3. ‘The Beautiful Visit’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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Mum was born in London in the midst of WWII. She told us that her mother was always so wonderfully calm that she has no memory of being afraid in the bomb shelters, although they did worry about Fred, our grandfather. He’d been a black cab driver before the war, and became a fireman for the duration. Few people knew the streets of London as well as the cab drivers, which made them ideal firefighters – if a street was blocked by bombing, they knew the quickest way around.

Reading this book of Mums, I was transported further back, to the period surrounding WWI. One of the things that struck me was how robustly Ms Howard illustrated the tedium and narrowness of the world that was inhabited by middle class women in the Edwardian era. Little to look forward to beyond marriage and children, and maintaining ones social standing. There is a wonderful line, ‘the world stops when you get married, so you’d better make sure it stops in a good place’. And a lot of tea is taken in this book.

The central character, who narrates the story, reaches sixteen and finds herself invited to a house party by a relative of her mothers. The party inspires her, she sees the world opening up, full of promise and adventure, and afterwards she does everything she can to break free despite her lack of education or experience, including a stint as a ‘lady companion’ for the stuff of nightmares, the brilliantly bonkers Mrs. Border and her wig. There are the tragedies that are unavoidable in any work dealing with the Great War, more interesting perhaps is the exquisite portrayal of the way in which extreme grief is handled by the protagonists. Terribly British. Have some tea.

And our vulnerable heroine, who remains nameless as does her sister. She seems a strange girl to me, but thinking about it, she is a product of her times, and thus, a testament to Ms Howard’s beautiful prose in presenting her as such. There are oceans of anxiety and fear and wonder layered beneath her reserve. As the War ends, her life changes again with a second house party. Same family, same house, same Nanny, but time has bruised these apples and our heroine’s eyes are wide open this time. Her adventure is really just beginning. She’s a little bit empowered.

To be honest, I found the ending a little inconclusive. I do like my T’s crossed. But I have found myself thinking a lot about this book. Her writing reminds me very much of Howard Spring, it’s more of a painting than a book, a crystal clear picture of days long gone. It made me think about how much has changed in the past century, particularly for women. It made me think about affordable train rides and duck ponds and tea at four. It was Ms Howard’s first novel, it won a prestigious award, and it is indeed very fine writing, taking you deep into the world as it was then and addressing the social issues faced particularly by women. The perfect attention to detail, the quality of the observational writing, and the sensitivity with which Ms Howard handles her characters are astonishing. I’m really looking forward to reading her later work.

The absolutely vast societal changes that have happened between then and now are blatant in this novel. Yes, in 2018 we still have a way to go, but we are so much better off than we were in 1918. Mum was all about the empowerment of women and the under-privileged, the importance of being able to stand on your own two feet and make your own way in the world, and I think Elizabeth Jane Howard was too.

Let me know if you’d like to read The Beautiful Visit, and I’ll send it to you. Mum first read in in 1993, and again in 2016 so its safe to say it has her recommendation also.

Persian Fire is also as yet unclaimed…!

 

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2. ‘Persian Fire’ by Tom Holland.

I’m not going to say this was an easy read, but I liked it a lot. It was a good way to absorb a much greater understanding of a period in history about which I knew very little. I would almost certainly re-read it. And, its one of the books which moved to the apartment from the house with Mum, so she definitely planned to revisit it – the first was April 2010. Mum had a lovely habit of popping her name or initials, and the date she completed the book into the ones she considered keepers, and in some favourites there are two or three dates. Others have places – the book I am reading now has ‘Crete ’93’ inside it, it’s one of her holiday books of which there were never less than three.

Goodness me, what a marvellous tome this is though! Definitely not a quick read, but striking a very clever balance between delivering solid history and fleshing it out so well that you find yourself wondering who will win the battles even though you already do….my knowledge of Greek and Persian history not previously being extensive, I genuinely wasn’t sure sometimes. (but we all know about Thermopylae if nothing else, thanks to 300 and Gerard Butler’s six-pack!)

The introduction draws the parallels between ancient and modern history, reminding us once again of the paramount importance of understanding history. The divide between East and West has existed for millennia. If the Persian attempt to conquer Greece had succeeded, the world we live in would be a very different place, not the least because who knows when democracy would have evolved if it hadn’t in Athens around 2500 years ago.

