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review 2019-02-07 21:16
Reading progress update: I've read 283 out of 917 pages.
Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy - Rachel Cusk,Olivia Manning

I've finished The Great Fortune, the first of the three books that make up this trilogy. 


‘Such a war! An unexploded squib of a war! What folly ever to start it. The great nations think only of power. They do not think of the ones who suffer for such a war.’


War has well-and-truly broken out, and Paris has been taken by the Nazis. I'm not ready to write a full review, so I'm just going to toss down some quotes and take a break for a week or two.


* * *


‘All these religious concepts,’ said Guy, ‘are only a means of keeping the poor poor; and the rich rich. Pie in the sky. Accept the condition it has pleased God to put you in. I am not interested in eternity. Our responsibilities are here and now.’


* * *


The day they were invited to luncheon with the Druckers was one of the last warm days of October. Harriet had arranged to meet Guy in the English Bar, but when she looked for him in the bar, he had not arrived. This did not surprise her, for she was beginning to realise that however late she might be for an appointment Guy could always be later.


* * *

Harriet said: ‘I sometimes think I shall end up a lonely, ragged, mad old woman trailing along the gutter.’
‘Why should you?’ Clarence tartly asked. ‘You’ve got Guy. I suppose you’ll always have Guy.’ ‘And he’ll always have the rest of the world.’


* * *


If one could not be a great writer – a Tolstoy, a Flaubert, a Stendhal – what was the point in being a writer at all? Disconcerted, Harriet said lamely: ‘If everyone felt like that, there wouldn’t be much to read.’ ‘What is there to read, anyway? Rubbish, most of it. Myself, I read nothing but detective novels.’ ‘I suppose you do read Tolstoy and Flaubert?’ ‘I did once. Years ago.’ ‘You could read them again.’



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review 2019-02-07 19:59
Another day is another world
A Game of Hide and Seek - Caleb Crain,Elizabeth Taylor

Another day is another world. The difference between foreign countries is never so great as the difference between night and day.


A Game of Hide and Seek is a 1951 novel by Elizabeth Taylor. My copy was reprinted by NYRB Classics in 2012. I've not read anything by Elizabeth Taylor previously.


This was not an easy book to read. It begins with a brief summer romance between the two main characters, Harriet and Vesey, as teenagers. They have been thrown together through family relationships and known one another since childhood. This summer, their relationship changes into something looking like a romance, and they spend the summer in a state of nervous, static attraction.


‘Harriet is afraid,’ Joseph observed. ‘Harriet is a ninny,’ Vesey told him. He spoke as if Harriet herself were no longer there. ‘She lets words break her bones. She hides her face at the slightest thing. She picks all these flowers to comfort herself because her hands are trembling.’



The book is set during the interwar period of 1920 - 1939. After their summer romance, Vesey and Harriet are separated - Vesey goes to Oxford and Harriet remains in the same place. 


A year is too long to wait for someone beloved. In the morning, she would set about living that year, comforting herself across the great waste of days. This afternoon she could not begin. At the end of her weeping, when words began to come again into her head, ‘It is too long,’ she cried. She rested her throbbing face in the cool, harsh bracken. She felt that she had cried all the tears of the rest of her life.


In spite of this passage, there is nothing really convincing about the relationship between Vesey and Harriet, however. Their feelings for one another seem shallow, inconsequential things. Vesey completely disappears from the narrative, and we see only Harriet's perspective.


There is a long period of separation that is bridged with little comment from the author, and we move forward twenty years or so. Harriet marries Charles, an older man, a solicitor, who provides her with material comforts. She has a child.


Jessica Terrace looked like a row of paper houses. No lights shone from any of the windows or the fan-shaped glass above the doors. The evergreens were glossy in the rain, unseparated from the pavement, for the iron-railings had been taken in the war. The façade seemed to have so little depth that even Harriet, who had lived here for sixteen years, could scarcely believe that, behind it, passages ran away towards kitchens; that in remote parts the front-door bell could not be heard, and that, in back rooms overlooking the narrow gardens and level with the top branches of a mulberry-tree, her daughter and the young maid were asleep. She loved the lulled sensation of being driven at night and was reluctant to leave even this musty car. ‘Wake up!’ Charles said crossly. They had stopped by the familiar street-lamp. She said goodnight to the driver and hurried towards the steps, her head bowed in the rain.


