I’ve read quite a few war memoirs, but I’ve not read one quite like Sword of Bone before – this is the first of my reviews at Shiny New Books’ latest edition that I’ll be pointing you towards. Here’s the opening of my review; you can read the rest here.
They’ve done it again! Slightly Foxed have brought out yet another fascinating, entertaining, and well-written memoir – and another one that I would never have heard of without their curated collection in Slightly Foxed Editions. This time, it’s the memoir of a billeting officer during the Second World War – with the added interest that it was originally published in 1942 when, of course, the war was far from over.
Sorry that I missed episode 8 – the 1947 Club and a cold put paid to it – which was a shame because Tudor Week was unusual and amusing. Though also saw the loss of Benjamina, my fave; it’s probably just as well I didn’t recap through the tears. We’re back on more traditional ground for episode 9 with Patisserie Week – and when I say ‘traditional’ I of course, as ever, mean ‘offensive French accents and unlikely French puns’. But not before Mel and Sue have given the intro by reading every other word each. I once got moved in an English lesson for suggesting the same thing when we read out a poem in a group. See, Miss Webb, I was just ahead of my time.
As usual, with the semi-final, we get all the bakers telling us in various ways that it’s the semi-final. Take your pick, bakers, of whether you prefer ‘the last week before the final’, ‘the last time that somebody will be out’, and ‘the last time that somebody will be Star Baker’. The last of those (Candice’s bon mot du jour) is perhaps the biggest stretch, and only half true. Or SEMI true, if you will.
Mel and Sue embrace what I assume is meant to be an homage to French New Wave Cinema, but ends up looking like two Ray Charles impersonators have been co-opted into a Ronan Keating video.
The bakers wish each other luck as the Signature Challenge starts (bless them), and for the FIRST TIME in Bake Off HISTORY (look, perhaps, I haven’t checked) we don’t get a face-on shot of the judges and presenters at this stage. I can’t do Blazer Watch in the usual format! IS NOTHING SACRED? Instead, here are those blazers from behind – which does enable us to see that Sue’s says ‘Happy’ on the back, which is either adorable or a bizarre Seven-Dwarfs-themed version of 20 Questions.
The Sig Chall (no?) is to make savoury palmiers. I’ve only had palmiers in the sweet variety, bought from Marks and Spencer bakery counter, and I could contentedly eat nothing but those for hours on end. With them in mind, I found it difficult to embrace a savoury version from the off, I’ll be honest.
With so few bakers left, we fill the time with Candice just saying ‘semi-final’ (with no attempt to elaborate in any way), and Andrew loitering suspiciously by the microwave, clearly about to swipe a lemon.
Paul kicks off a trend by talking about ‘layers’ (one syllable) which are apparently essential for a palmier. Without those dear, dear layers, it will apparently ‘just be pastry’. To clarify: the recipe is literally a pastry. It’s a puff pastry. I don’t know what Paul is trying to mean.
There is some debate about whether strong flour or plain flour or both should be used to make the pastry. Again, I am sure that this debate has been concocted entirely to get Andrew to say ‘flour’ as often as possible; it is wonderful in a Northern Irish accent. Candice is using both, and everybody gathered around the bench implores Paul to tell us whether or not this is correct – Mary quite literally clutches his elbow – but he will not be moved to speak.
Candice is making red onion, cambozola, and walnut palmiers (yummmm), and mushroom, bacon, and parmesan palmiers (at which point I realise there will be a lot of meat in today’s offerings). Colouring Pencils Man opts to depict them in a singularly unappetising shade of grey/beige (greige is, you may be surprised to learn, a real word).
Apparently that swirly shape is ‘elephant ear shaped’, and it’s also what Jane is doing for some of hers – the others being in a ‘puffy flower shape’ which looks a little (though, admittedly, not a lot) like a capital E with an extra line.
“The key to puff pastry is chilling” says Selasi, almost as though he were deliberately serving up a ‘chilling’ pun. If ever somebody was chilling out max and relaxing all cool, it is this gentleman. He certainly seems to be having more success in the accuracy stakes than Andrew – who, rather surprisingly given his narrative of engineering addiction, has a bit of a messy pastry.
Paul sidles over to judge, and waves his eyebrows around when he learns that Andrew is only using plain flour. Or maybe only strong flour. I forget. I was rather knocked around the head with how many times Mary B says ‘dry’ in the next few moments – not, as one might immediately presuppose, ordering her sherry of choice, but observing that Andrew is putting dried dry bread crumbs into an already dry pastry.
