Thursday, April 27, 2017

#1951 Club Meme - The Blessing and The Loved and Envied

This is a very late contribution to this reading meme hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings.

As I get older, I seem to take longer and longer to read books.

The books I chose for this challenge were The Blessing by Nancy Mitford and Enid Bagnold's The Loved and Envied.

The picture shown above of the two books is not an entirely accurate representation of my reading as I heard, rather than read, The Blessing.  I listened to a recording narrated by Jenny Agutter and published in 2011.  It was nearly 9 hours long and as my commute takes about half an hour each way, it took about a week to listen to it from whoa to go.  The audio book was available the quickest from my library but I borrowed a large print copy this week so I could look up certain things I remembered from the recording.  

The Loved and Envied took me exactly a week to read at 280 pages.  It was a more difficult read than The Blessing being somewhat darker and, I found, a trickier structure.  But let's look at them individually.

The Blessing

Just so you know, Nancy Mitford was the eldest of six sisters and one brother.  Her sister Diana married Bryan Guinness and then Sir Oswald Mosley, a fascist.  Sister Unity was famous for idolizing Adolf Hitler and shooting herself, but missing.  Youngest sister Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire.  This novel was written at the height of Nancy Mitford's career when she was living in Paris.  She was an agent for Heywood Hill's bookshop, a regular columnist for the Sunday Times, an international best-selling author and playwright. 

Whenever I hear the word "Bless" it seems to me rather quaint and old-fashioned.  I do still say "Bless you!" when someone sneezes which apparently really annoys my son who is an avowed aethiest.  My step-sister-in-law (there's a mouthful) and another English friend often say "Bless" when they hear something that sounds sweet/cute to them.  In this instance, the blessing refers to a child, Sigi; the young and only son of Grace and Charles-Edouard, Grace refers to Sigi as "the blessing" several times throughout the book. Jonathan Guinness suggests that - whilst Charles-Edouard is an "idealized version of the Colonel", Nancy Mitford's French lover, Gaston Palewski - Grace and Sigi are probably drawn from her sister Diana and her sons Alexander and Max Mosley. 

Grace is depicted as a rather delightfully vague, inoffensive English woman who would quite happily spend the rest of her days in the country with her goats (an allusion to Mitford's mother), far from the demands of society. She is powerless against the bulwark of her, and subsequently Sigi's, Nanny and this relationship provides endless opportunities throughout the book for amusement. 

The novel opens with a visit from the hitherto unknown Charles-Edouard, a friend of Grace's fiance, Hughie.  Charles Edouard sweeps Grace off her feet, marrying her before dashing back to the war for the next seven years.  By the time Charles-Edouard returns, Sigi, their son, is a a typically precocious English boy who doesn't like "this daft kissing stuff" between his parents.

And so, the scene is set.  Will Grace, the gentle English flower manage to hang on to her dashing French husband with the roving eye and, perhaps more importantly, will Sigi and Nanny adjust to a new life in France and continue to rule the roost?  

To tell you more of the plot would spoil the story.  This is a fascinating insight into post-war Europe - in high society of course.  Bits that will stay with me are as follows:

1. Grace's entrance into Paris society:
"She was unprepared for the scene that met her eyes on entering the Fertés big salon. The door opened upon a kaleidoscope of glitter. The women, nearly all beauties, were in huge crinolines, from which rose naked shoulders and almost naked bosoms, sparkling with jewels."
Did you do a double-take at the word crinoline?  I did.  Great ignoramus that I am, I associated crinolines with the 1850s not the 1950s.  We are not talking about this kind of crinoline....

Vintage Victorian Fashion Plate No 2 - Ladies Magazine June 1866 from CharmaineZoe on Flickr

 We are talking about this kind of crinoline....

