Sunday, April 28, 2019

Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party - Graham Greene

I'm finding it quite hard to extract myself from the world of Georgette Heyer at the moment; it's a comforting place to be - and in real life I ought to dust, and still have drain problems (consent has been given to have the floorboards up, but no sign of a date for that yet) and work isn't much fun either.

Because retiring to bed for a week with a pile of old romances isn't on the cards I thought reading something entirely different might be a good idea. Graham Greene is an author I've meant to read forever but never quite got to. 'Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party' is a long title for a novella, and I have no idea of how typical it is of Greene, but it turned out to be a good place to really start with him.

I'm fairly sure I bought this book because it was short, it's definitely what appealed to me about it when I picked it up last night (that and it had worked to the top of a pile). First published in 1980 it's late Greene, and it has a grotesque, gothic, air about it.

The narrator, a man in his 50's, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a girl in her 20's. She's the daughter of toothpaste millionaire Dr Fischer, who since the death of his wife has amused himself by tormenting a select group of wealthy friends. His aim is to see how deeply they will humiliate themselves in the pursuit of the extravagant gifts he gives them.

Anna-Luise, Dr Fischer's daughter, calls these friends the toads, and is happy leave her fathers house behind her. He in turn has no apparent interest in his daughter, but is keen to use her new husband as a fresh way of humiliating his toads.

It's an odd little book, it focuses on grief, greed, love, and hate - but mostly I think on grief and greed and maybe a little on the different rules that govern the very rich. Dr Fischer is a horror, but only because others allow him to be by acquiescing to his demands. As he keeps pointing out, nobody needs to play his games. They all have more than enough money to buy their own toys.

I'm fairly certain that I'd picked up some of Greene's books before and not got very far (Our Man in Havana' rings a bell), this book has convinced me to try again, and try a little harder if I find my attention wondering.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Frederica - Georgette Heyer #1965club

My love of Georgette Heyer must be fairly obvious by now, and yet again I'm using Simon and Kaggsy's book club as an excuse to re read one of them - 1965 is late Heyer which can be a bit ropey, but 'Frederica' is one of the better late books so I got lucky.

Before Christmas I started reading Jane Aiken Hodge's 'The Private World of Georgette Heyer', and now realise I only got about halfway through it. Even so I think it's probably a better biography than Jennifer Kloester's 'Biography of a Bestseller', mostly because Hodge was writing early enough not to be perturbed by a number of Heyer's prejudices, or feel any need to apologise for them. 

Heyer was a snob, her outlook is high Tory, and that's particularly obvious in 'Frederica'. But then she's not a writer you turn to for social realism and she's nothing worse than more or less representative of a good portion of her age and class. And despite that social conservatism, as romances her books are curiously subversive.

In 'Frederica' we have the eponymous heroine who is attractive rather than beautiful, her younger sister who is a stunner with an equally lovely personality but is a bit dim, and a rich Marquis who is persuaded to help them enter polite society and do the London season. Quite a lot of the book is devoted to the adventures of Frederica's younger brothers though - and that isn't typical romance.

Our heroine is 24, and responsible for 3 of her 4 younger siblings. The fourth, Harry, who is ostensibly their guardian and head of the family is quite happy to leave all the responsibility to his sister. When Heyer's father died (when she was in her early 20's) she became financially responsible for her mother and brothers, as well as supporting her husband whilst he experimented with various careers and then trained as a barrister. 'Frederica' is very good on the reality of responsibility with all its frustrations and joys. 

Something else that's typical of Heyer, but not necessarily typical in romance novels, is that love is based on mutual respect and a shared sense of humour. If Heyer's characters don't generally seem to be in a any particular hurry to get into bed with each other they always seem eager to share a joke or lend support when it's needed. It also means that the main impediment to a happy ever after in this book isn't some unlikely life or death situation, but that Frederica is to busy running a household and managing children to give any thought to love. 

The real appeal of Heyer though has to be her world building. Her regency England is a fantasy, full of lovely houses, lovingly described clothes, and any number of intriguing details. Reading her with google is an extra pleasure - I can look up all sorts of things now - including inflation calculators...

