Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An Open Book...

And, finally, though I know that three postings in one night are a little excessive, but I do like to be on top of my read books pile! Anyway, I haven’t posted in over a week so I am in deficit overall! I have just finished An Open Book – the autobiography of Monica Dickens. If you have visited this blog before then you probably know that I love Monica’s writing. This is written in the same easy style. It traces her life from her parent’s home in London, to school at St Paul’s, her time as a Cook General, wartime service as a Nurse and in factory work, a five year period where she lived alone in the country, and finally her marriage and new life in America with her US navy husband, Roy.

Monica’s family seem to feature the same cast of eccentric characters as inhabit her books. Consequently, I found this a really quick, enjoyable read. There were lots of references to her work, providing context as to why she had written about a particular setting, or a particular theme. I kept yelping while I read because she would tell a story and I would be sure I knew in which book it appeared! And, as an interesting aside, she wrote One Pair of Hands in the space of three weeks. How’s that for speed writing.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

I saw Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont last year when it came out in the cinemas. The first thing that appealed to me about the film was its title – I went to school in a suburb called Claremont! Anyway, I found the film just delightful and, when I discovered the book of the same name, I was keen to read it. Fast forward a year, and my copy arrives from Book Depository. I dived straight in.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was written by Elizabeth Taylor. (oh, and I note another of her books has been made into a film and is showing now – Angel ). Mrs Palfrey moves to a hotel in London – The Claremont – when her husband dies. At the hotel are a number of other long term elderly residents. The outlook from hotel is bleak, the quality of the company questionable and the food is awful – there does not seem to be much for Mrs Palfrey to look forward to. That is, until she takes a tumble outside the door of Ludo’s basement flat. Ludo is an aspiring writer who becomes her surrogate grandson; invited to meals at the Claremont and doted on. The relationship is cemented to such an extent that, Mrs Palfrey having introduced Ludo to the other Claremont residents as her grandson, when Mrs Palfrey’s real grandson visits the Claremont the other residents turf him out as an impostor!

The book is just beautiful; sad in parts, but poignantly happy in others. Elizabeth Taylor is an exquisite writer and I definitely plan to read more of her work. Still, the novel left me thinking about what old age means when you are alone and I was reminded of a quote from the 1960s film The Trouble with Angels which stared Haley Mills. After visiting an old people’s home at Christmas the young Haley Mill’s character says to Mother Superior “I want to die young, and very, very wealthy”. Well I don’t want to die young, but I am not sure being the last one standing is all that desirable either!

Hester's Story

My Mum bought me Hester’s Story by Adele Geras when we went to a recent trash and treasure in a nearby village. She thought I would enjoy it because it is about a ballet dancer; and I do ballet. My enforced absence from my blog over the last week and a bit has actually been because of ballet – as I was very busy in the lead up to my ballet school’s concert. Hester’s story oscillates between two time periods: Hester’s youth in the 1930s/1940s and the mid 1980s. Hester (real name Estelle) was born in France where her mother, a ballet dancer, died giving birth to her. Her Father despised her, blaming her for her mother’s death. She did, however, have a very treasured relationship with her Grandmother – who raised her.

At age 6 her Father sends her to live in England with her Mother’s cousin, who has a daughter of a similar age. She is very unhappy there, until a strange Russian woman moves into an old house on the village edge. It turns out that the woman is ballet teacher and, after discovering Hester’s innate talent, commits to teaching her free of charge. Eventually, when she is 14 Madame Olga gets Hester a placement at a London ballet company, where she rises to be a principal. Her achievements are compromised when she begins an affair with a married patron of the ballet company and falls pregnant.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Hester is now retired and running an annual ballet festival (in Madame Olga’s old house). Each Christmas one choreographer is invited to come and stage a work. This year it is Hugo Carradine and his company. He is involved with Claudia, his prima ballerina; though their relationship is fraught. Actually, Claudia is a singularly nasty piece of work and behaves appallingly towards her daughter – who has accompanied her. It soon becomes clear that the past and present are very strongly intertwined. And there I must stop or I will give away the ending!