Elegant 1953 Fashion Ad, Satin Wedding Dress
Published in Woman's Day, March 1953, Vol 16 No. 6 from Classic Film on Flickr

Here's an extract from a letter Nancy Mitford wrote to her sister Diana in May 1950:
"Oh dear I've just had a morning with my dressmaker - an evening dress now can't be made even by her under a tout dernier prix de £50.  Isn't it dreadful, it seems such a lot of money.  And that includes using an old one as foundations. She says 30-40 yards is the minimum if it's not to look skimpy and I know she's right. The dresses have never been so vast and elaborate."

2. Nanny's dreams turned to ashes upon returning to Hyde Park.....

"The Park, she found, had lost its old character.   Not only had the railings disappeared, the beautiful fleur-de-lis railing which used to surround it, the stout stumps of Rotten Row, the elegant Regency railings of the flower beds, and the railings on which children loved to walk a tight-rope at the ends of the paths, but so, to a very great extent, had the nannies.  Increasing numbers of little boys, it seemed, while they had a multiplicity of mummies and daddies, had no nannies at all....Park society was not what it had been.  There was no wide range of choice, as in the past, and the few nannies who were left clung together, a sad little bunch, like the survivors in an autumnal poultry yard, most of whose fellows had already gone to the pot.  Nanny had few friends among them and pronounced them to be, on the whole, a very inferior type of person." 

Hyde Park

3. I was surprised and amused by the reasonably frequent reference to all sorts of sexual proclivities usually by aged French aunts e.g. Madame Rocher, who enquires of Charles-Edouard and Grace:
"Is it today you go to the English Lesbians?  The nephew of the old one is there, I believe - if he is her nephew.  They've just bought a refrigerator, what extravagance! The Italian ménage à trois? Have you explained to Grace that she only likes boys of sixteen and they get them for her ? An excellent cook, I hear, this year." 
Perhaps it was this sort of European raciness that amused my mother who was a staunch Anglophile in contrast to Mitford's known Francophilia.

4. Being set post-war, there are references to the Iron Curtain and the Bomb...but in a farcical way.  Grace's childhood friend Carolyn is married to Hector Dexter, the "important" (but deeply boring) American.  Here he is describing a pamphlet called The Bomb and You....

"(It is) designed to bring the bomb into every home and invest it with a certain degree of cosiness.  This should calm and reassure the population in case of attack.  There are plenty of guidance reunions, fork lunches, and so on where the subject is treated frankly, to familiarize it, as it were, and rob it of all unpleasantness.  At these gathering the speakers stress that the observation of certain rules of atomic hygiene ought to be a matter of everyday routine."

Crazy, I know.  Even though Mitford made light of it in The Blessing, an extract from a letter to her sister Diana in December of 1950 gives another view:
"The panicking here has reached such a pitch that even I have got a bit windy.  It's just like I remember London in 1940, everybody showing you their pills. (As you know I'm never as frightened as most, but feel in a bad position here being a foreigner.)"
Charlotte Mosley's very helpful notes remind us that President Truman had just declared a state of emergency because of the war in Korea. for thought given the current political times.

The Blessing was a light-hearted read and my first Mitford.  Reading it was a kind of homage to my mother who was slightly obsessed with the Mitford family.  

It was wonderful to have a bit of background reading thanks to two volumes: The House of Mitford by Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness from my mother's library and The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley which I borrowed from the brand spanking new Chermside Library a fortnight ago.

The Blessing started out as a film treatment and was initially rejected, made into the novel, and then bought by MGM and made into Count Your Blessings starring Maurice Chevalier and Deborah Kerr.  I haven't seen the film but from the extracts I've seen on YouTube, I suspect the book is much much better.

The Loved and Envied

My fortnight of reading was about firsts.  The first time I'd read Mitford and the first time I'd read Enid Bagnold.  

This was an entirely different kettle of fish to Mitford and yet there were similarities in subject matter.  The book is set in France and it's about English people living in France.  

Here is an observation of Parisian society by one of Bagnold's more short-lived characters Tuxie which reminded me of similar description's in The Blessing.

