Project 24: Books 3 and 4

project-24

I’ve actually bought six books so far this year – making me precisely on track for the end of March – but only four of them have arrived as of yet. To keep track, books 3 and 4 are… A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair – which I bought for the latest episode of Tea or Books?, and which I really liked – and Norman Douglas by H.M. Tomlinson.

Norman Douglas

I bought this while in London, on Charing Cross Road, and it led to a little conversation with the bookseller about Norman Douglas. He, in fact, was reading a book by Norman Douglas right then. But I… well, I’ve never read a book by Norman Douglas. Or H.M. Tomlinson, come to that. And I always seem to get Norman Douglas mixed up with Norman Collins.

BUT I love the Dolphin Books series. There such lovely objects, and a really interesting range of non-fiction titles. They’re also pretty hard to stumble across, for the most part, so I couldn’t resist it when I found it. And that’s reason enough to add it to my Project 24 list, isn’t it?

Tea or Books? #36: audiobooks (yes or no?) and two Furrowed Middlebrow novels

Ursula Orange, Elizabeth Fair, and audiobooks – it’s fair to say that people probably won’t know that much about the authors today, but they are both among the Furrowed Middlebrow reprint series published by Dean Street Press. Any fan of middlebrow novels should certainly hunt out this series.

 

Tea or Books logoFor the first half of the episode, we’re talking audiobooks – in a fairly uninformed way, it turns out, so do let us know if you have any suggestions for narrators or audiobooks that we should try. And suggestions for future topics, of course – we’ve had a few come in, and that’s exciting, and I keep meaning to write them all down in one place…

Head over to our iTunes page, should you so wish – we love the reviews we’ve been getting in (thanks!), which you can do through podcast apps or whatnot.

The books and authors we mention this episode (mostly in passing, as usual) are:

Arthur and Sherlock by Michael Sims
The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims
Letters From England by Mollie Panter-Downes
London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes
The Pleasures of Reading: A Booklover’s Alphabet by Catherine Sheldrick Ross
Lives For Sale ed. by Mark Bostridge
Hillary Spurling
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Hermione Lee
Claire Tomalin
Ann Thwaite
School For Love by Olivia Manning
The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning
Elizabeth Jane Howard
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Cogheart by Peter Bunzl
John Green
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Agatha Christie
The Return of Alfred by Herbert Jenkins
The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield
The Egg and I by Betty Macdonald
Chelbury Abbey by Denis Mackail
The Majestic Mystery by Denis Mackail
Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange
A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair
Miss Read
Richmal Crompton
Barbara Pym
Angela Thirkell
To The North by Elizabeth Bowen
Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh
Dorothy Whipple
A Wreath For the Enemy by Pamela Frankau
Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Lark by E. Nesbit
Rachel Ferguson
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Theatre review: 42nd Street

42nd street

I was in London for a two day conference on International Development (which reminds me that I never got around to telling those who asked more about the last International Development thing I went to – one of these days I’ll write properly about what I’m doing in my new job). I decided the best way to spend the evening would be at the theatre – and so scrolled through the list of things on. My eye was caught by 42nd Street – since I’d intended to see the film a few years ago (and failed), and owned the screenplay (which I haven’t read). A couple of clicks, and some scouring of theatremonkey.com, and I’d picked my seat.

Before I describe the musical: an anecdote. Off I sauntered, from the place I was staying – the Youth Hostel off Oxford Street, since you ask, and since I’m all glamour all the time – to the Harold Pinter Theatre. It was only about 15 minutes’ walk. I got there a good ten minutes before the musical was due to start… and saw the posters for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It dawned on me, with horror, that I’d gone to the wrong theatre (I’m seeing that play tomorrow). One quick check of Google Maps later, and I realised I was 15 minutes’ walk from the correct theatre (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane)… and only ten minutes before it started. Reader, I ran. I ran all the way, following Google Maps as I ran – and got there with 3 minutes to spare. And – sorry people either side of me – coughed all the way through the first half because I’m so unfit.

But thank goodness I did! Because 42nd Street is an absolute delight. I loved every moment – infectious, unashamed delight.