Heyer's research was impeccable, so when she mentions money here it felt worthwhile to see what she meant. Frederica and her sister have £5000 each, which if my guess of an 1820 setting is more or less correct comes out at about £475000 in today's money. When another character says he has about £2000 a year that's an income of around £189000. The best part of half a million sounds like a more than respectable dowry, but neither girl has many job options beyond wife. If you could hope for an income of between 3% to 5% of that amount you're looking at something between £15000 - £20000 a year in today's money. You can live on it, but it's not wealth. 

Marriage to a rich man means a considerable staff to manage and social, possibly political, influence as a hostess. When Frederica gets her happy ever after she's being guaranteed a life of comfort, but also the prospect of an interesting job compared to a make and scrape existence on minimum wage. 

This post is stretching on, I've deleted at least as much as I've written, and without even touching on what I think Heyer might be saying about 1965 (I find this book feels more socially conservative than some of her earlier ones and am tempted to see that as an older woman feeling nostalgic for the certainties of the past in a very fast changing world). 

'Frederica' hadn't been a particular favourite, but re-reading something familiar primarily because of the year it was written in is an excellent way to reassess previous impressions. One of the many things I love about Heyer is that her books always give me something new every time I read them. She's not perfect, but she's interesting. 

Thursday, April 25, 2019

On Seeing a Play More Than Once

As much as I love going to the theatre, and as much as I've wanted to see things again, it's only in the last few weeks that I've managed to see the same production multiple times - and it's been a bit of a revelation. So far I've managed to see The Taming of the Shrew 3 tmrs at the RSC - and I'd happily go again.

There are a couple of contributing factors to this beyond the quality of the production - one is a friend who enjoys live theatre even more than I do, and the other is the availability of heavily discounted tickets (check the RSC website from noon on Friday afternoons for offers for the following week if you can - we're lucky that we live just close enough to make midweek visits attractive).

I have slightly mixed feelings about the £10 tickets, mostly I'm really grateful for the opportunities they're giving - so far to see As You Like It which we hadn't planned on, and Taming of the Shrew more than once. Part of me worries about the implications of so many cheap seats though.

Still, it's a tremendous luxury to be able to get to know a production really well, and to see how it's developed from preview week. The biggest surprise has been seeing how much different seats affect how I see the performance. I really hadn't appreciated this before - generally we've opted for seats in the upper gallery (less expensive, no chance of being expected to participate, good overview).

Seats a couple of rows back from the stage and to its right (the RSC has a thrust stage) meant a much better view of the costumes, looking up at the action rather than down in it, and an entirely different awareness of what was going on. From the stalls my focus shifted towards whoever was directly in front of me rather than specifically following the dialogue. It's a better place to see how the cast interact with each other, and particular details. We both commented on how different it made the play seem. Third time round I went back to a gallery which confirmed those differences in perspective.

I really loved this production of The Taming of the Shrew the First time I saw it, and better acquaintance has only made me like it more. I'm not the biggest Shakespeare fan, I find his women generally disappointing, his low comedy too low for me, and the language often too involved and dense to really get to grips with. Watching a play as challenging/problematic as Shrew is refreshing because a sizeable part of the audience clearly shares the same reservations.

Flipping the genders and having women, and women's voices, dominating the stage does surprising things too. I'm not used to seeing so many women in the stage and it's thrilling, it was also one of the brilliant things about The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, as was Sophie Stanton who is also amazing in Shrew. Seeing is one thing, but hearing is another, I didn't expect so much more female speech to make a difference to me, but it does, maybe because it creates a balance in tones that makes the whole thing easier to listen to and follow (I certainly find it so).

In the end if it's a choice between seeing the same play twice, or two different things, the choice would always be to see the different things, but I'm really grateful to not need to make that choice at the moment. We're planning on seeing as much as we can, as often as we can, whilst we can.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Shetland Wool Week annual 2018 and a Happy Easter

The weather this weekend has been unusually idyllic for most of the UK, so I'm writing this whilst looking out of the window much in the manner of a dog who thinks it's long past time to go for a walk. But I'm already a bit sunburned around the neck and have work tomorrow so it's time to come in and be sensible.

My reading plans for the weekend didn't get as far as I'd hoped, mostly because it was much better to chat to my mother in the sun, and make a fuss of her dog. Both of those things are knitting friendly though, and so I've made good progress on a pair of mitts from last years Wool Week annual.

