scenes, and that first murder was the result of another crime some 7 years earlier. 

There's something quietly satisfactory about Macdonald's habit of looking back into the past for cause and motive - his complex family based plots clearly owe a lot to the Greek classics (I expect Freud would have approved) which explains the preoccupation with fate and it's habit of pursuing you like so many furies when you've done wrong. 

Truthfully (and by now obviously) I find this book hard to write about. It's atmospheric, intelligent, has the necessarily funny one liners to counterbalance the grimmer moments, and is altogether a pleasure to read, but what it doesn't do is make me think very deeply, or set me off on tangents to explore - which is part of the appeal. The point, for me, of trying to write about any, and generally all of the books I read, is to try and organise my thoughts about them, and most importantly (for me) to remember them so even when i don't have much to say it feels worthwhile to make the effort!