The plot is wafer thin. Apparently it’s based on a novel by Bradford Ropes – I can only imagine that the novel is terrible, because the whole plot is basically ‘ingénue comes to Broadway; becomes star’. But that is all you need in a musical. It’s plenty. Throw in an older lead who is reluctant to hand on the baton (played, to my surprise, by Sheena Easton), and it’s all there. Oh, and it’s set in the 1930s, so what’s not to like?

From beginning to end, 42nd Street is a whirlwind of tap dance, big voices, glittery costumes, and pizzazz. There are so many excellent sets and set changes – my favourite being one where various windows are lit up in sequence as the people leaning out of them sing – and the finale is out of this world. While Sheena Easton is the big name, it’s Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer (the ingénue) who really takes one’s breath away.

The songs? Well, the only ones I knew were ‘We’re in the Money’ and ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’. There is the issue that, since the characters are rehearsing or performing a separate musical throughout most of the performances, the songs illustrate a plot that we never learn – but if you aren’t hoping that the songs progress the plot, then you can sit back and enjoy how fun they are.

I was there for one of the previews, I believe, but it was already slick and brilliant. I’ve not been to many productions which received standing ovations, but this was one of them – perhaps only the 4th or 5th I’ve been part of. Fully deserved – in these fraught times, this is pure, delightful escapism. If you can – go.

Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield

Messalina of the SuburbsRachel and I did a recent podcast episode on Messalina of the Suburbs (1924) by E.M. Delafield and A Pin To See the Peepshow (1934) by F. Tennyson Jesse – both based on the same real life murder – but I know that plenty of people don’t listen to podcasts, so I’ll review ’em both too. First up: the E.M. Delafield (which I actually read second of the pair).

Believe it or not, this it the 23rd book I’ve read by EMD, and I still have plenty of others on my shelf left to read. Thank Heaven, fasting, for a prolific favourite author! It’s not super easy to find in book-form, but the ebook is very cheaply available – and, while it’s not one of her absolute best, I certainly found it a really good novel.

As far as I know, this was her only novel written about real life events – and written very shortly after them; the Thompson/Bywaters trial had only recently finished while she was writing the novel. You’ll find plenty of detail about all of that on Wikipedia, but essentially a woman was in a love triangle with her husband and her lover – the lover killed the husband in a sudden attack, but the woman was also tried for the crime of complicity. Whether or not she was complicit is something by Delafield and Jesse consider – I shan’t say the outcome of the trial for now.

Delafield’s novel seems pretty faithful to the set up (though, like Jesse, she makes the husband much older than he actually was). And we start off seeing the early life of the woman she calls Elsie – the tone being set by the opening words “Elsie, I’ve told you before, I won’t have you going with boys”. (Indeed, it was set before you open the novel if you happen to know who Messalina was – which I did not. Another one for Wikipedia, if you’re interested.)

The woman speaking is Elsie’s mother, and Delafield paints a world of respectable poverty for Elsie and her sister and mother. Lots of “She’s a good gurl, my Elsie” style dialogue – which was very entertaining to read, for the most part (Delafield can’t help being funny, even in a serious novel) though I have no real idea how much people ever did talk in this way. Certainly the working-class characters talk in a mix of salt-of-the-earth cliches, but people do speak in cliches, don’t they? Is it patronising, or is more patronising to put eloquence into the mouths of characters who probably never had it? Hard to say.

After a brief stint as a sort of housekeeper, during which Elsie gets entangled with the father of the family and is ousted, she marries a pushy man called Horace. He becomes rather an ogre as soon as she has a ring on her finger – alienating her from her family, demanding that she does as she’s told, and so forth. It’s a little cartoonish, but the whole novel is a little heightened, even stagey, so it more or less works. It does, however, mean the reader isn’t terribly heartbroken when Elsie starts an affair with good-looking Leslie – or (skipping forward, because I’ve already spoiled the crisis) when a drunk and angry Leslie kills Horace…

Delafield often treads a path between romance novel and her usual sardonic eye. Those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, of course, but it’s still a careful tightrope to walk – because her wit might undercut how seriously we might be meant to take the relationship between Elsie and Leslie. But she makes it work, because she’s fabs.

