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One From the Archive: ‘The Wonderful Weekend Book’ by Elspeth Thompson ****

When is there a better time to read such a book as The Wonderful Weekend Book than over a bank holiday?  That is exactly what I did.  I had hoped that I could read a little here and there and supplement it with other books, but that didn’t happen in the end.  Instead, I read it from cover to cover in one greedy gulp.  In The Wonderful Weekend Book, Thompson has created such a lovely concept for a piece of non-fiction.  She aims to help her readers to reclaim their weekends back from the mundane tasks which seem to fill them – chores and supermarket shopping being top of her list.

9781848540538Some of the ideas which Thompson has come up with to make the most of weekends are absolutely lovely.  I personally loved the way in which the book was split up into the four seasons, which enables the reader to easily locate appropriate activites to fill hours or entire days.  Thompson’s mini essays are very sweet, as are her introductions. The illustrations throughout are lovely, and I really like all of the different inclusions of recipes.  I was given so many ideas for places to visit, all of which have been entered into my travel journal.  I have picked up my hardback notebook which I began to fill with lovely quotes I came across a few years ago once more, and am now referring to it as my ‘anthology’, as Thompson does in her book.

Despite the general loveliness of this volume, there were a couple of definite drawbacks for me.  The first was that although the lists work well, they are entered rather haphazardly into the main body of text and often split up paragraphs in consequence.  Another downside was that much of the book felt like a plugging exercise for different brands and companies.  Early on in the book, Thompson speaks about buying ‘good bath towels from John Lewis’.  Rather than merely making this statement and moving on, she puts John Lewis’ phone number and website address in brackets right after it, which detracts a little from the text.  Overall, The Wonderful Weekend Book is a wonderful addition to any bookshelf, and will be invaluable for anyone aiming to spend their weekends doing more worthwhile things.  It is a volume which I will be dipping into a lot in future as the seasons change.

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Triumphant Footman’ by Edith Olivier ***

Originally published in 2014.

9781447263517The Triumphant Footman is one of Edith Olivier’s five novels, and was first published in 1930.  The volume has been dedicated to war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The Triumphant Footman takes place largely within the upper-class circles in Italy.  A lot of the plot within the novel revolves around the mischievous half-French footman of the Lemaurs, Alphonse Biskin.  A case of mistaken identity ensues, confusing society to its limits, and all of which he is responsible for.  This element of the story is farcical at times, and causes the whole to become almost a comedy of manners in its consequent tone and style.

Olivier sets the scene wonderfully from the very beginning: ‘Shadows gathered in the corners of the high Florentine drawing-room, and the faded frescoes on its walls assumed a new prominence in the half-light.  The room became ghost-like, and the painted figures were ghosts among ghosts.  These shadowy forms, the gilded furniture, the heavy brocade hangings, and the curiously wrought silver goblets and vases which stood on consoles against the walls – all of those things seemed far more truly the living occupants of the room than the little pale lady who was lying near the window’.

This ‘little pale lady’ is Mrs Lemaur, a woman who decided to change her life whilst still in her teens: ‘When she was eighteen, she had decided that to be bedridden should be her role’.  She is the ‘little wifie’ to a Captain, who ‘liked looking for bargains, and he often found them’.  Both relocated to Italy – Florence, to be exact – some decades ago.  Olivier builds her characters by using the finest of details; Mrs Lemaur, for example, has a ‘little face’ which is ‘puckered and wrinkled in criss-cross squares, and the corners of her mouth were drawn down till they seemed about to slip off from the two sides of her chin’.  Captain Lemaur is a shadowy being in comparison to the descriptions of his wife; she ‘had passed her life surrounded by love and by things of beauty, but she deserved neither of these’.  Mrs Lemaur is definitely the most interesting creation in the book, and none of Olivier’s other characters feel quite as vivid or memorable as she does.

The Triumphant Footman is interesting and somewhat unexpected, and one cannot help but think that it would be a marvellous addition to the Virago Modern Classics list.  The plot, whilst not always as evenly paced as it could have been, has been well crafted, and although The Triumphant Footman is by no means Olivier’s best novel, it still intrigues.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Road Through the Wall’ by Shirley Jackson *****

‘In… an attractive suburban neighbourhood filled with bullies and egotistical bigots, the feelings of the inhabitants are shallow and selfish: What can a neighbour gain from another neighbour, what may be won from a friend? One child stands alone in her goodness: little Caroline Desmond, kind, sweet and gentle, and the pride of her family. But the malice and self-absorption of the people of Pepper Street lead to a terrible event that will destroy the community of which they are so proud. Exposing the murderous cruelty of children, and the blindness and selfishness of adults, Shirley Jackson reveals the ugly truth behind a ‘perfect’ world.’ 9780141392004

The Road Through the Wall is Queen of Creepy Shirley Jackson’s first novel.  In the foreword to the Penguin edition which I borrowed from the library, Ruth Franklin writes: ‘Compared to The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s masterful late novels, The Road Through the Wall is a slighter work.  But it is marvellously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the brilliant bite of irony that would always define her style’.

