Tuesday 29 January 2013

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

Let me admit something straight away; this is the first Persephone title I've read. But immediately I'm a convert to these beautifully produced works of art in their own right, by often forgotten, early twentieth century (mainly women) authors.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is by Julia Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group and contemporary of Virginia Woolf  whose Hogarth Press first published the book. Strachey is described in the introduction by her friend Frances Partridge as 'a misfit in life'; abandoned by her parents, twice married but with a string of love affairs in between.  I took this as a good sign, as misfits usually have the most interesting things to say - where's the story in conformity? Reading a little about her, I've found her writing compared to that of Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and Stella Gibbons amongst others.

Like Mrs Dalloway, the events in this novella take place over the span of a single day, opening with Dolly, the young bride-to-be, in the drawing room of her family's country home. After a short engagement, Dolly has agreed to go to South America with her groom in a transaction which seems bereft of much romance and holds her in a state of wistful semi-paralysis.

Strachey's writing often sparkles. She describes the house beautifully, giving a very particular sense of place. I loved her description of the ancient drawing room mirror

...rusted over with tiny specks by the hundred, and also the quicksilver at the back had become blackened in the course of ages, so that the drawing room, as reflected in its corpse-like face, seemed forever swimming in an eerie, dead-looking metallic twilight, such as is never experienced in the actual world outside.'

I read a quote some time ago in the Wit & Wisdom section of The Week (and I'm afraid I've forgotten the attribution) that a parent is only as happy as their saddest child. On this basis Dolly's mother, Mrs Thatcham has had some sort of maternal bypass (or perhaps more likely doesn't share our early 21st century sensibilities) as, immune to her daughter's foreboding, she wraps herself up in the organisation of the day, which she nevertheless often gets wrong. Fortunately, the servants are on hand to take the blame for her shortcomings, as wedding guests begin to arrive at the house. Dolly's school boy cousin Tom is determined his younger brother Robert should change his emerald green socks for something more suited to the occasion, but Robert is equally determined he will not - a quarrel which threads itself entertainingly through the narrative. Amongst the cast of bridesmaids, elderly aunts, children and the Canon who will be conducting the ceremony is Joseph, who emerges as the real object of Dolly's affections but seems disinclined to do anything about it, at least until it's too late.

Dolly resorts to the bottle and descends into drunkenness upstairs and the guests downstairs tuck into a rather chaotic pre-wedding lunch. As ceremony approaches and the story of the day unfolds, Strachey portrays her characters with great authenticity and detail and yet their potential is never fully explored and they often remain irritatingly two dimensional.

I almost liked Cheerful Weather for the Wedding very much. Strachey is an accomplished writer and I certainly found her much more accessible than Woolf. The novella has some gloriously comedic moments and hints at underlying darkness, but in the end I found it just too slight and the story I was looking for was not quite the one that was written. There is a tale with much greater depth lurking behind its facade, and to turn it into a successful film I think this will have needed to be unearthed. I'd be intrigued to discover if it has.

This review is part of a group readalong organized by Simon at Stuck in a Book, more reviews and comments can be found here

Wednesday 23 January 2013

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley is an evocative memoir of an age long gone, before the onset of the First World War, when Kenya was known as British East Africa.

The country is largely uncultivated except by the indigenous 'savages' whom the British believe it is their duty to civilise. The writer as a little girl sets forth from Nairobi with her parents, Robin and Tilly, to start a coffee farm on what is on the map
five hundred acres of blank space with a wriggling line, presumed to be a river, on each side.
The land Robin has bought with the money he had left from various other failed ventures, was previously known for game hunting, with big cats being shot on sight and bagged for their valuable skins. Robin is buoyed by the optimism of a new venture, but Tilly is more pragmatic, having already lost many of her personal possessions in the settling of her husband's various debts. Of Robin building a house ready for the arrival of his wife and daughter she says simply,
'I only hope that if he builds one, he will do so on the right farm' 
But Tilly likes a project and isn't easily daunted, even though there is no house when they arrive, and the native Kikuyu tribe are not nearly as co-operative as she was initially led to believe. Within a few days, a rudimentary grass dwelling has been constructed and land is beginning to be cleared for the planting.