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton

I have wanted to read The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton for quite a while. For some reason Mrs Beeton has always been an historical characterthat appealed to me. So, when I spotted a virtually untouched copy of thebook by Kathryn Hughes in the window of a second hand bookshop, I just hadto snap it up. I do not normally read historical non-fiction; and I am muchslower at reading it than I am at novel reading - save, Lady Chatterley's Lover where the dense writing took me an age to plough through. Anyhow,to the book...

Isabel Mayson married Sam Beeton in 1857 He gave her syphilis on their honeymoon - how generous! Sam had worked in publishing since he was a young teenager and, by the time of his marriage, was publishing a number of magazines including the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. Soon after their marriage, Isabel became an active contributor to the magazine editing the cooking and fashion sections. Isabel suffered a seriesof miscarriages and lost her first little boy at only a few months of age (all symptoms of the syphilis from which she was, unknowingly, suffering). It was around this time that Sam suggested (perhaps as a distraction) that Isabel compile a book of household hints. Compile is the right word here because the book was copied either verbatim or with very loose paraphrasing from existing references. Occasionally, passing acknowledgement was given to the information's original source but, for the most part, Isabel's resources went unacknowledged. Originally the book was published in parts and it was only after Isabel's death at the age of 28 (in childbirth) that it was published as a complete volume.

One of the recurring themes in the book was class. Isabel Beeton's grandparents came from working class backgrounds. By the time Isabelwas born her grandparents and hence parents had made it solidly into thelower middle class. Her father died when Isabel was only 5 and her mother remarried - Mr Dorling, a man who was up-and-coming in the racing world. Mr Dorling's skill in managing the Epsom racetrack brought the family considerable wealth and improved their social status to such an extent that they became 'upper middle class'. Isabel's grandmother had worked in the family business, but her mother did not (a mark of her class). In marrying Sam and, by necessity,working in his business Isabel was perceived by her family to have slipped in social standing. But, Kathryn Hughes points out that it was precisely this 'slip' that allowed Isabel to use her talents in writing and finance (she was the money manager for Sam's business).

Interestingly, given its lasting fame, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was not an instant hit. Indeed, when Sam became bankrupt and had to sell off his titles in the late 1860s he seems not to have placed any value on Mrs Beeton's book. It was only about 20 years after it was written, and a number of appendages later, that the book began to be as recognised as it is today.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

An Uncommon Reader

Another book I picked up from The Book Depository was Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader. I was going to ask for this for a Christmas present but the rave reviews it has been getting over the blogosphere meant I couldn’t wait another 6 weeks to read it. I took it on the train on Friday, after being chastised by my Military Man for not finishing Mrs Beeton first, and finished it by half way through the trip home. I don’t think there is much point giving a lengthy plot summary here since the story is reasonably well known. In essence, the Queen stumbles across a visiting library van in the palace grounds, borrows a book (to be polite), gets bitten by the reading bug and then, much to the concern of those around her, neglects her royal duties because they interfere with her desire to read. The Uncommon Reader is a novella; brief and to the point, but oh so utterly charming.

Continuing with the Alan Bennet theme we went to see Talking Heads last night. This followed a very busy day….a dress rehearsal for my ballet concert started at 8am and didn’t finish until 2pm, then a rush to the North Shore for a cocktail party to celebrate my old school’s centenary, followed by an apologetic early departure to speed into town for Talking Heads. This version of Talking Heads comprised two monologues: Her Big Chance and Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet. Sigrid Thornton (of SeaChange and The Man From Snowy River) starred in Her Big Chance which is about a woman, Lesley, who clings to the memory of being a glorified extra in a Polanski film while becoming deeply involved in the adult porn industry. English actress Brenda Blethyn starred in Miss Fozzard Finds Her Feet - which was just brilliant! She played a spinster who has an unusual relationship with her chiropodist, Mr Dunderdale. Her comic timing was fantastic; such a privilege to be in the audience.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Gentle Art of Domesticity

I placed my first Book Depository order last week. I must say I have been very impressed with them. Not only are the books cheaper than here (even after converting from British Pounds to Australian Dollars), but the order arrived extremely promptly. I did receive one quite damaged book but their customer service department has been excellent and they have committed to sending me a fresh copy.