In the first half of the book, Mr. Holland reconstructs brilliantly for us the rise and rise of the first super power, the Persian Empire. Skullduggery, bloodthirsty warfare, treachery, incest, rape and pillage, betrayal, impalings, lots of them, greed; its all there. And then we reach its pinnacle; the Great King Xerxes. I have to say that the King of Kings looked more like a marcher in the Sydney Mardi Gras to me when I saw 300, but Mr. Holland gives us a skilled despot, capably wielding virtually limitless power across a vast empire. Its awesome.

And then…the war with Greece.  The famous battles, Marathon, Salamis, Thermopylae, but a host of twists and turns, political intrigues, the Spartans, the Persian sack of Athens…this part was particularly hard to put down as the principal characters spring to life, and the future of the world hangs in the balance.

A first for me, and I’m delighted to report that an investigation of the Wall of Books revealed another of his, Rubicon. Which I’m looking forward to.

Remember to post a comment if you like the sound of this one. I’ll post it to you….cheers

 

1. ‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler.

Anne Tyler was one of Mums favourite authors. A strong female voice, beautifully drawn characters, quirky, funny and prolific to boot…always a plus when you find a writer you like! (Any mention of another of our favourites, Donna Tartt, always caused us to bemoan the fact we had to wait years between each of her total of just three splendid novels to date, but thats another story.)

This is The Taming of the Shrew, re-imagined and re-written as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the bard. Set firmly in the 21st century, Kate finds herself, somewhat to her surprise, looking after her eccentric (mad scientist) father and her younger sister, while working in childcare where her tendency to speak her mind, (or not – “I had nothing to say, so I said nothing”), emphasises her individuality, strength and feelings of being an outsider, different from the norm. When her fathers lab assistant, Pyotr, is threatened with deportation, her father hatches a plot to marry him to Kate in order to keep him in America and complete his research.

Mum was a strong, independently minded and extremely intelligent woman herself, like Kate, and she’d definitely have told Kate to stand up for herself, and supported her all the way in her desire for individuality and independence.

It may have been difficult to overcome the male supremacy of the original tale, but Ms Tyler does it effortlessly, making Kate’s awkwardness (shrewishness) genuinely endearing. Will she, a thoroughly modern woman, be able to resist the pressure to be sacrificed for her fathers career? Every character is perfectly formed and believable, especially Kate’s scant family who are brilliantly drawn. I particularly enjoyed the wedding planning scenes, the delight of her Aunt Thelma at having a wedding to plan meeting the resistance of Kate to any fussiness.

I don’t want to give away the ending, although if you’re familiar with Shakespeare, you’ll know where this should go. Ms Tyler does it with such style though, making this a really easy and enjoyable read.  Love, love, love it, and I’m giving it 8/10!

http://hogarthshakespeare.com

 

 

My Mum

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My darling Mum died in October 2017 after a short illness. Such stark words to describe so very enormous a loss. As she put it herself though, we all survive the most appalling things, things we cannot contemplate we shall ever be able to cope with, because that’s the nature of life. And, although I shall be writing more about her, I have primarily created this blog in order to be able to share one of Mums greatest passions – reading, and her wonderful library of much loved books, which I am surrounded by right now.

When Mum downsized into an apartment from the long term family home a couple of years ago, one of the hardest tasks she faced was culling her vast library. Like me, Mum regarded her books as being old friends – if she had kept the book, she would re-read it. A book deemed unworthy was promptly disposed of, those she loved most of all would have been read many times.

So the majority of the books I am now the fortunate custodian of are ones she could not bear to say goodbye to, alongside new treasures. And I am embarking on what will be a major mission, to read every one of them. For a second or third time in many cases, as we shared very similar tastes in literature; for the first time in others. I’m going to ‘review’ each one and post my thoughts on here. And if the book appeals to you, then please comment or message me, and it will become your book – I’ll post it to you. I’m pretty sure Mum would be very happy that the tales which gave her such pleasure are going to be bringing the same joy into other peoples lives.

I’m looking forward to this!