Again, because there aren’t many bakers left, the time must be filled with the actions and reflections of just four of ’em. We are treated to lingering shots of Andrew putting something in the fridge, and Candice chopping mushrooms (did anybody else have flashbacks to mushroom forager Rob of a few series ago?). And then there’s the excellent bit where Selasi finishes Mary’s sentence (with, admittedly, the fairly guessable word ‘palmiers’) and she reacts with delight. She’s always been fab on camera, of course, but in this series she really seems to be enjoying herself in every moment.
Selasi is definitely getting ideas above his station – and takes it upon himself to announce to all the bakers that there are two hours left. Sue gleefully lambasts him for taking his role (“It was all I had – I was like the talking clock with puns!”). Mel joins in, and they threaten to take over the baking. It’s all so wonderful and nobody on Channel so-called 4 will be able to live up to it. (Ditto Mel applying to lipstick to Candice in the next bit.)
Having less fun is Andrew, who has decided to start his pastry again from scratch. DRAMA.
Selasi says that you shouldn’t have too much filling (his somewhat lacklustre ambition is to make it so ‘the judges taste something’), while Candice wants it packed to the rafters. Andrew, meanwhile, says he would have done a lot of things differently, which sounds like the opening line to a musical number from Sunset Boulevard.
Pastry is rolled, palmiers are chopped, and bakers make the not-particularly-revealing confessions that they’d quite like to win. And just as I’m starting to wonder whether or not Jane has an obsession with comedy moustaches…
…her palmiers go flying!
Selasi’s are scattered a moment or two later too (the spirit of Val remains in the tent), but by then it’s old news. He is also pacing with nerves – which Sue observes with the caring glee of somebody who realises that the cool kids get sad sometimes too.
And – they’re done! Most of the bakers have served their palmiers in baskets (and Jane has even thoughtfully served an entire basil plant alongside); Candice has hung hers in an ornamental birdcage. Because of course she has.
Jane does well, but Candice’s has too much filling. “Is it palmier or is it a pastry?” poses Paul, meaninglessly. Selasi’s are underbaked – even raw – but the flavour is apparently good, while Andrew’s (served in a mini chest of drawers, as you do) and gets praise reviews from Mezza and Pezza. The bakers give their feedback in the bright sunshine, while Candice mournfully crams her palmiers – IF that is indeed what they are – into her mulberry-shaded mouth. Which sounds like a brilliant idea whatever the judges’ opinions, tbh.
Paul advises, for the Technical Challenge, that they should make something that’s nice (Sue sends him off to Banalities ‘R’ Us) – and the challenge is a savarin – which is, I believe, French for ‘how are you, Rin?’. All the bakers seem to have dimly heard of it, but their descriptions are pretty vague, and some are clearly just read directly off of the recipe they’ve been given. Selasi “doesn’t think” he’s made one before – would that not be something one would recall? – while Andrew gives me an opportunity to highlight something I’ve been intending to highlight all series. Why does he always lean over the desk as though he’s eight feet tall? You’re not that tall, Andrew.
Paul’s sample savarin (which he immodestly labels perfect) does look pretty good – though that sugar work is rather strange. Apparently it’s the sort of cake (bread? breakcake?) that requires a label.
Early signs are that the amount of liquor spread throughout will be this week’s Arbitrary Decision-Maker. But for now, the bakers are having protracted monologues on what sort of hook to use in their electric mixers. Use your hands, people, or a wooden spoon. (I got mocked for this the other day – but I don’t have an electric mixer, and I always use elbow grease except for situations requiring handheld whisks, like meringues.)
While the doughs are rising, the bakers draw ovals and make chocolate labels – Sue mops down Selasi’s forehead – and they have to make caramels. Apparently caramel is Jane’s nemesis, as hers keeps crystallising. I never have trouble making caramel, which leads me to assume that I’ve probably been doing it with much lower standards than I should have been.
Of all my made-up tent romances (whatever happened to those #lingeringlooks between Candice and Selasi?), I hadn’t picked Jane and Andrew for a pair – but Mel alleges that Jane is all Andrew can talk about. To the best of my knowledge, all he talks about are dough hooks.
It’s always fun to watch bakers try to pipe writing – but, sadly, they are pretty good at it. They also get to practise quite a bit, and it starts to look a little like The Shining.