The love-affair of Elsie Williams and Leslie Morrison swept on its course, and in the early days of their madness neither of them paused for an instant to count its possible cost.

It seemed indeed, as though Fate were deliberately simplifying their way.

Horace Williams appeared unable to give his attention to anything beyond his newly-discovered digestive trouble, and remained constantly indoors through the hottest and finest of the summer days, experimenting upon himself with drugs, and studying tables of dietetic values.

Occasionally, the need to add in things that really happened – particularly letters that were sent, in which ‘Elsie’ suggests she is trying to poison her husband – mean that the narrative has a bit of a jolt. Delafield tidies away required moments in slightly clumsy asides, that make the reader feel that perhaps the real people weren’t quite like this. But they are small jolts, not earthquakes.

The novel ends during the trial – which came as rather a surprise to me, as the book was far from finished. It turns out there was a collection of short stories at the end, which were enjoyable enough (though mostly about how terrible women can be to women) – but made the ending feel more abrupt to me than it probably is. Still, the novel is definitely up to Delafield’s usual excellent calibre, and I recommend getting hold of a copy.

If you listened to the podcast, you’ll know that (much as I liked this novel) I preferred A Pin To See The Peepshow – so I hope I get around to writing about that one soon!

A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau

A Wreath for the EnemyPamela Frankau is one of those names that has been around the edges of my consciousness for years – it’s hard to read about interwar fiction, academically, without seeing Pamela and Gilbert Frankau (her father, it turns out; I had assumed brother) mentioned a lot. Yes, I’ve got her confused with Pamela Hansford Johnson in the past, but having read A Wreath for the Enemy (1954) now, I shan’t make the mistake again – mostly because I thought it was really, really good.
Many thanks to my good friend Caroline for giving me a copy of this book – Caroline was in my Oxford book group and, very sadly for us, moved away a while ago. We’ve stayed in touch, and she sent me A Wreath for the Enemy because she thought it would be up my street. What an unusual, clever, innovative novel it is. And how’s this for an opening line?

There had been two crises already that day before the cook’s husband called to assassinate the cook.

It is told in three sections, though with overlapping sets of characters. In the first, we see Penelope Wells and her family – looking after an eccentric hotel on the French Riviera. She calls her father and stepmother by the first first names, and is one of the most deliciously unusual child characters I’ve ever encountered. She is an adolescent, but one who has learnt language from books rather than friendships – guess who can relate? – and her conversation is a delight. It would be precocious if the character were showing off, but she isn’t; it’s simply the only way she knows how to communicate.

“Painful as it is to refuse,” I said, “my father has acquired visitors and I have sworn to be sociable. The penalty is ostracism.”

What a creation on Frankau’s part. She has brilliantly drawn a girl turned eccentric by her upbringing (when we meet her, she is writing her Anthology of Hates) who is quirky without being irritating, and a world away from a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. For the reader, she is endearing and interesting – but with an undercurrent of sadness: she has not chosen her upbringing any more than anybody else has, and she clearly has some understanding

Penelope meets the Bradley family, and is enamoured by the children Don and Eva. They come from a strikingly conventional family (Penelope’s father calls them ‘the Smugs’), and they find her enticing – she, in turn, admires the conventionality of them. It is an unusual but entirely plausible friendship – which lasts until a disreputable woman known as The Duchess comes to stay at the Wells’s hotel. The Bradley parents are shocked… and the section ends with something tragic, beautifully understated while at the same time having a significant emotional impact on them all.

The second section jumps forward a few years, and is from the perspective of Don. He is now at a boarding school, and beginning to rebel against his father’s conventionality – chiefly through his friendship with Crusoe. Crusoe is an older man in a wheelchair, brusque and direct with all, but with evident fondness for Don and a certain amount of wisdom. But absolutely no regard for ‘doing the right thing’, in the British-upper-class sense, and Don has to choose between his father’s commands and the new world he has glimpsed – while also still affected by the events of the first section of the book. And I shan’t talk too much about the final section – but Penelope is back, everybody is older, and new challenges come to the fore.