I've never really got to grips with ravelry, I've used it to look for patterns and ideas, and bought a couple of things through it, but that's as far as it goes. I know it would probably be useful but it's such a huge community that it feels a bit overwhelming - although it's reassuring to know it's there if I get in a mess with something.

One thing I really do love though are the Shetland Wool Week annuals (the last couple of editions are still available through the Wool Week shop Here). They're a nice combination of patterns, most of which lean towards the solidly traditional (and correspondingly timeless) and essays on various aspects of Shetland life. Earlier annuals have focused more on the knitwear industry, but the 2018 issue looks further, going back to explore the history of the women who followed the herring fleet as gutters, and forwards to the Perrie Makkers - the children who will keep this rich tradition alive and evolving.

There are a lot of gloves and mitts in the 2018 edition, along with a hat by a designer I particularly
like, Wilma Malcolmson. Her colours are always amazing, and she makes her hats a little larger than anyone else seems to. That makes them a better fit on me than most I've found so I'm very pleased to have the pattern for one.

The other thing I like about these patterns is that there's something for everyone from absolute beginners up. When I first saw one of these I was right at the beginning of learning to knit, and more interested in the history than what I might make. That's slowly changing, but either way they're one of the best investments in my knitting library.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday and Easter book plans.

One of the many downsides to working in retail (low pay is the biggest) is that bank holidays and weekends really aren't a thing - this is the first year in a long time when I've actually got two days off over Easter (Saturday and Sunday). I'm looking forward to going to my mother's, where all the drains work, tomorrow where I'll get the chance to be reasonably lazy*. Or at least get the chance to read a bit and catch up on a few things.

I've been reading 'A Woman in Berlin' which is excellent, but not an easy subject, so I've also started Eva Meijer's 'Bird Cottage'' and that's the book coming with me. The opening chapter begins with spring hedge cutting which seems particularly topical given the amount of hedges being netted this year to try and prevent nesting birds. Anyway, it hooked me in and I'm looking forward to reading more.

If anybody is looking for a last minute Easter present, especially for themselves, I'm still really enthusiastic about Sue Quinn's Cocoa. We don't go in for Easter eggs in a big way in our family, but should you have lots of left over chocolate there's no better place to look for some ideas about what to do with it. (Hot chocolate because it's still cold at night, and some really good cookies, are both calling to me).

Finally, the book I'm currently most anticipating for this summer is David Gange's 'The Frayed Atlantic Edge', even more so after skimming through the bibliography he's put together on his blog. There are quite a few favourite books and films mentioned, so I'm really looking forward to going through that list properly and making notes on what to search out.

*This is dog dependent, if it's warm enough she'll collapse in a heap under the hedge at the bottom of the garden and mostly leave us in peace. If it's not warm enough she will want to play an endless game of teasing us with a toy. We have to pretend we want the toy, she won't let us touch the toy, but if she thinks we're not sufficiently interested in the toy she gets very annoyed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Time: A Year & A Day in the Kitchen - Gill Meller

I bought 'Time' back in September when it came out, but there were a lot of really good cookbooks coming out last autumn, and for most of this year my kitchen has been more or less unusable because of the drain situation.*

Cooking is one of the things I like to do to cope with stress, but the inconvenience of having to use the bathroom sink for washing up is off putting. I'm eating a lot of sandwiches and takeaway, and not feeling great on it. Fortunately salad season is getting closer and whilst I'm not wild about washing lettuce in the bathroom either, it seems more manageable than pots and pans.

Meanwhile when my mother picked up the latest lot of washing from me (this is an upside, and she irons EVERYTHING, even tea towels) she bought me some rhubarb from the garden. It reminded me of the rhubarb with rose geranium leaves recipe in 'Time' (a baking tray lined with foil is easy to deal with) and thought I'd give it a go.

I bought a rose geranium about 5 years ago specifically to cook with, and never did (it's currently looking a bit sorry for itself and obviously needs a bigger pot) so this really was the perfect recipe. My rhubarb hasn't been forced so the finished result doesn't look anything like as pretty as the one in the book, but it tastes good, so I'm happy with it.