Elspeth is a solitary child in this world of adults, as most children of her class are being educated at boarding schools back home in England. But this simply isn't an option for her until her parents begin to make their fortune from coffee, something which is mentioned regularly but appears more and more remote as progress is obstructed at every turn. Her life is full of privations, from insect bites to the threat of attack by wild animals or tribes perpetually on the brink of war with each other.

Nevertheless, although Elspeth's formal education is haphazard, the world she describes through her child's-eye observations is magical and informally she is gleaning so much more than her boarding school contemporaries could ever imagine. In our book group, we wondered how much Elspeth would have understood at the time and how much she filled in later from a more mature perspective, but this really doesn't detract from the story. The fellow settlers, both British and Boer, are particularly fascinating, especially attractive young Lettice Palmer who arrives with her very proper ex-soldier husband Hereward, but is soon revealed to be facing a dilemma of her own.

Through grit, determination and many adventures, Tilly and Robin establish themselves on the farm, but everything they have worked for is threatened by the approach of war. Reading this later part of the book brought to mind one of my favourite poems by Philip Larkin MCMXIV (1914) because they both so vividly evoke an era on the cusp of change, when Britain was still an empire but its days were severely numbered.

Larkin's poem describes those 'long uneven lines' of men waiting to enlist, with their
 moustached archaic faces grinning as if it were all an August Bank Holiday lark
and this is reflected in the enthusiasm of the men in British East Africa, both white and black, as they race to sign up, afraid of missing out on all the fun. At first it is thought the fighting will be over quickly and life can return to normal, but as Robin and Tilly are caught up in the war effort, Elspeth is sent away from Thika and its burgeoning flame trees to stay with family friends. Gradually it becomes clear that the battle will not easily be won and nothing will ever be the same; in the words of Larkin, 'never such innocence again.'

Wednesday 16 January 2013

The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna

I've missed out a bit on the recent fascination with all things Nordic. I read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo several years ago and didn't like it much, so didn't pick up the other two titles in the trilogy or see any of the films. I know it's like judging all American literature by Dan Brown, but I think I've been lacking inspiration. 

Well, that's all changed now, for two reasons. First of all I've become hooked on the second series of the Danish political drama Borgen, having completely missed series one, despite my friend's regular recommendations (see, Liz, I do listen to you in the end!) A recent episode made a seminar on welfare reform and the phasing out of early retirement into a hotbed of intrigue and there are some gripping story lines involving the main characters' entangled personal lives.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph
Secondly, I've been reading The Howling Miller by Finnish author Arto Paasilinna, a very beautiful limited edition published by my local Bath bookshop Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, which I was lucky enough to be given for Christmas.

Set in the forests of Northern Finland sometime after the end of the Second World War, this is indeed a story about a miller who howls. Gunnar Huttunen lives alone in the isolated water mill he's renovating, howling at intervals to release his mercurial emotions. Eventually, he alienates most of his neighbours with his unpredictable behaviour and they conspire to label him mad, even though their own actions are often equally idiosyncratic. And so, we follow Gunnar's story as he's shunned by all but Sanelma the ample-bottomed horticultural adviser, the local police constable Portimo and an unlikely moonshine-brewing postman.

I found myself imagining a neighbour in my hamlet who howls at night and sets the dogs barking so sleep is impossible, who makes house calls at four in the morning and throws the shopkeeper's scales into a well. He'd be a nightmare to live near but, despite this, Gunnar emerges as the hero of this story. He's generous hearted with touchingly redeeming qualities; his love for Sanelma, care for his vegetable patch and skill in restoring the mill. You find yourself rooting for him against his small-minded neighbours, as they first have Gunnar removed to an asylum where the patients are more sane than the doctors, then do their best to prevent him from returning.

This is an endearing fable with a remarkable sense of place and a satisfying ending. Read it for quirky characters by the shed load, crisp, clear writing despite it being a Finnish-to-French-to-English translation (quite a feat, Will Hobson) and humour which veers towards the dark side, yet is ultimately uplifting.