The savarins are coming out of the ovens, all looking pretty impressive to me but in quite a range of colours – and the bakers start dousing their creations in liquory syrup – or, potentially, syrupy liquor. “It will come as a surprise to nobody that I’m doing another caramel,” says Jane, perhaps overestimating how much we recall about her caramel mishaps. She worries that her savarin might be shardless – much like an incomplete London skyline.
Aaaaand – time is up! Not before Andrew has managed to make plonking fruit on a cake sound like a complex engineering task. The displays look pretty impressive to me – albeit with some melting cream, but apparently Paul is (gasp!) willing to overlook that.
None of them have the syrup dispersed throughout quite as much as Paul and Mary would want, so they have to turn their attention to (of all things) the membrane of oranges. Sure, why not. On such things do kingdoms rise and fall – and the Technical Challenge concludes with Selasi limping into last place, followed by Candice and Andrew, with Jane taking the crown. She screams in delight in a meadow.
The final challenge is, but naturally, the Showstopper Challenge. They have to make… 36 fondant fancies! Which is rather recycling the fondant fancy technical challenge of a few series ago, but NEVER MIND. I don’t remember if these are British-only treats, but if so – rest assured, non-Brits, that nobody would dream of making these themselves. Thinking about it, nobody would really consider buying them unless they were entertaining their grandchildren or planning a picnic at the last minute in an almost-sold-out M&S local.
Andrew eschews the opportunity to use garish colours (see below), and opts for ‘Philharmonic Fondants’; Mel perjures herself by saying that they’ll be topped with sheet music and bow ties. If Colouring Pencils Man’s sketch is anything to go by, that is the least informative sheet music I have ever seen.
We haven’t had a Mary Berry Reaction Face for a while, have we? Well, Candice isn’t planning on thickening her cherry filling – instead, she’ll be putting individual cherries in the middle of her fancies. What does Mez Bez think of that?
Paul has more or less given up pretending to be helpful, and dispenses advice including ‘do it well’ and ‘finish on time’. Handy, thanks Hollywood. Over at Selasi’s counter, Paul recycles the top tip to do well, and prods the bright pink sponge Selasi has made.
He decides to make the sponge again – because Mary makes a comment about sifting flour to avoid air pockets. I always sift flour, guys. Even if there’s no flour in the recipe, I just sift some on the side for good measure.
Mel makes references to Ultravox next to Candice, who is at least five years too young to understand them.
The fondant fancies are coated in butter icing, to help the fondant stick and remain neat. With 36 fiddly fancies to coat, this must be numbingly time-consuming. Enough so that Andrew completely and unblinkingly ignores Mel’s entire skit about his stance. Seriously, she asks him questions that he totally blanks.
And those garish colours? Jane – who wins more of my love by determining that there’s ‘always time for a cup of tea’ (truth) – demonstrates the level of restrained tastefulness that one can expect from a fondant fancy.
The bakers coat icing all over the place while the GBBO orchestra merrily plonks along in the background, choosing the ‘something amusing is happening’ timpani arrangement – before we segue into the ‘everybody is busy busy’ strings arrangement. You could probably understand the whole show just by listening to the score.
And – with some scurrying – it’s all over! Candice’s are, naturally, displayed on a small pink piano. Where did she find it? Did she already own it? Did she borrow it from an orchestra or classically-trained church mice?
She does rather well, and her cherries haven’t bled, so there’s that.
Selasi’s look rather classy for fondant fancies – well, they do in this level of lighting, and not so much from the side – but they don’t get great feedback from the judges. Paul says the sponge is good (“if I’m honest” – sounding rather like a guard in a ‘one of us can only lie, one of can never lie’ logic puzzle) but the overall fancy is too sweet, while Mary isn’t ‘madly keen’ on the flavours. What would her delirious response be if she were, one wonders?
The side of Jane’s fancies are a bit shambolic, but from an aerial view that decoration is very impressivo.
Andrew has arranged his fancies in some orchestra stands, which he also apparently had to hand. They do look nice, and get positive feedback from the judges – who are rather phoning it in at this point, as Paul more or less just says ‘good’ a few times.
After a quick debrief, during which the person leaving the tent seems completely evident, the Star Baker accolade is awarded to a very surprised Andrew.