Rhubarb baked in an oven with light brown sugar, honey, and rose geranium leaves isn't precisely the healthy take on fruit and veg I'm craving, but it's delicious. I've never sweetened it with honey either and I like the flavour it brings - it makes the whole thing a little bit more complex and interesting.

Now that 'Time' is off the shelf I might keep it on the kitchen table for a while and try and use it more. I like Mellers food and philosophy, and I like the way the recipes in this book are arranged first by the time of day, and then by season, for the way it makes me think about food, although it would probably be easier to navigate if it was the other way around. Or at least, I'm used to navigating by season first and then meal - so this feels a bit like being in a supermarket that's had a re-arrange to make you look at everything afresh.

I also think this is a slightly more challenging book than 'Gather' was. I really loved 'Gather', specifically the way it was rooted in the landscape that Meller inhabits. It had a real sense of terroir. 'Time' is more about kitchens (which tell their own stories about how their users cook) and the mood is different. Maybe it's the difference between a guide and a host, I can't yet quite put my finger on it - another reason to spend more time actually making the food.

*Yep, the drain is still blocked. I'm currently waiting for a disclaimer form to arrive in the post so I can promise I won't get to upset about any damage to the floorboards that apparently need to come up for the current round of investigations to be finished. The problem is pressing for me, less so for my neighbour who is being evasive about the whole thing so I'm a bit worried that he might not sign.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

We Are Feminist - Foreword by Helen Pankhurst

'We Are Feminist: An Infographic History of the Women's Rights Movement' is a brief, easily digestible, overview of the fight for equality across the world. As Helen Pankhurst points out in her foreword it's by no means comprehensive, but it does try to give a sense of the central achievements of feminism.

Today is one of those days when I'm really feeling my age (a stinking cold with all the attendant aching joints is really sticking the knife in), a day when I have to take myself off Twitter, and remind myself why it's a bad idea to read BTL comments on Guardian articles. A day when it seems impossible to work out where I stand in the current culture and identity wars and everything seems hopelessly complicated. The sort of day when it feels like we're going backwards.

That's exactly the sort of day when it's helpful to have something that unashamedly celebrates the achievements of the 'strident' women this book focuses on. It's uplifting, and to quote Millicent Fawcett "Courage calls to courage everywhere" - there's nothing complicated about that.

Courage calls to courage everywhere is maybe the defining theme of this book. All of the women in it, however problematical some of them may now seem (it's hard to be a second wave feminist these days) are united by a thread of courage and determination. For me that's the most exciting thing here - learning a few names I haven't heard before, and can now research at more length, as well as being inspired again by figures I'm more familiar with.

There are statistics that demonstrate how far we have come, and there's a bit of political and historical context for each wave of feminism which is useful too. Altogether it might not be the most serious examination of the subject, but it's a good basic introduction - easy to follow, and with a lot of information packed into such a small format.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Tea House Detective - Baroness Orczy

The Tea House Detective: The Old Man in the Corner, is a book I've wanted to read for a while. Mostly because I'm generally interested in Baroness Orczy (due to a childhood obsession with The Scarlet Pimpernel), but also because she's one of the relatively early people writing in the detective fiction genre.

The Old Man in the Corner is probably the earliest arm chair detective (it's what the Ellery Queen quote on the cover says), and Orczy's foray into detective fiction must have been inspired by the success of Sherlock Holmes - the old man being something of a Holmes like character with Polly Burton, journalist, filling the Watson role.

The old man (we don't learn his name) parks himself at Polly's favourite table in her regular lunch time cafe and without much encouragement starts to explain to her just how hopeless the police are by giving her solutions for various notorious unsolved crimes. He is clearly one of the world's great mansplainers.

Polly seems to be as fascinated as she is irritated (it's never clear if she uses any of his insights in her journalistic career) but over time something of a friendship obviously builds up between the pair. This is really a collection of short stories with a particular thread running through them that makes sense in the final episode (where Polly finally gets the last word) so it's no surprise to read that they originally appeared in serial form before being collected into a book in 1908.

As short stories they're fun, the who done it element is more or less obvious from the beginning of each story (only one tripped me up) but they're pleasing enough mysteries for all that. Maybe more so because the culprits and clues are so easy to spot.