As for me, I'm continuing my belated Nordic epiphany with Paasilinna's The Year of the Hare, which we've just chosen to read in my book club...

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins by Rupert Everett

We fancied a bit of an autobiography in my book club - a fun, holiday read, nothing too heavy. But it had to be written by somebody who'd been around long enough to have an interesting life - not a five minute celebrity who'd just won a talent contest. And they had to be able to write, because we didn't want to be cringing over our Christmas cake. Hmm, we're a demanding lot, but we thought we might have found our salvation in Rupert Everett.

Now, Rupert has just brought out Vanished Years, the second instalment of  his autobiography, but we decided to begin at the beginning and opted for Volume One Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. It was published to great acclaim in 2006 and I was looking forward, as the reviews inside the front cover promised, to an extremely well written wild see-saw ride of stardom.

So did Rupert and his book live up to the hype? Well, I would say, not quite. There's no doubt he writes very entertainingly and his character sketches of present-day icons such as Madonna and Julia Roberts are brilliant. He's adventurous in both his career and personal life - I was amazed to discover the roll call of the famous (of both sexes) that he's slept with. The problem, I suppose, is that I was expecting (as the blurb on the back cover promises) a combination of Evelyn Waugh and Noel Coward, if such a thing can be countenanced. And it's not really Rupert's fault if he's not quite up to that accolade.

It's very enjoyable, let's get that straight. And fascinating to see how the other (rather well-bred) half lives. Rupert seems to have connections everywhere and his version of being broke is not, like mine, surviving on half a mug of rice and an Oxo cube (in student days I hasten to add!) but rather having no money, but still being able to jet round the world courtesy of family friends and doss down for a prolonged period at Tony Richardson's villa in the South of France. His road to discovery up to Another Country is absorbing, but after that, he glides from adventure to adventure, project to project, and I'm afraid I rather lost track. The chronology of the various episodes became a bit confusing and in all the gloss what I missed (with one or two exceptions such as Roddy Mcdowall or  Paula Yates who emerges as a tragically vulnerable figure) was a depth and introspection, an evaluation of the meaningfulness (or otherwise) of his many relationships with family, friends and lovers, the ramifications of being an openly gay actor and the years of drinking and casual drugs. The shadow of AIDS in its infancy lurks in the background so perhaps that's why, when I'd finished the book, despite all the hilarity and high living, I felt somehow saddened.

I saw Rupert Everett on stage years ago in The Vortex, and found him rather impressive. I'd love to see his current performance as Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss, which I missed on its pre-West End run in Bath. As I was reading the book, I noticed he was on TV in St Trinian's 2, playing an oddly underwhelming headmistress (Bertie Carvel have no worries). He is one of those performers who can be incredibly good but also profoundly bad - perhaps this is what was meant by the wild see-saw?

All in all, I get the feeling I'm being over-analytical here. He can write. It's great fun. And I expect I'll read the next volume.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Happy New Year!

I've really enjoyed reading the end of year round ups posted on some of my favourite blogs over the last week or so. I've found lots of titles I now simply must read, and am astounded by the volume and variety of books consumed by some of you!

I think I'd better gloss over about my own paltry turnover as, to be honest, I sometimes struggle to read one title a month. I'm often slightly late for my book group because I've been speed reading to the end! It used to be so different, in the days I commuted long distances to work by train and was able to read after 9pm without nodding off...

I still love reading though and wouldn't like to imagine a life without books. So my New Year's Resolution is to make more time for reading in 2013, and thanks to the generosity of my family I have some lovely new reading matter to indulge in.

Two volumes of poetry (which I love but often neglect) with stunning covers...

Three fiction titles

The Alexandria Quartet I've been hinting about for quite a while, even though it's quite a chunkster! The Howling Miller is by Finnish author Arto Paasilinna and is one of a limited edition of 300 from the first venture into publishing by the team at the wonderful Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath - so it's very special. And I'm about to embark on Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey so I can take part in Simon at Stuck in a Book's group read later this month. 

And finally, the book I'd been pining for since going to the exhibition at Tate Britain last Autumn

 A beautifully illustrated reminder of Britart in the Victorian era! Reading chair here I come...