And we say a sad farewell to…
I’ll miss him, cos he was fun, but I need the winner to be a crier. I think any of the others would cry. I need RAW EMOTION ON TELEVISION PEOPLE.
I hope you’ve enjoyed patisserie week. Only a couple of days before the final, everyone! I’m cheering on Jane now, but they’re all fab so it’ll be a nice outcome any which way. See you next time!
I’m off to spend the weekend with Sherpa – ahem, with my family – and to recover from the excitement of Emmerdale’s death week. Seriously, I have struck up conversations with strangers about Emmerdale this week; it’s been amazing. If you watch it, please fill my heart with delight by letting me know and talking about HOW GOOD this week’s storytelling was.
But let’s get back to books for the usual (is it still ‘usual’ when I forget to do it so often?) book, blog post, and link…
1.)The book – Susan’s review of Bookshops by Jorge Carrion, which Annabel pointed out to me in the comments to my previous post, has made me very much want to get hold of it. And I suspect you will feel the same.
2.)The link – an exhibition of Tove Jansson’s paintings is coming to Dulwich (yay!) next October (boo!). Read more about it here.
3.)The blog post – it’s all about writing the introductions to Furrowed Middlebrow books, courtesy of Woman and Her Sphere.
I am so proud of everybody for the response to my most recent post. You’ve really shown the positives that can come of people coming together on the Internet. It brings a tear to the eye! I’m excited about my Furrowed Middlebrow books arriving, and will certainly report back on what I think of the books.
But for today – let’s look at some books about reading. This has certainly my go-to comfort-genre of choice over the past year or so. I picked up quite a few in my trips to America, and I am endlessly entertained, informed, and charmed by them – thankfully there are plenty more to read on my shelves. As I often turn to them when I want episodic distraction, I don’t always get around to making proper reviews of them – so I’ve grouped three together for mini-reviews. Sound ok?
Why I Read (2014) by Wendy Lesser
The subtitle to this one is ‘the serious pleasure of books’, and Lesser is certainly not taking the role of the average reader. She wears her education heavily (if that is the opposite of ‘lightly’ in this instance), and it becomes rather farcical how often she mentions Henry James, BUT it’s still an enjoyable and extremely thought-provoking look at the different elements of reading. She divides her chapters in ‘Character and Plot’, ‘The Space Between’, ‘Novelty’, ‘Authority’, ‘Grandeur and Intimacy’, and ‘Elsewhere’ – make of those what you will – and her thoughts and arguments cover great swathes of territory and many writers and nationalities.
I would certainly need to re-read to familiarise myself afresh with her lines of argument, and this is closer to a scholarly book than most of the books-about-reading I enjoy, but is still certainly accessible to the non-scholar. Indeed, it would be infuriating in a scholarly context, because there are no footnotes or referencing
Why does she read? The whole book is, of course, building that answer – but I also liked (if did not agree with) the summing-up of sots of ‘I read […] for meaning, for sound, for voice – but also for something I might call attentiveness to reality, or respect for the world outside oneself’. I’d certainly recommend Why I Read – and it is also beautifully designed and printed – but somebody should have a word in her ear about how often one can get away with throwing in Henry James. I shall always wryly smile in recollection of ‘Very little in the world can compare with the experience of reading, or even rereading, The Golden Bowl, but we cannot always be reading The Golden Bowl‘. Well quite.
The Art of the Novel (2015) edited by Nicholas Royle
I asked for this collection of essays for my birthday last year – thanks Rhiannon! – because my friend (can I say that on the strength of meeting once?) Jenn Ashworth has an essay in it. You may recall I raved about Fell earlier in the year; in this collection she writes on ‘Life Writing / Writing Life’. Everybody in the collection discusses different angles on how to write, from genre (Leone Ross on magical realism; Livi Michael on historical fiction) to broader concerns like place, details, plot twists, etc. Besides Ashworth, I’d only heard of a handful of the authors (Alison Moore, Stella Duffy, and – believe it or not – two Nicholas Royles, whom I’d got confused on a previous occasion) but I am hardly the benchmark for knowing about modern literature. Only one contributor, one of the Nicholas Royles in fact, takes a weird tangent – into the concept of the death of the author – which has little to do with practical advice.
This was one of the books I read in Edinburgh, and it was entertaining – I was reading it more out of interest than seeking advice – but I did particularly like how each essayist ended their section with a list of books they admired or recommended. It was interesting how often Muriel Spark’s excellent book The Driver’s Seat came up.