The novel was published in 1948 to a ‘largely unappreciative audience’; its critics were ‘put off by the book’s unpleasant characters, its grim tone, and its violent conclusion’. The Road Through the Wall is a prelude of sorts to ‘The Lottery’, which was published the following year.  It takes place in 1936, on Pepper Street in small town California.  Instead of a familial saga, it is rather more of a neighbourhood affair, although the familial relations are nothing less than fascinating throughout.  We meet several families resident on the street, and come to know them intimately thanks to Jackson’s wonderful, measured prose.  Every single character has differing traits, and one of Jackson’s real strengths here (and there are many) lies in demonstrating the imagination and power of children.

The Road Through the Wall is not my favourite of Jackson’s works, but it is taut, surprising and compelling, and certainly an accomplished debut.  It took a final direction which I wasn’t expecting, but which made an awful lot of sense in retrospect.  The ending is marvellously and creepily crafted, and I very much liked the way in which Jackson left some of the most pressing questions unanswered.

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One From the Archive: ‘How to be a Victorian’ by Ruth Goodman ****

First published in 2013.

9780670921362In her first venture as a solo author, Ruth Goodman has attempted to present ‘a radical new approach to history’ by showing the ‘overlapping worlds of health, sex, fashion, food, school, work and play’. She states in her introduction that she wanted to ‘explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history… one that celebrates the ordinary and charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world’. Goodman herself is an expert in this field, and has experienced life on a Victorian farm whilst taking part in an incredibly interesting BBC documentary.

Goodman has used the timeframe of a day in which to set out her information, beginning with the waking up routine of your average Victorian, and following them until they retire to bed at nighttime. In this way, she has given How to be a Victorian an almost circular feel, which is a refreshing technique in terms of history books. Throughout, she has made use of primary and secondary sources, which have been taken from a vast amalgam of documents and records – diaries, letters, autobiographies, magazines and other printed matter, all of which ‘sought to inform and shape public opinion’.

Throughout, Goodman writes intelligently about a wealth of little known details about life in Victorian Britain. Rather than merely including the commonplace information which the vast majority of us know, the author has dug deeper, unearthing unusual routines which were all the rage during Victorian times. These include the profession of a ‘knocker-upper’, who was employed as a human alarm clock by his clients. He would take a long cane and lantern out with him in the early hours, which he would rap on the appropriate windows, and would then charge a penny a month for the privilege. Goodman explores elements of life such as the rug making techniques of the day, clothing and corsetry, recommended haircare, the dangers of factory work, and how often to bathe a baby – far more often than the average adult would partake, that’s for sure. A section in the middle of the book is devoted to a glossy spread of photographs and illustrations, and many black and white images have also been included within the main body of text. These are rather useful additions, particularly with regard to the advertisements which Goodman writes about.

How to be a Victorian is best read in small sections, as it is filled with a lot of information, much which is likely to be lost by the reader if the entirety of the text is taken in at once. Each chapter has been split into relatively short sections, which allows it to be picked up and put down at will. Goodman is clearly incredibly enthusiastic of her subject, and the fact that she has first-hand experience at using many of the techniques and routines which she describes sets her apart from a lot of historians. Here, she has presented a far-reaching account of Victorian life throughout the entirety of the monarch’s reign, and in consequence, she has created a marvellous guide for anyone at all interested in the period.

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Virago Week: ‘The Public Image’ by Muriel Spark ****

One of Muriel Spark’s many novels, The Public Image was first published in 1968, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the following year (incidentally, this was won by P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For). It is one of the newest additions to the Virago Modern Classics list, and Martin Haake’s cover art renders the book wonderfully distinctive.

9781844089673The blurb, quite rightly, states that the novel ‘couldn’t be more relevant for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture’.  The Public Image tells of a ‘glamorous actress’ named Annabel Christopher, whose ‘perfect image must be carefully cultivated, whatever the cost’.  ‘Tawny-eyed’ Annabel is an ‘English girl from Wakefield, with a peaky face and mousey hair’.  She is the mother of a small baby named Carl, and has just moved with her husband, Frederick, to Rome.  A friend of her husband’s, who is introduced rather early on, asks her whether the move is purely in aid of maintaining her public image.  Annabel states in response that she is merely there to film, but one cannot help but wonder very early on if a sense of duplicity shrouds her answer.