"He realised then that Parisian society was the paradise of elderly women.  But they were no fools.  He had to watch his step.  One way and another he was asked about, invited here and there.  He was astonished with what an assumption of power women of sixty could enter a drawing-room, with what welcome, with what ludicrous kisses they were received if they had wit and confidence.  "The pansies' molls" - he called them.  But he had brains enough to realise that that wasn't fair and that it wasn't easy to reign: it must be done by personality, by achievement."

I didn't realise until after I'd read it that, in fact, these two books were an ideal pigeon pair to read because of their connections.  Mitford was born in 1904, the same year as my paternal grandmother.  Bagnold on the other hand was fifteen years older than Mitford being born in 1889.  The central character of The Loved and Envied Lady Ruby Maclean is based on Bagnold's friend Lady Diana Cooper. Guess who else moved in Diana Cooper's circles? Mitford. Bagnold also dealt with MGM in the adaptation of her book National Velvet which brought her fame and fortune.

Lady Diana Manners This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.50493. This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work
Cooper and Bagnold were closer in age than Mitford and by 1951 were well into their senior years. And this really is the subject matter of the book.  What is it like for a woman, famed for her beauty, to lose that beauty and face old age?

I found this book more difficult to read than Mitford.  At first it was the naming of the characters that vexed me.  There was a Rose and a Ruby and I was forever mixing them up.  I had to re-read the first couple of chapters to get the characters straight and really work at figuring out what was going on and who was who. Bagnold tends to leap from one character to the next and draw quite absorbing in-depth vignettes.  But then suddenly, you're off looking at another character and wondering if they are going to be the main focus.  

Here is an example of her writing, this time focussing on Rose, Edouard's (another coincidence !) mistress:
"She was haunted by the shop windows and by the mirror in the lift of the great house where she had tried (and failed) to buy the dress. The mirrors in the fitting-room itself had been different and by some quality in the silvering had given back to her for an instant a look of the Rose she had been.  But in the lift and in the shop windows in the street she had seen again the sad coquettish old woman junketing by.  "I'm in that army, that poor army at last -the army of ugly women!"  After a length of street she had sat down in despair on the terrace of a cafe and, giving a small order, she concentrated on the women in the street. Some of the ugly ones had pride, she noticed.  But then they had always been plain, had not fallen back to it as she had done.  Her eyes sought out aged women but there were none.  They stayed shaded and quiet at home..." 

Whilst reading this book, I fell into a kind of torpor bordering on depression. Bagnold was about ten years older than I am now when she wrote this .  It makes somewhat gloomy fare but there is some important philosophizing, I suppose, along the lines of "What is life about?" Here is Alberti's (Ruby's unrequited lover and old friend) thoughts on the meaning of life, the universe and everything....
"I think we're put here, my dearest, to lay this ghost of becoming individuals.  It's our temporary destruction.  It's why we hate, and fight, and among nations, why we die.  Oh, remember childhood. The misery, the pain of what grows within one, the ignorant ache to catch attention, the long for fame (which is the revolt from anonymity), the shivering ego that can't bear laughter or sneers, that fights when slighted, that denigrates its neighbour, that won't admire, that can only envy....It's only now when we're old that the armaments race within ourselves can slow up and we see how we're situated, and we have the permission to allow the individual to give up its fight."

The obsession with beauty and its passing forced me to reflect on whether or not woman's lot has changed since these books were written.  I'm not so sure that our obsession with beauty has changed that much - one could argue that it may have even worsened.  But at any rate, I think opportunities for women to define themselves other than by their appearance have vastly increased, no doubt due to the benefits of education, which I suspect Mitford and Bagnold may have been denied.  Mosley has this to say:
"Like most girls of their class and generation, the sisters were educated at home.....Jessica blamed their mother for this lack of formal education, even though Lord Redesdale was just as opposed to sending his daughters to school. 'Nothing would have induced him to waste money on anything so frivolous', wrote Deborah.  He also worried that they might develop thick calves from being made to play hockey."

c1905 Wick Ladies Hockey Team, South Gloucestershire
c1905 Wick Ladies Hockey Team, South Gloucestershire from Paul Townsend on Flickr

So that's where my thick calves came from! 