When Vesey finally returns, having left Oxford, failed as an actor, the tenuous affair from the first part of the book sputters into a tiny flame. This part of the book reminded me of Madame Bovary, although Harriet is not so impulsive as Emma Bovary. But she and Vesey engage in some mild slinking around, although the author never really makes it clear whether or not they actually have an affair, or if they just consider having an affair. If Vesey had been ambivalent before, he wasn't less ambivalent now.


As soon as the leaves fell now, she felt the possibility of shoots coming up through the hard ground; autumn was implicit in summer; no season held. There were no more long summers. The last was when she had played hide-and-seek with Vesey and the children. Since then the years had slipped by, each growing shorter than the one before. It had not seemed a long time, her married life. Summer and winter had run into one another. 


Harriet was an extremely frustrating character, reserved to the point of paralysis. Her early love affair with Vesey was so much not the thing that dreams are made of that her adherence to it baffled me. The writing was very beautiful, at times, but I still wanted someone, anyone, to do something, anything. It reminded me of Henry James - exquisite but cold.


Charles was the only character who felt like he had any blood in his veins at all.


This is one of those books that is hard to rate. It's good, but I didn't enjoy it. I'll keep giving Taylor a try, because I've heard positive things about some of her other books. I have Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which sounds like a much more enjoyable book.

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text 2019-02-02 17:48
The Domestic Delights of Fiction

Thinking through the Excellent Women read, and why I enjoyed it so much, solidified a realization that has been simmering under the surface of my reading for a while. I love fiction that focuses on the domestic details of the lives of the characters. I think that this is one of the reasons that I prefer books by women.


So, while I, sometimes, enjoy books that tackle weighty subjects of politics and public policy and very very important people doing very very important things, I generally prefer smaller tales - instead of focusing on big questions, I enjoy books that focus on small questions, but in the context of a culture that shows the big questions.


In the case of Excellent Women, Pym has given us a very tiny story about Mildred Lathbury, a completely unexceptional woman. There are hundreds of thousands of unexceptional Mildreds (both married and unmarried) alive at any given time. She isn't affecting policy, she isn't changing the world in remarkable ways - her impact is on a small circle of individuals. But, by focusing on Mildred, Barbara Pym is equally showing us a lot about the greater world. She has much to say about male entitlement, and majority privilege, and how the world treats unimportant, unexceptional women and, conversely, how even the most unimportant, unexceptional man is more important that pretty much all of the women.


And by doing that, she denies that Mildred is unimportant and unexceptional, and she makes the reader realize that small, domestic concerns are, really, the most important concerns there are. That making a cup of tea, using the nice tea pot, buying the better quality biscuits, are small things, but they really impact the character's life. And, she also conveys, that service to others, even where that service is nothing more than kindness and a willingness to allow them into your home for a few moments is what makes life seem real.


Allowing women to narrate their lives in fiction, even when their lives seem terribly circumscribed, is, in many ways, a revolutionary act. It lets the reader know that women are human beings, and that the aspects of their lives of which they are in charge are successful. That they have desires and dreams that can sometime be satisfied through domesticity, and sometimes not.


I'm not sure that I'm explaining this very well, but I think that this is also one of the reasons that I enjoy Agatha Christie's mysteries so much. We mostly use the phrase "world building" to refer to fantasy fiction, where the author is creating a world out of whole cloth. But Agatha Christie also "world-builds," only her world is a world where the unseen currents in a family or household are constantly erupting into murder. Her details of households, and roles, and relationships, and who pours the tea, and who made the paste sandwiches, and whether or not the roses by the doorstep have thorns are what makes her mysteries, to me, so satisfying to read.