One of the books I ordered was The Gentle Art of Domesticity by Jane Brockett. I visit Jane’s blog regularly and had to dive straight in when this arrived. Never mind, that I was halfway through The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton! Jane delights in the joy that the pursuit of the ‘gentle arts’ can bring. Now, I am not that crafty. I love looking at what other people create and am sorely tempted to have a go myself but my perfectionist streak holds me back; I am too concerned that I will make a mistake and my project won’t turn out to my satisfaction (the same reason I find it hard to keep a written journal). But Jane shows in her book that we all have abilities in this area and that the joy is in the process of creation and not necessarily the outcome. I have been inspired; now I have conquered how to thread my sewing machine next stop is a quilt! I should also like to regain my knitting skills. Not that there are many skills to regain as I have only ever known how to plain and purl, but one has to start somewhere. I did quite a bit of knitting when I did a study abroad in the US – the Chaplain ran a program called Craftwork / Soulwork which I attended. My Nanna was the one who taught me to knit as I patiently plain stitched a jumper for my Teddy when I was nine – and then promptly gave the art-form up!

Before you leave this blog thinking that Jane’s book is solely about craft, I must point that she addresses the domestic arts in all their forms - baking, gardening and decorating. She draws on films, poetry, domestic novels, and artwork to support her beautiful prose. Oh, and the pictures are just delightful. They are so vibrant and full of colour that I want to step into them. I really loved this book and was sad to finish it. I am sure it will be coming off the shelf on a regular basis to give me joy, comfort and inspiration, and add a splash of colour to my life! And now, I am off to put some of those domestic skills into practice sewing black sequins on to a white tutu.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Art, Ballet and a Book.....

Well we had a busy weekend, spending Saturday in the city where we tackledthe Christmas shopping. I generally enjoy shopping, but buying presentsfor vast quantities of people becomes traumatic! Let's just say, lots of people are getting books this Christmas.

We went to see Translucent at the NSW Art Gallery, as it was ending yesterday. It was an exhibition of jade carvings from China's Forbidden City. The carvings were amazing. Some dated back from 3000 BC. I particularly likedthe carved animals of the 18th century. There was a gorgeous carving of a dog which apparently resulted from the obsession of the Chinese of that period with all things European, as the dog is of a breed not native to China. I also appreciated the detail of 'nature' as presented in the medieval pieces - the maple leaves, for instance, were so beautiful and dainty.

In the evening we saw the Australian Ballet perform Destiny. A celebration of the dance of the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, the evening comprised two ballets: Les Presages and Symphonie Fantastique. Les Presages was a recreation of the 1933 ballet choreographed by Leonide Massine. Set to the music ofTchaikovsky it was spectacular and I loved it, which is unusual as I usually prefer ballets of the romantic era. I particularly coveted the pink and blue leotard dresses of two of the leads. The Symphonie Fantastique ballet was created specially for the occasion (though the Ballet Russes did perform a ballet of the same name). The music was that of Berlioz. I thought it was very clever; particularly the synchronous movements of the dancers used in several sections but, overall, it did not hold as much appeal for me as Les Presages. As a side note, I highly recommend the Ballet Russes documentary that was released last year.

I did manage to fit in a bit of reading too. At my husband's urging I read Undiplomatic Activities by Richard Woolcott. This is a bit outside my normal reading scope - I don't read much non-fiction. Woolcott was an Australian career diplomat; who ended up as Head of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. For the most part, this short book is a collection of humorous anecdotes about awry diplomatic incidents. However, it is complemented byWoolcott's cautionary commentary. I think an extract serves best to give a flavour of the book:

Ministers need to accept the limitations that Australia, as a middle-power, faces in the international community. John Howard's criticism of American Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama's approach to Iraq in 2007 was certainly unwise and suggests a sense of self-importance somewhat at odds with reality. Downer has a sense of humour and describes criticism of him as like 'rubber bullets of a Sherman tank'. In some cases, however, it might have been helpful to him and to the country to have taken some notice of the so-called rubber bullets.