Frederick Christopher is a small-part actor who seems to have all but given up on his career in front of the screen, and is content to live instead upon Annabel’s money, ‘reading book after book – all the books he had never had leisure to read before’.  He is continually envious of his wife’s success in comparison to his own, and believes that she merely has ‘meagre skill and many opportunities to exercise it’.  He turns to scriptwriting and finds surprising success.

From the very beginning, there are undercurrents that all is not well within Frederick and Annabel’s relationship, and such doubts are drip-fed to the reader from both perspectives – for example, ‘He [Frederick] wanted to leave her, and made up his mind that he would do so, eventually…  Whenever any of his old friends began to suggest that her acting had some depth, or charm, or special merit, he silently nurtured the atrocity, reminding himself that nobody but he could know how shallow she really was’.  Both are unfaithful, and Spark touches upon their numerous affairs throughout.  The couple, however, do not let their marital problems show: ‘… they were proud of each other in the eyes of their expanding world where he was considered to be deeply interesting and she highly talented’.

Throughout, Spark writes wonderfully, and it appears that she buries herself within the minds of her protagonists and then lets the reader into their deepest secrets.  She describes the tensions within and consequences of strained relationships so marvellously in all of her novels, and the same can definitely be said here.  She shows how publicity can both aid and destroy the person under the scrutiny of the entire world.  Spark also demonstrates how easy it is to fall into the midset of doing things merely to maintain one’s ‘public image’, and how detrimental this can be.  This multi-layered novel exemplifies duplicity and human cruelties, and is an absorbing read, which certainly deserves its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.

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Virago Week: ‘Angel’ by Elizabeth Taylor *****

Hilary Mantel, who introduces the newest Virago edition of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, calls it ‘quietly and devastatingly amusing’.  The introduction which she crafts is witty, and interspersed with a lovely anecdote about her experience of the novel.  ‘For any writer,’ she says, ‘good, bad or – as we mostly are – an ever-changing mixture of both, Angel provides a series of sharp lessons in humility’.  I love the way in which Mantel compares Elizabeth Taylor to her protagonist, Angelica, and the vast differences which she highlights between the two.

Angel was first published in 1957, and is number 135 on the Virago Modern Classics list.  The more I read of Taylor’s work – almost all of which is collected upon the aforementioned list – the more deeply I fall in love with it.  She is such a wonderful author, whose deft touch creates protagonists who feel marvellously real, and scenes which please every single one of the senses.

The novel begins in 1901 in the fictional brewery town of Norley, ‘a mean district with its warehouses and factories’.  The small details which Taylor weaves in vividly set the social history, interspersed as they are with the story – ‘the organ-grinder with his monkey’, ‘lardy-cake’, learning things by rote at school, exercise programmes within the classroom, leaving school before the age of sixteen if one had a ‘situation’ to go to, paying for things with florins, and so on.

In Angel, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Angelica Deverell – Angel for short, though this nickname feels like rather an ironic one – who believes that she is ‘destined to become a feted author and the owner of great riches.  Surely her first novel confirms this – it is a masterpiece, she thinks’.  She is vividly described from the first, and is striking in appearance; ‘forbiddingly aquiline’, as Taylor puts it.  Angel is ‘lax and torpid’, and relies heavily upon her imagination to dim the world around her.  She is lazy and self-important, always relying on her busy mother – a widow who owns a small grocery shop which she and Angel live over – to do things for her, when she is perfectly capable of performing such acts herself.  Angel is both unpopular and rather judgemental.  Taylor writes that ‘she longed for a different life: to be quite grown-up and beautiful and rich; to have power over many different kinds of men.’

Despite Angel’s uglier characteristics – and let us face it, there are so many of them that she practically feels as though she has been built of unsavoury traits – she is still somehow ultimately endearing.  Taylor allows her readers real understanding for her protagonist.  Whilst she is difficult, we do come to see why as the novel gains momentum.  Angel finds a kind of solace from what she views as the cruelty of the world around her, and writes fantastically exaggerated tales.  Her mother takes the change of plan, so different from the goals which she had originally held for her daughter, in a most interesting manner: ‘It [her writing] seemed to her [Angel’s mother] such a strange indulgence, peculiar, suspect.  There had never been any of it in the family before, not even on her husband’s side where there had been one or two unhinged characters’.

Angel’s ultimate naivety is really quite sweet – for example, she sends her novel to Oxford University Press because she finds their address in one of her schoolbooks.  Taylor demonstrates her protagonist’s determination so well throughout.  The plot twists come out of nowhere and delighted me entirely, piquing my interest in the novel even further.  Angel is a stunning novel, and one which I would highly recommend to everyone.

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