Rarely do we have murders that have a broader impact on society in Christie's mysteries - and the ones that do are generally her less successful "thriller" style mysteries. She is at her best when she is focused on the small things, but this focus on the small things still leads us to larger conclusions about the society in which she was writing. Rather than telling us that patriarchs have all the power - she shows us how that aspect of British society erupts into patricide. Rather than tell us how disempowered wives were ignored and mistreated by their philandering husbands and the community that enabled his behavior, she shows us that same wife's emotional devolution into murder. Her puzzles not only give us clues to murder, they gives us clues to the way that society worked then, and still, in many cases, works now.


This goes back, I guess, to Jane Austen's quote, which in a sense dismisses the importance of her own work:


“the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”


And yet, we still read her, and her books, narrow and domestic though they are, are one of the time machines that we can use to understand the society in which she wrote, and particularly the lives of women. 


If you've made it this far in the post, thanks for sticking with my meanderings! 

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review 2019-01-27 17:49
Let's all have some tea and muffins
At Bertram's Hotel - Agatha Christie

At Bertram's Hotel is the 11th Miss Marple, published in 1944, and Jane is winding down her career - there are only two more Miss Marple mysteries after this one: Nemesis, published in 1971 and The Sleeping Murder, published in 1976 (but apparently written much earlier).


Bertram's Hotel is an old-fashioned hotel in London, with an impeccable reputation and an equally impeccable tea tray. One can get *real* muffins here, slathered in butter, to go with one's tea. As an American, I have no idea what these real muffins look like - I'm concluding from the discussion that they are not our blueberry studded, cake-like confections, and are, perhaps, something more like what I would call an English muffin.


Anyway, the whole book had me wanting to have tea. Because these people drank a lot of tea, and ate a lot of tea pastries.



Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big potbellied teapot, creamy-looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard bullets shaped in tin cups, a good-sized round of butter stamped with a thistle. Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious-looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors—they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world!). There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.


This was a fun mystery for other reasons as well - there were three separate subplots here: the robberies that Scotland Yard was trying to solve, the mystery of the missing Canon Pennyfather, and then the murder of the Commissaire (sort of a doorman, I think) which occurred very late in the book.


Bess Sedgewick was a wonderful side-character. She was an adventurous sort of a woman, who was staying at the hotel during the time that Miss Marple was spending her holiday there. This is one of those Christie books where she puts a whole bunch of people in the same place to watch the fireworks ensure - Bess is there, her daughter Elvira, who was raised by an elderly retainer after her father died and after Bess sailed into the great unknown to have adventures, is there, an ethically challenged, but extremely handsome, Italian race-car driver is hanging about, and then we have the ridiculously absent-minded Canon Pennyfather who disappears midway through the book and turns up miles away from where he should have been.


Chief-Inspector Davies, nicknamed "Father," is the one that puts it all together after Scotland Yard is brought in to figure out what has happened to Canon Pennyfather. He and Miss Marple are perfect together, and I wish that he had shown up in some of the other Marple books. Christie missed an opportunity here. He says to his subordinate:


"I just think I'd like to have a good deal more information about this place. I'd like to know who is behind it, what its financial status is. All that sort of thing."


Campbell shook his head. "I should have said if there was one place in London that was absolutely above suspicion--"


"I know, I know," said Father. "And what a useful thing it is to have that reputation!"


The resolution to the book is a bit of a let-down, unfortunately, with the murderer being seemingly free due to a lack of evidence. I don't want to say too much and spoil the end, though, because Christie's puzzles are always so much fun to try to solve. I had read this one before, and remembered the identity of the murderer, but the other two subplots were just as mysterious this time as they were the first time I read it! This is one of the reasons that I love Christie so much - between the mouthwatering descriptions of tea and the complicated plotlines, I always find something to enjoy!

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text 2019-01-26 20:24
Reading progress update: I've read 139 out of 270 pages.
At Bertram's Hotel - Agatha Christie

After immersing myself in 1950's London, I'm back to 1965, At Bertram's Hotel!


"I just think I'd like to have a good deal more information about this place. I'd ike to know who is behind it, what its financial status is. All that sort of thing."


Campbell shook his head. "I should have said if there was one place in London that was absolutely above suspicion--"


"I know, I know," said Father. "And what a useful thing it is to have that reputation!"


I've read this one before, but I've completely forgotten two of the three subplots!

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