What makes A Wreath for the Enemy so brilliant, to my mind – well, it’s the writing, and the quirkiness, and the great humour – but it’s also the unusual way in which it’s written. It’s as though Frankau took a traditional novel, threw it up in the air, and wrote up what fell to the ground. It should feel disparate and jagged, but the different elements are ingeniously combined. It’s something of an abstract portrait, where the reader is left to fill in some gaps – but can understand a whole world of half a dozen characters, just be the brief moments we see them.

I will confess that I had always rather assumed that Frankau wasn’t very good. She was so prolific, and (I think I’m right in recollecting) disparaged in the highbrow/middlebrow debate – but both these facts are true of authors I love, so I should have realised that she’d be a winner. If any of her other novels are up to the quirky, imaginative, and confident calibre of A Wreath for the Enemy, I greatly look forward to reading them. And I have The Willow Cabin next on my tbr…

Others who got Stuck into this…

(I could only find one, but it’s a lovely one.)

Fleur Fisher: “This is lovely: a quite beautifully written book that speaks so profoundly. I find myself wanting to say so much, and at the same time being almost lost for words.”

Stuck in a Book’s Weekend Miscellany

Tom Tiddler's GroundIt’s sunny! The flowers are out! It’s probably freezing! I’ll find out shortly – but, before I head off for the day, I’ll leave you with a book, a blog post, and a link…

1.) The blog post – sorry, egomaniac alert, it’s one of mine: I was over a Vulpes Libris earlier this week, writing about C.S. Lewis’s book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

2.) The link – if you’re on Instagram, get voting for your favourite Agatha Christie book in a knock-out competition at The Year of Agatha.

3.) The book – I keep championing the latest Furrowed Middlebrow books, partly because Project 24 means I can’t rush out and buy them all. But I can heartily recommend Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange, which I am halfway through (and will be reviewing for Shiny New Books, and discussing on Tea or Books? soon).

The 1951 Club is around the corner!

Karen and I both realised that it’s not long until the 1951 Club starts – 10-16 April – and we have leapt into action! I’ve made another one of the badges (please feel free to use at any point), and I’m going to busy myself looking among my books for some 1951 titles. I’ve loved these ‘clubs’ so much, especially the sense of community across the blogging world that it brings about – and building up an impression of a particular year in publishing, from many different voices.

1951 Club

For those who are new to this – we ask everybody to review books published in a particular year, in the same week. You can read it before, but most of us also try to do some reading that week. We welcome novels, plays, poetry, non-fiction or anything – and in any language – so long as it was originally published in 1951. Between us, we can construct an overview of a year that would take an individual reader years to put together.

We especially love it when people look beyond the obvious, but do feel free to start thinking with the Wikipedia page for 1951 in literature. I’m mostly excited that I’ll finally be able to read Ivy Compton-Burnett for one of these clubs!

Goldilocks: Philosopher

I’m in danger of just rewriting fairytales for the rest of Lent… but I thought I’d share Saturday’s poem. And will write some book reviews at some point…

It comes, to those in fairy tales
As the mildest of mild shocks
To be objectified by males:
Such, indeed, was Goldilocks.

Though (charitably) meant to praise,
Dear Goldie was more than her looks.
While victim of the male gaze,
She infinitely preferred books.

As Goldilocks must needs explain
“A model, I would scoff to be –
I’d rather be (I have a brain)
A student of philosophy.”

With this in mind, she took a stroll
(Ideally one devoid of men)
And, thankfully, saw not a soul –
But found a cottage in a glen.

“I’m tired,” thought Goldie, “And want food,
And seem to have misplaced my map,
A little sick of solitude,
And desperate (frankly) for a nap.”

She knocked and entered, seeing still
No owners – though the furry chairs
(And photos on the windowsill)
Suggested it was owned by bears.

In fact, in every room she’d see,
On shelf, or floor, or hook, or wall,
That every object came as three:
One big, one medium, one small.

Recalling that her first intent
Was sleeping, she ignored the rest:
And to the bedroom, off she went
And found three beds (as you’ll have guessed).

And, with philosophy in mind,
Adjudicating what she’d seen
She lay down on the middle kind:
The Aristotelian mean.

(You may be asking yourself why
The porridge has been overlooked:
Let’s say the sleep would fortify
Her strength before she went and cooked.)