The Whole Five Feet (2009) by Christopher R. Beha
The most personal of the three books featured today, and the most unusual in concept (is there a word for ‘gimmicky’ that isn’t negative?) – and by far the longest subtitle. *Clears throat* ‘What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else’.
The great plants in question are the Harvard Classics – Beha decides that he will try to read all of the Harvard Classics in a year. They supposedly take up five feet on a shelf, hence the title. For those not au fait with the series (as I was not), it was created in 1909 to be the best literature, fiction and non-fiction, made available to the everyman, in 51 chunky volumes. It is quite an unusual collection of works; the blurb describes it as ‘from Plato to Dante, Shakespeare to Thoreau’, but it also includes some more idiosyncratic choices – like Two Years Before the Mast, an account of sailing by Richard Henry Dana, Jnr.
What makes this book so engrossing is how well Beha combines the reading experience with personal accounts of his own life – losses and illness chiefly – that accompany the year, writing with a empathetic dexterity that makes the reader warm to him and care deeply. The actual responses to the books become less important as The Whole Five Feet continues, and it ultimately seems more of an endurance test than an engagement with literature. In some ways, this is more memoir than a book-about-reading, but it is none the worse for that.
Such a flurry of blog posts recently! It’s become rather uncharacteristic, but I felt I had to post this one soon. It’s something of a call to action.
We are very lucky, in the bookish corner of the internet, that we are mostly immune from trolls and cruelty and unkind comments. Particularly blogs which focus on middlebrow literature or books from the mid-20th century – we are collaborative, interested, bookish folk who enjoy reading together and discovering new titles, as the response to the 1947 Club beautifully illustrated.
It thus surprised and upset me to see an attack on a new venture. That venture is the brainchild of Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow, along with Dean Street Press – they have recently reprinted books by Rachel Ferguson, Winifred Peck, and Frances Faviell. Any reprints are exciting to me – particularly when it’s an author like Rachel Ferguson, whose work I really like but which is impossible to track down. Nobody is better qualified, either in expertise or enthusiasm, than Scott. It’s all rather wonderful.
BUT – somebody going under the name of ‘Lally’ (though name may change?) has taken against it. She has gone systematically through all the Furrowed Middlebrow titles leaving 1 star reviews on Amazon. The reviews are all one or two lines, were mostly added on the day of publication, and is very unlikely that she has read any of the books. It’s spiteful, unkind, and unnecessary.
The publishers probably don’t feel they can address this – it might look petty. But I have no gains in this fight – so I can.
I’m not suggesting we go on a witch-hunt to unveil Lally. (It’s also, by the way, pointless down-rating or commenting on her reviews, as she then edits the reviews to remove the comment/down-rating.) But let’s fight negativity with positivity. If you’ve read any of the books in question (you can see them at the links above, or most of them on Amazon here) then please do rate and review them – I’ve done that for the one I have read, A Harp in Lowndes Square. We may be ambivalent about Amazon, but these ratings do matter. If any of the titles appeal, do what I’ve done and order them (some more Rachel Fergusons on the way!) – either ebooks or paperbacks.
Let’s not let spite win. Let’s turn this on its head. Let’s celebrate publishers who rescue these older titles, and show that enthusiasm on the internet can outweigh unkindness.
Phew, I feel like I’ve given a rallying speech! It was always kind of inevitable that my political voice would emerge in support of the middlebrow, wasn’t it?
UPDATE: the response has been wonderful – I knew all you lovely people would want to help support this initiative! I’m also pleased to say that many of Lally’s 1 star reviews have crept up to 2 star and 3 star reviews.
Cats! Dogs! Noel Coward! A.A. Milne! I always start off these descriptions with exclamation marks, but seldom has it been more justified…
In this episode, we pit literary cats against literary dogs, and almost instantly regret it (while also having plenty of fun, of course) – and, on more secure ground, discuss Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward and The Dover Road by A.A. Milne, especially as we had the good fortune to see the latter together recently. (The text is available online here.)
Sorry this episode has been a while in coming – the 1947 Club took over instead – but we’ll be back on track now hopefully! Listen above, download via a podcast app, or visit our iTunes page.