More interesting is how ambiguous the old mans morals are. He feels no need to take his insights to the police, and no duty to see justice meted out upon the guilty. He simply wants to demonstrate to somebody how clever he is. Polly seems to accept this, maybe because she doesn't always believe his explanations, but her own conclusion and reaction to the final crime is curious. It's not entirely clear where her sympathies lie at all and it's that little bit of ambiguity that in the end makes this book memorable.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Death Has Deep Roots - Michael Gilbert

After a month or so of struggling to read I've finally managed to finish some of the books I'd started, and find the enthusiasm for more. It feels good to not only want to lose myself in a book again, but to find the concentration to do it.

The British Library's latest crime classics have certainly helped that process along. I think I'd sort of heard of Michael Gilbert before, the name certainly feels familiar, but I hadn't read him. He may be my favourite discovery from this series - and I have really loved some of the BL books. 'Death Has Deep Roots' is from relatively early in his writing career (1951), which if the bibliography on Wikipedia is correct seems to have kicked off in 1947.

'Death Has Deep Roots' starts at the beginning of a murder trial. Victoria Lamartine is accused of killing Major Eric Thoseby and disatisfied with the direction her original defence was taking has engaged a new team. With only a few days to go a desperate search for new evidence begins. A search that goes all the way back to France and the war time activities of Lamartine and Thoseby.

One of the things that makes this book so successful is that Gilbert is writing what he knows about - primarily the law (his profession), and the war. The feeling that what happens in court is more or less what would happen in court is compelling, but I found the war bits even more so.

The war might be over, but it's only 1951, it hasn't been over so very long and the scars are all still pretty fresh. Added to the network of men who were at school together, is a network of those who served together. The young solicitor, Nap, who heads off to France to gather information is convincing because it's easy to imagine that he's still as much soldier as he is solicitor, and that just maybe he misses some parts of his war work.

It also makes the various episodes of violence feel particularly threatening. They're not especially showy but there's no doubt that these characters hold the lives of others cheaply. A bit more death won't much matter to them.

The descriptions of life in the Loire under occupation are deliberately brutal too. They're used to remind the jury and other spectators in an English courtroom that the hardships of the blitz were quite different to those of running resistance under the nose of the gestapo. These are the details which give the plot credibility and in turn make this a particularly enjoyable thriller. Gilbert's humour also helps with that. It's very satisfying to know I've got two more waiting to be read.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Victoria - A ballet by Cathy Marston

The kitchen drain saga continues, and continues to be a demand on time, patience, and ingenuity. We're apparently waiting for news about insurance and access to some other part of the building this week.

I think Prince Albert probably worried more about drains than Victoria would have done, he seems the micro managing type. Happily it's not an issue the Cathy Marston worries about in 'Victoria'.

This theatre trip was to the altogether local Curve in Leicester. It's a theatre I'd like to go to more so I'm always pleased when something comes up that I actually want to see. Northern Ballet's shows are a definite draw, they've even started to convince my previously ballet ambivalent friend that it's an art worth paying £30+ a seat to see.

'Victoria' is brand new, as good as the reviews say, and absolutely worth catching if you can. It's told from the point of view of Victoria and Albert's youngest child, Beatrice, who Victoria intended to keep with her as a companion. It opens with Victoria as a demanding old woman on the edge of death. She leaves Beatrice with her diaries, which she begins to read.

The scene shifts to the early days of Victoria's widowhood and her growing relationship with John Brown, and becoming Empress of India, before shifting to Beatrice's own courtship with Prince Henry of Battenberg (Liko). Victoria is initially resistant to the idea of losing Beatrice, and though Liko wins her round, his allotted role isn't enough for him so he returns to the army. He dies in Africa.

The scenes that show the relationship between young Beatrice and Liko, with the older Beatrice literally clinging on to him at times, are particularly powerful with both her happiness and loss palpable. It finishes with her anger as she considers how her mothers demands have shaped her life.

The second half explores Victoria's early life, and marriage. The horrors of the Kensington system are alluded to, and so are the fights with Albert, as well as the passion, followed by the sheer grind of almost continuous pregnancy and childbirth. By the end Beatrice has made peace with her memories.

There's so much to enjoy about this - the score is perfect, the performances are excellent, but what I particularly appreciated was the both the focus on Beatrice and the acknowledgement of the complexity of Victoria's personality and relationships, especially how controlling Albert was.