Many thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for making me step outside my normal reading and for getting another one of my beloved Viragos under my belt, so to speak.  

Bless ;)

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lion or A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley

LionLion by Saroo Brierley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As soon as I saw the movie a month or so ago, I knew I would have to read the book. This is an extraordinary story and deserving of a film adaptation. But the film left many questions unanswered and so I wanted to get the book as quickly as possible. It's a very easy read and yes - it has a map of India - which I referred to numerous times.

For anyone who has ever lost a child - even if only for a few minutes - the story is a bit like your worst nightmare only with a very happy ending. Who could want more than that? And it doesn't matter that you know the ending really because the journey as they say, is always the interesting bit.

As a family historian I loved this story from so many angles - the research, the obsession with finding family/identity, the love of parents and of good citizens who understand that it takes a village to raise a child and who wanted to look after those most vulnerable in society. Thank goodness for the Brierleys and all those who care for "lost" children. What special people they are and how lucky we are to have them in our world.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Just to say that yes I have signed up for the AWW 2017 challenge.  You can too, if you are interested in reading more books by Austraian women writers.  Just click here.

I think the addition of reviewing classic as well as contemporary books is great.

I have set an overall goal of 15 books - reasonably achievable given that I read 14 this year.

Of those 15, I have set a goal of reading 3-5 classic books and would like to combine that with my love of Virago Modern Classics.  These are the ones that have taken my fancy so far:

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

The Roaring Nineties

Painted Clay

Bobbin Up

I wonder how I'll go.

What guides my choices?  Prizes sometimes such as the Premier's or Prime Minister's Awards and the Book Industry Awards. Sometimes I'll see a review in the Good Reading magazine that takes my fancy.

I like to make myself read outside my normal range and explore crime, children's and young adult to name a few.

I wonder what treats 2017 will bring.

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2016 - Challenge Completed

I always like to set goals at the beginning of the New Year - particularly with regard to health and reading.  I've met a few challenges this year walking wise with the aid of my beautiful hound Arwen.  

With regards to reading, one of  my favourite goals is the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  

I hoped to read 10 books this year and write 5 reviews for them.  I think I may have fallen short of my goal in the reading department. And while I'm pretty sure I met the writing reviews goal, I confess that some of my reviews are on the short side.  

Here's my year in reading AWW.


The House of Memories by Monica McInerney

I didn't really write a review for this.  This was what I said at the beginning "Oh now this is a nice easy read and not predictable...well not yet anyway..."...I remember being a bit cross with the lead character by the end...she was so unforgiving and I think the other characters (step-brother from memory???) went to a lot of trouble over her and I wondered if that would happen in real life....anyway....not a stand out book for me but not unbearable.


Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright

Link to my review on Goodreads.


Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

Link to my review on Goodreads


Violent Exposure (Detective Ella Marconi #4)

Link to my review on Goodreads


Suri's Wall

Link to my review on Goodreads



Link to my review on Goodreads


The Promise Seed

Link to my review on Goodreads


Between a Wolf and a Dog

Link to my review on Goodreads



Link to my review on Goodreads


Hades (Archer & Bennett, #1)

Link to my review on Goodreads

Oh my goodness!  Look at that !  I met my goal in terms of reading!  In fact...I exceeded it!

Here's a gratuitous photo of me on a glacier taken by my father earlier this year on a fabulous holiday.  I looked pretty pleased with myself don't I?


A Few Days in the Country: And Other Stories

Link to my review on Goodreads


Everywhere I Look

I'm not going to link to my review on Good Reads because it is ridiculously short.  It's a one-word review- and the word is???? Wonderful!  

Oh and when I first started reading it, I logged the comment - God it's great to be reading a good book.  