As usual, here are the books and authors we discuss:
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Animal Farm by George Orwell Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck Jennie by Paul Gallico Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico Mrs Harris series by Paul Gallico The Fur Person by May Sarton As We Were by May Sarton The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann Famous Five series by Enid Blyton The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiradie Mother and Son by Ivy Compton-Burnett The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burford Marley & Me by John Grogan Queen Camilla by Sue Townsend The Queen and I by Sue Townsend Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie The Dover Road by A.A. Milne Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward Private Lives by Noel Coward Mr Pim Passes By by A.A. Milne It’s Too Late Now by A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne Hayfever by Noel Coward Design for Living by Noel Coward Still Life by Noel Coward Miss Elizabeth Bennet by A.A. Milne Success by A.A. Milne The Great Broxopp by A.A. Milne Three Plays by A.A. Milne Four Plays by A.A. Milne Mr Pim by A.A. Milne Toad of Toad Hall by A.A. Milne The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
Thank you so much to everybody who participated – we got a really wonderful range of books from all over the world. You can see all the reviews I’ve found here – do let me know if I’ve missed your link. These clubs always show how wonderfully the blogosphere can come together and collaborate, giving an overview of a year that would take many months for any individual reader to achieve.
So, what can we conclude? As usual, there is enormous variety – but what struck me the most was how much the war loomed over everything. That sounds obvious, but I had wondered before if people would prefer to ignore WW2 when it was over – but, while some authors chose comedy or complex plots away from battle, many could not escape it. I’d love to know any conclusions that anybody else drew?
Which is one of the reasons for the next club year that Karen and I have chosen: it will be the 1951 Club. You’ve got til next April to prepare, and don’t worry – we’ll remind you before then!
Why 1951? We wanted to read the 1950s next, and 1951 seems an interesting year in literature AND it will be really intriguing to see if the war is still at the forefront of people’s minds – or had those four extra years made the difference?
Thanks again for joining in, and we hope you can next time too. And a million thanks to Karen for co-hosting so wonderfully (and making me feel very provincial, with the extremely international range she brought to the week!). It’s projects like this that make me love the blogosphere the most – when we all join in together, we can achieve lovely things :)
Firstly – sorry I’ve been a bit behind with adding links to the 1947 Club post, but do keep them coming! It’s great to see so many different books being covered – and you have until Sunday to finish reading and reviewing.
This one might be my last for the week, though, and it’s the one I’ve been reading most of the week: Black Bethlehem by Lettic Cooper, probably best known to most of us (if at all) for the novel The New House, which was both a Persephone title and a Virago Modern Classic. That’s certainly why I bought it whenever I did buy it, which I think might have been almost a decade ago. It’s nice that I’ve been able to do all my 1947 reading from books I’ve had waiting on my shelves for years – though (and sorry to write what will probably be my final review for this club as a bit of a downer) I didn’t really like this one all that much…
The book is quite slim, but the font is tiny and I think it’s actually probably quite a long novel… or, indeed, ‘three long short stories’, as I discovered it was only towards the end of reading (from this not-super-positive contemporary review). Before that, I’d just got rather confused, trying to link the sections together – the only link, so far as I can tell, is the appearance of John Everyman in each part, and that is evidently a not-particularly-coded way of introducing an everyman throughout.
There is a brief Prologue in an air raid shelter in 1944 that wasn’t particularly promising – Cooper very much puts theoretical arguments in different characters’ mouths, without much attempt at verisimilitude. Thankfully it’s pretty brief, and then we’re into Part 1. This concerns Alan Marriott in the final months of the war, invalided out of fighting, and giving an account of his wartime experience as part of a radio broadcast. We then see his uncertainties about his future, how he’s trying to keep his family happy while still trying to understand his role in this bizarre new world – and he’s in the midst of something of a love triangle at the same time.
Part 1 was my favourite section. It’s quite odd to have a female writer describe the life of a soldier – particularly as so many writers were presumably available in 1947 who’d had firsthand experience; it’s in the third person, but very much trying to put across Alan’s views and memories. It’s that slight disjointedness that doesn’t quite ring true. Cooper is describing how she imagines soldiers lived and thought and reacted to the war – and she doesn’t quite hit authentic notes. I am a passionate believer that anybody should be allowed to write about pretty much anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be completely successful. BUT this is still the best part of Black Bethlehem – engrossing and detailed.