I am reminded of two revealing historical episodes. When told of Russian naval activity in the Pacificic before the Russian revolution, a minister was quoted as saying, 'I warn the Tsar'. A British foreign secretary, taking it for granted that London was at the very centre of the world, responded to reports of damage to the undersea cables between England and France during a fierce storm in the Channel, by saying that, 'unfortunately the Continent has been isolated'. A failure to adopt a realistic perspective of a nation's place in world affairs can leave one sounding rather foolish.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Provincial Lady

Well I have completed my reading of all four of E.M. Delafield's Provincial Lady's books and have enjoyed them. They provide a very witty social commentary of the times. Doing a bit of research today on the internet I discovered (if wikipedia is correct) that Delafield died in 1942 only two years after writing The Provincial Lady in Wartime. It is sad to think that she never got to see peace in her homeland again.

Diary of A Provincial Lady
Written in first person in quaint style. Tells the minutia of Delafield's life in country Britain in the early 1930s. She lives in a large house with her husband, Robert, and two children, Robin and Vicky. Mademoiselle, Vicky's governess, is a prominent character in this story. She is a French woman with very fraught nerves (Note to Self: working French knowledge would be valuable in understanding her dialogue).

The family is always struggling to make ends meet - the are constantly having communications from the bank on their overdraft. This has necessitated, much to Delafield's distress, the pawning of her Great Aunt's ring. Delafield finds herself in all sorts of awkward social situations. She often feels dowdy in her 'dated' clothes and is regularly introduced as "fabulously literary" - upon which most new acquaintences rapidly absent themselves from her company.

The Provincial Lady Goes Further
Delafield has published a successful novel and the family finances are consequently somewhat improved. At the urging of her friend Rose, she decides to take a flat in London to focus on her writing. Unfortunately she tends to become busy with social obligations and, at other times, takes people watching walks in the city. Most of these social obligations are literary parties, which Delafield does not seem to enjoy, but is unable to decline.

Mademoiselle is moved on in this story as Vicky has gone to boarding school. As such, when the family take a trup to France for the holidays they appoint a tutor, Casabianca (fabulous name). Humorous anecdotes on life in France follow: the children refuse to eat anything French and Robert is very disaproving of the concept of a continental breakfast.

The Provincial Lady in America
Delafield takes a six month trip to America to promote her books. She is very sea sick on the journey over but finds America itself delightful. She very much enjoys the warm hospitality to extended to her by the Americans she meets. There is a wonderful story about her wanting to visit Allcott's house but being denied by her publisher; he later reneges when a prominent book reviewer asks her to comment on the place. It is the highlight of her trip. Nonetheless, she remains homesick for her family throughout and cannot wait to be reunited with them.

The Provincial Lady in Wartime
War has been declared in Britain. Delafield opens her house to evacuees - two children and their Nanny. With Robert busy acting as an ARP and her children back at school. Delafield installs Robert's Aunt Blanche as housekeeper and takes herself off to London to volunteer her services for the war effort. Unfortunately she can't find anyone who wants them and is told to 'Stand By'. She becomes good friends with Serena, an acquaintance of Aunt Blanche, who finds her a voluntary position at the underground Adelphi Canteen. Delafield undertakes to see the rest of the phony war out there until her skills are recognised and her services required.

And, finally, a line I found terribly amusing from The Provincial Lady in Wartime.
"Am sorry to note that abuse and condemnation of a common acquaintance often constitutes very strong bond of union between otherwise uncongenial spirits." p. 139

Monday, November 5, 2007

A slightly bookish post

Well, at Simon's urging over on Stuck in a Book I have been reading The Provincial Lady. I managed to find an omnibus version on Abe Books and so have the first three at my finger-tips. I am thoroughly enjoying them and hope to be able to post in more detail soon.

We watched The History Boys here last night; which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was really disappointed to miss the play when it toured here last year, it was booked out. Anyway there is a scene in the movie where Hector (who teaches General Studies) talks about having a thought that you have always thought is unique and then coming across in a book. That is what reading The Provincial Lady has been like. Great stuff!

Anyway .. in a bit of bookish news here we had to order a new bookcase on the weekend; the piles of books are starting to escape the cupboards and spread into the living area. We are not sure how we will share the bookcase, at present we have a case each. Oh dear, our books might have to fraternise! My husband's military history might be exposed to my fiction:)

Also did a bit of baking on the weekend. One of my friends had a pink party to raise money for the breast cancer foundation. The pink cupcakes below were my contribution.

Then, my husband requested blue cupcakes with green spots! An interesting challenge....
Aren't they all sickly colours;)