I have to say that I am in love with Helen Garner's writing.  I didn't think much of The Spare Room but I have gobbled up everything I have read of hers since.


Not Just Black and White

Link to my review on Goodreads


Joe Cinque's Consolation, A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law

Link to my review on Goodreads

So that's my year in reading.  I really stepped outside my normal reading boundaries.  I read my first graphic novel. I read a supernatural YA regency novel.  I read crime. I read short stories. I read essays.  I had never read 11/13 authors before.

Did I have a favourite?  Oh this is so hard - Fiona Wright's work is so so smart, so insightful, so thoughtful - I am in awe of her self-knowledge.  And then I really loved Not just black and white - what a story! And what a wonderful tribute to the relationship between mother and daughter - powerful stuff.  But Helen Garner's Joe Cinque's Consolation takes the cake for me because it is ultimately a work of love - beautifully constructed, from the heart, seeking the truth and revealing love. Just beautiful.

Thank you AWW Challenge for taking me beyond my normal reading boundaries and for introducing me to so many good authors.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

I could have kissed her except...

The dog and I went for a walk this morning.  We didn't go yesterday.  I was weak and feeling sorry for myself after a late night.  So we definitely had to go this morning. Definitely. Because, despite walking a little bit later in the day with friends.....

They led me into temptation to a very good gelato shop where self-control took a rapid dive into self-indulge....

No I didn't eat both tubs, silly, but I did eat the larger tub. So we definitely had to walk.

Only thing was that, from the minute we stepped out the front door, with me desperately trying to shush an over-excited 6 year old dog, yelping for all her worth like I was belting her instead of taking her for a walk, I was set upon by some very enthusiastic bush flies.

"Shoo" I cried, waving my arms around my head.  

And then I kept waving my arms around my head for the next 2.8 kilometres.  

After 1k I found a handy branch of leaves which had fallen on the footpath so I fanned myself with that.  "Shoo!".  To no avail.  They were stuck to me like glue.  

I was beginning to feel a lot like Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown cartoon.  How embarrassing.  Did I really smell that bad?  What on earth was attracting them?  

"I should never have let the dog lick me this morning."  I thought to myself  "Or maybe it was the last dregs of the sample pack eye makeup remover that I used to remove my owl eyes after wearing mascara the night before."  

"Oh well" I thought "At least my arms are getting a workout too."

But then I started to get really cross.  I don't know about you, but when I get going on my morning walk, I do tend to breathe through my mouth, rather than my nose.  But this morning I had to keep my lips firmly shut.  Aussie bush flies enjoy buzzing right past your ear or landing on your nose!...lips firmly shut.

The dog, and I slogged on.  Arwen seemed to be going faster and faster.  Perhaps the flies were annoying her too or was it the promise of the descent down Mukurta Street where sometimes, foolishly, I joined her in a run downhill.  As we hesitated to cross the street, a woman came up the hill towards us.

"Are the bush flies really bad this morning?" she shouted at us.

Honestly, I could have kissed her except....we don't know each other at all...and those wretched bush flies would have got in on the act too.

"C'mon Arwen" I said "Let's out-run them." 

P.S. And we're over-run with butterflies too apparently. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

#AWW2016 Bingo Challenge

Ouf - well the challenge was set quite a while ago and I don't seem to have done too well.  At first I thought I would be able to complete Bingo Card 1:

A book with a mystery - Peter May's The Lewis Man

A book by an indigenous author - um not sure if The Vegetarian by Han Kang qualifies really

A book set in the outback - hmmmm

A book by someone under thirty - oh dear

FREE SQUARE - Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright

A short story collection - A few Days in the County and other stories by Elizabeth Harrower

A book that's more than 10 years old - Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

A bestseller - The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

A book published this year - Murder on the Serpentine by Anne Perry

So no Bingo on Card 1 I'm afraid...