Part 2 was my least favourite… We hop back to 1941, and a first person narrator whom we eventually learn is called Lucy. I spent most of this centre chunk of the book trying to work out who she was and how she related to anybody else in the first section, and perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d known from the outset that there were no connections… Lucy’s work in an office was quite interesting, but mostly this part (in diary format) felt a bit tedious, and I didn’t care enough about the characters to get overly bothered when she found herself in a love triangle. Though there was the odd moment that will stick with me – such as this depiction of being in a house when a bomb hits:
After the second stick the raid seemed to shift farther off, and we all got rather drowsy sitting by the hot fire. Mrs. Everyman murmured something about taking the children back to bed. The baby was asleep. Muriel was half asleep, leaning against her mother’s knee. Marta sat smoking and staring into the fire. I began to tell Peter a story. Suddenly there was a whistle, not a very long one, and the floor heaved under our feet. I knew, – I don’t know how, – that it was a stick coming towards us. I jumped up and leaned over Peter in a futile attempt to keep him safe. We could never decide afterwards whether it is true or not that you don’t hear the whistle if the bomb lands very near you. I don’t think I did hear it. Mrs Everyman said she did. The whole room seemed to come up through my stomach. There was a loud explosion, and then a long crash of falling stone. The black-out blew in, the glass cracked, the lights went out. The room was full of smoke and choking dust.
The third part is much shorter – about a boy called Simon (of all things) and him coming to terms with the arrival of his baby brother, in 1935. It was pretty good, but quite different from the tone of the rest of Black Bethlehem, and by that point I was rather tired of the whole thing.
So – not a 1947 book I’d recommend, though also one that I suspect others would enjoy, going into it eyes open. Maybe I read it too quickly to get it finished this week. And I’m still not sure why it’s called Black Bethlehem. Oh well – it still adds to a perspective of the year, which we wouldn’t get if we only read the best books of the year!
I’ve really enjoyed the serendipity (if that’s not too great a stretch) of finding 1947 books that have been on my shelves for ages, waiting to be read – and particularly glad when it happens to be a Persephone title. The Blank Wall has been on my radar since Persephone reprinted it in 2009 – and it was nice to finally read it.
The Blank Wall concerns Lucia Holley, left with her teenage daughter Bee, son David, and her father while her husband is away ‘somewhere in the Pacific’; left to manage the home and the emotional tangles of Bee, who fancies herself much mature than she is, and who is involved with an older man. (When I said ‘manage the home’, I should add that her maid Sibyl is also there – The Blank Wall is a fascinating depiction of the relationship between a white employer and a black maid in 1940s America; a loving and close relationship that is yet divided by the rules and restrictions of the period.)
After this, Lucia gets involved in some dodgy dealings – feeling out of her depth, she somehow manages to take control of the situation nonetheless. Despite a few rather doubtful moments, the novel does a good job of showing ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events – and, somehow, the power of that ordinariness overcoming everything. That is, Lucia always feels like she is experiencing real life – even when that life is far from normal reality. That shows an impressive strength in depiction of an everyday wife, mother, and daughter – who earns our affection along with our respect and our anxieties. In some ways, this is far more a domestic portrait than it is a thriller.
Oh, and the brief depiction of New York – where Lucia travels, from her lakeside rurality, to try to raise funds for blackmail (yes indeed!) – is equally interesting for its snapshot of the time and place.
I read it in its entirety on the plane back from Siena – well, probably with time sitting in the airport added on too – which gives you an indication of how quickly I was able to race through around 230 pages. It is certainly a page turner – maybe even a thriller, though there is nothing particularly tense or terrifying here. There is very little in the way of a mystery to solve (though the reader does wonder if the carpet will be pulled from under their feet). Raymond Chandler called her ‘the best character and suspense writer (for consistent but not large production)’ and particularly championed this one and – though his judgements are not always to my taste; he was no fan of A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery – but in this case he has picked a charming writer. Her strengths perhaps lie more in character than in suspense (though I suspect suspense has taken more of centre stage in the decades since he made that pronouncement), but The Blank Wall was certainly an extremely entertaining way to pass a flight.
In 2011, probably around the time I was writing my doctoral chapter on Sylvia Townsend Warner, I madly bought up all her collections of short stories. And, let me tell you, some of them are not easy to find affordably – but I wanted to stock up my shelves. Fast forward five years and I’ve read… none of these collections. And possibly none of the stories, thinking about it. So hearty cheers for the 1947 Club sending The Museum of Cheats up my tbr pile – it’s absolutely brilliant.