She woke to find three angry bears
And also found she’d caused offence
She told them why she’d used what’s theirs,
With Aristotle as defence.

Unhappily, the bears as one
Preferred a different Greek instead.
“Your theories, dear, are quite outshone
By the Platonic ideal of ‘bed’.”

A little scared, she could observe
Each bear appeared as one who brooks
No argument – and, losing nerve,
Poor Goldie fell back on her looks.

She batted eyelids, twirled her hair,
Apologised for breaking in,
And found small, large, and middle bear
Forgave, in moments, every sin.

The moral of this tale, you see
Is – well, let’s think – do what you’re told.
And, if you don’t, philosophy
Won’t help – unless your hair is gold.

Stuck in a Book’s Weekend Miscellany

Well, my weekend is going well – I’d planned to go on a National Trust jaunt, but had a lie-in instead – but later on today I’ll be going BOWLING for the first time in about eight years. Maybe I’ve just got better at it, without practising? Right?

Anyway, let’s stick to books for now – I feel on more secure ground there.

Zoo of the New1.) The book – writing poetry every day without ever reading any is making me feel rather a fraud. And I was tempted by Zoo of the New, edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson. The name is very silly, because this isn’t new poetry – it’s from Sappho onwards, excluding any living poets under sixty – but a flick through made it seem rather appealing, and not just the usual suspects. Anybody looked through this? Supposedly it’s published on 30th March, but it was in my local Waterstones last week. (Great cover, incidentally, which this blog tells me is designed by Richard Green.)

2.) The link – I’ve not read this yet, but my housemate was reading excerpts from the Guardian article about what happens when (if??) the Queen dies. It sounds fascinating – and I suspect the author was rather relieved that Her Maj didn’t die during his research period. As were we all, of course (love you, Lizzie!)

3.) The blog post – I’m just going to keep providing the world with links to reviews of The Lark by E. Nesbit until everybody gives in and just reads it. This week’s is from Call Me Madam!

The Three Little Pigs

I was going to write a Things I Have Learnt From Two Weeks of Writing a Poem a Day post today – but, by the time I’d finished today’s poem, it was quite late. So I’ll do that post soonish – suffice to say, so far I’ve managed to write at least some sort of poem every day of Lent. And today’s is on The Three Little Pigs – yes, it’s been done, but I thought telling a nursery rhyme could be fun.

Three pigs (of no enormous size)
Decided – with great enterprise
To try something transformative:
They’d build themselves a place to live.

But having got that far, they found
That each believed the plans unsound
Propounded by the other pair.
They split: one here, one here, one there.

Pig number one determined: straw
Was best for roof and walls and floor
And doors and windows and, indeed,
If liquefied, made potent mead.

Now, building regulations state
The roofs should be, ideally, slate
And doors and walls require more
(To keep them standing up) than straw.

The wolf passed by, prepared to huff
(And puff) – but nature called his bluff
A breath of wind, a tiny one,
And wolf found that his job was done.

(It’s sad to say, that little breath
Of wind meant pig was crushed to death.
It turns out straw, if in a stack
Can break more than a camel’s back.)

Pig number two observed the scene
Where Piggy number one had been.
He thought, “I knew that straw was wrong.
Now, sticks – they’re much more safe and strong.”

Suffice to say, no building guide
Has ever yet identified
As ‘Place To Start for Builder Pigs’
The hasty gathering of twigs.

The wolf turned up, and quickly saw
That ’twas with sticks as ’twas with straw.
His services were not required:
The pig had, under sticks, expired.

Let’s throw the third pig in the mix.
He’d (rather wisely) chosen bricks
Since noting (unlike straw or trees)
That almost every house used these.

He hired contractors, drew up plans,
Employed a fleet of men with vans.
The house was built and Pig, with glee
Moved in, and made a cup of tea.

The wolf was waiting – hungry, stressed,
Mere days from cardiac arrest –
And, rageful, watched the pig move in –
But vowed no porcine foe would win.

He Googled how to win this fight
And, after that, bought dynamite.
So, while poor Piggy drained his cup,
Wolf huffed, and puffed – and blew him up.