Let's try Card Two

A book set in your favourite town or city - Hades by Candice Fox

A funny book - Me Teddy by Chris McKimmie 

The first book by a favourite author - The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty

A forgotten classic - The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp

Free Square - High Rising by Angela Thirkell

A book with poems - well I did buy a book of poems in Canberra in April and I've been meaning to read it but that doesn't count does it - but just in case you are interested it is Rosemary Dobson Collected.

A book you heard about online - Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain

A book by someone of a different ethnicity to you - The Vegetarian by Han Kang

A book of non-fiction - The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

So almost Bingo Card Two but not quite.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Australian Women Writers Challenge - Book Review Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright

Small Acts of DisappearanceSmall Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The 2016 Stella Prize longlist of a dozen books was announced on 9 February, of which Small Acts of Disappearance - Essays on Hunger was one. I was intrigued by the description of this particular book and delighted to find it available as an e-book through my local public library service.

Anyone who knows me will know that I wrestle with food and weight on a daily basis and wish I had a different body. I am obese and have struggled with my weight since I was about 10 years old. I know obesity is one of the strongest markers for bowel cancer. Due to my genetic heritage I need to get tested for bowel cancer every 2/3 years - a hideous process where you must drink enormous quantities of very salty fluid until you want to puke before undertaking "a procedure" the next day. Fun stuff. Not.

Wouldn't you think I would be motivated to do something about my weight? But no - I eat just about everything that comes in temptation's way. I have very little self-control when it comes to food. So you can understand why I am fascinated about those who suffer from the exact opposite syndrome - who go hungry, who starve themselves to the point of being emaciated (by the way it is very difficult to find an antonym for obesity). Who have control.

Fiona Wright's book is a slim volume (pun kind of intended). Funnily enough, in my reading habits I do not like huge tomes. A bit like movies, I get impatient with anyone who can't get their point across in 2 hours or less. So I was surprised by how quickly I was getting through the book (goody -another finished for the Reading Challenge - measuring measuring attainment attainment) but also surprised by the density of the content, the carefully chosen words and their resonance. This was meaty stuff.

Wright's book is not a definitive text on the issue of eating disorders. Rather, and I think more importantly, it is a reflection on her experience.

Knowing ourselves is one of the greatest challenges of life. Think of how much we dissemble to others (and ourselves) on a daily basis - yes, we are happy, coping, not going mad, pleased to see you, meet you - whatever. And much of this is vital for the smooth workings of society. Good manners and charm are the oil that make the world go round. "Act enthusiastic and you'll be enthusiastic" my mother always intoned to me. And Lord knows, it seems to have served me well all my life.

And yet, what if you feel like the world is out of control, or you are out of control. What can you do?

Wright stops and looks back at the pathology of her illness - looking for clues about how it might have begun, what the triggers might have been. This is not all "Dear Diary" stuff, I hasten to add. Wright informs her reflections with other writing on the topic, scientific, historical and good old literature itself, including writings by Christina Stead, Tim Winton, Dorothy Porter, Carmel Bird and many more. She also analyses the language used by therapists in her treatment - a subject obviously dear to the heart of a wordsmith and a nod to the importance of the "connect" between mind and body.

I won't spoil the book for you by revealing all but here is some of her writing to give you a clue.

"I still want, sometimes, someone or something to take from me the burden of being myself, this burden that I could perhaps only bear, for so many years, through hunger" and "I miss the simplicity of illness sometimes. Because the more acute pain is in trying to get better - and it's a pain that's chronic too - and in stripping away the protection, the insulation, the certainty that my hunger gave me"

Such thought-provoking writing isn't it? I think this would be a great book for book clubs mostly because this is such an important issue - for mothers, for parents, for ourselves as women, for ourselves as members of a society that needs to reflect more on its pathology.

I thank the author for sharing her experience with us, for finding the words for that most difficult of undertakings - self-knowledge - and shining a light for the rest of us who need to unravel our complicated relationship with food; that most basic of needs.

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