Warner tends towards the brief, with short stories, which is exactly how I like them – presumably because she had to fill certain spaces in the New Yorker, and anywhere else that housed these. The only exception is the title story – and I’m actually going to gloss over that one, as I found it much my least favourite story in the collection; it is on the model of The Corner That Held Them (a Warner novel I found intolerably dull, though it has many devoted fans), concentrating on the history of a building rather than the details of people’s everyday lives.
But, setting that one aside, Warner has an expertly observant eye. I was reminded a little of Katherine Mansfield – in terms of the searing through to the centre of a matter, and the potentially life-altering moments among the banal; indeed, how the banal can be life-changing. We see a hostess curious about the unkind caricature she finds on a notepad by the telephone; a woman show paintings to an uninterested visitor; a returning solider discover his books have been given away. The most striking story, perhaps, is ‘Step This Way’ – about abortion.
Warner opens each story with confident finesse, immediately taking the reader into her unusual view of the world. Here is the opening of ‘A Pigeon’:
The two large windows of the room on the first floor looked straight out into the trees of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A pigeon was cooing among the greenery. Tears rushed into Irene’s eyes. She had a sentimental character, and how sad it was, really, a girl of her age, as innocent as that bird, and all by herself, sitting opposite a solicitor called Mr. Winander and having an interview about her divorce.
The balance of that sentence and those clauses, ending on the word ‘divorce’, strikes me as so cleverly done. And she is not simply concerned with drama; I love the way Warner finds a gentle humour in the curious patterns of normal speech. This is in the same story:
“Mrs. Johnston, you must forgive me asking this. Are you quite sure that you wish to go forward with a divorce?”
“Oh yes, definitely. I never was one to stay where I wasn’t welcome.”
I suppose we have to acknowledge that these stories were probably written and published in 1946, at least some of them, but the collection certainly came out in 1947 – and, yes, the war looms large. I wasn’t expecting it to, actually. It seemed the sort of thing that would pass Warner by in her concentration on the minute. Having said that, she still looks at the war as it affects individual relationships and minds – nothing so dramatic as a world stage. This, from ‘To Come So Far’, is representative of the way Warner uses the war for her own quirky angle:
She was worn out with getting on her husband’s nerves, being alternately too strong or too weak – like tea. If he were a returned soldier, all this would be natural. Magazines were full of stories about manly nerves unable to face the return of civilian life or articles on How to Re-Acclimatise Your Man, and newspapers were full of accounts of murdered wives. But throughout the war Arnold had been an indispensable civilian, jamming enemy broadcasts, and throughout the war they had got on together perfectly, complaining of the discomforts of living and giving each other expensive presents because to-morrow we die. Now, in 1946, Arnold was mysteriously as indispensable as ever and they hadn’t died.
She has such a great turn of phrase. It’s there throughout Lolly Willowes and, twenty years later, her style remains unmistakably hers – and these sorts of unexpected stylistic quirks seem to me to be even more appropriate in a short story. It’s the sort of context that can carry the weight of something slightly bizarre, without it distorting a full-length character study. For example, in ‘Story of a Patron’ – all about the discovery of a ‘primitive artist’ – she includes this:
Mr. Haberdone asked to see more examples of Mr. Rump’s art, and Mr. Rump produced a portrait of Mrs. Rump. It was a remarkable likeness, quite as accurate as the portrait of the cactus but more dispassionate, as though Mrs. Rump had been grown by a rival seedsman.
One of my favourite stories in the collection was also one of the most curious – ‘The House with the Lilacs’. Most of the stories in The Museum of Cheats capture moments in ordinary lives, showing how extraordinary they can seem to the people experiencing them. In ‘The House with the Lilacs’, the reader is left uncertain – Mrs Finch reminds her family of a house they looked at when choosing where to live, and recalls it in perfect detail, but not where it was. The rest of the family know that neither they nor she have ever seen such a house. And that is more or less where we leave it. Even more intriguingly, in a letter Warner wrote to William Maxwell, she describes Mrs Finch as ‘my only essay at a self-portrait; her conversation and her ineffability’.
Sadly, The Museum of Cheats is pretty scarce – though more copies seem to be available in the US than in England; despite living in Dorset, Warner’s stories always found a more appreciative audience in New York. I can only imagine that her other stories would be equally rewardingly tracked down (if not as appropriate for the 1947 Club). I’ll certainly be making sure I read more from my Warner shelf before too long.