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Monday, 22 December 2014

Xmas Tree: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer

published 1941

Joseph spent the days immediately preceding Christmas in decorating the house. He bought paper-chains, and festooned them across the ceilings; he pricked himself grievously in countless attempts to fix sprigs of holly over all the pictures; and he hung up bunches of mistletoe at all strategic points. He was engaged on this work when Mathilda Clare arrived. As she entered the house, he was erecting an infirm step-ladder in the middle of the hall, preparatory to securing a bunch of mistletoe to the chandelier….

Joseph [said] could he not persuade Maud to lay aside the book and help him with the tree? He could not. In the end, only Mathilda responded to his appeal for assistance. She asserted her undying love for tinsel decorations, and professed her eagerness to hang innumerable coloured balls and icicles on to the tree

Roydon was at first inclined to lecture the company on the childishness of keeping up old customs, and Teutonic ones at that, but when he saw Mathilda clipping candlesticks on to the branches, he forgot that it was all very much beneath him, and said: ‘Here, you’d better let me do that! If you put it there, it’ll set light to the whole thing.’

observations: The top photo is quite a good version of Joseph, though it actually shows a Dutch salt miner in 1933. But I can tell you one thing – it is quite hard to find pictures of tree-decoration that don’t involve children, because we all know that the festive season is about little ones and their innocence. So Christmas murder stories, traditional ones set at a family gathering, tend to make sure there are no kids around. You’d say they were 'ruthlessly disposed of for plot purposes', but we can keep that phrase for the victim - in this case a fairly unloved old man, the kind who holds the purse-strings and rules the family. So the plot is a straight combination of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, and Georgette Heyer’s own splendid (non-murder) romance, The Unknown Ajax – my favourite of her books.

The murder plot isn’t of the best – it is a locked room mystery with a solution that seemed to leave a lot of questions, and deciding on the villain didn’t slow me down. But none of that matters: this is a very funny book, with great mean characters and very little sentiment about Christmas:
Nathaniel, regarding him with a contemptuous eye, said that a real English Christmas meant, in his experience, a series of quarrels between inimical persons bound to one another only by the accident of relationship, and thrown together by a worn-out convention which decreed that at Christmas families should forgather.
And don’t we all recognize the character above who has no time for all the nonsense, but can still jump in and start interfering and doing it better.

The investigation into the murder seems to go at a leisurely pace: I kept thinking several days had passed, but it was still 25th December. Policemen and lawyers can, apparently, be summoned and come down on the train on The Day – the 11.15 from Waterloo.

There is the usual unabashed snobbery from Heyer: a visiting fiancĂ©e, Valerie is obviously a very common young woman indeed. But all is forgiven because of the magnificence of her mother, who arrives to protect her ‘girlie’: Mrs Dean is ‘a figure in a Persian lamb coat and a skittish hat, perched over elaborately curled golden hair’ who later reveals ‘a formidable bust, covered by a tightly fitting lace blouse and supporting a large paste brooch.’

She is a wonderful character, almost the equal of Mrs Dillington-Black in Ngaio Marsh’s Singing in the Shrouds – see blog entry here. I loved the moment when her daughter almost decides to share a room with her – to dramatize her fears – but ‘reflected in time that she would not, in this event, be allowed to smoke in bed, or to read into the small hours.’

Mrs Dean is not over-impressed by the company. Posh, arty, full-of-herself Paula says - tossing back her hair:

‘No-one has ever yet succeeded in organising me!’

‘If you were one of my girlies,’ said Mrs Dean archly, ‘I should tell you not to be a silly child.’
The expression on Paula’s face was murderous.
This may not be the best murder story ever written, but it is an excellent Christmas read.

In the second picture, the other child-free man adding candles is of course Father Christmas (from the New York Public Library ) – a Christmas card from the 1900s, so before the days of a defining red-coat. Coca Cola has a nice FAQ here about the way Santa is portrayed, and their role in that.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Xmas Gifts of Nylons

the book: Black Banner Players by Geoffrey Trease

published 1952


[Two families have joined forces for Christmas in a small town in the Lake District]

“I’m dying to get to the real presents,” Sue whispered… “I do hope Penny will like her nylons.”

Both girls had just reached a stage in their lives when stockings – until recently a tedious bore, only to be worn under compulsion – had suddenly become one of the most important elements in their existence. I had heard about these blessed nylons until I was sick of them. For some reason which I could never fathom, the great thing was to have stockings so fine that nobody could tell you had any one at all, except by looking at an ugly line up the back of your leg which was specially provided to prove that you had. These were in such demand, apparently, that the shop would sell only one pair to each customer. It showed the nobility of Sue’s nature that she was giving Penny her own allocation.

[Later] A few moments later Sue let out such a scream that we paused in our unpacking to inquire what had bitten her. “Penny! You angel!” She was flaunting a pair of almost invisible stockings. I suppose the result would have been the same if each girl had kept the pair she had bought – but they certainly wouldn’t have been beaming on each other with such starry-eyed benevolence.

observations: How I wish I’d found this before writing my recent Guardian article on stockings and nylons in books: it would have fitted in perfectly.

I have been searching these books (a YA series from the 1950s) for an elusive mention of tangerine slacks (thanks to Lydia Syson and see this entry): they didn’t turn up in this book, but no complaints **, it was still a joy to read, even apart from the nylons reference. The young people we are following in the series form an amateur dramatic group, and there is a real joy in reading about their taking their show to the far reaches of the Lake District, remote places in a time when TV was in its infancy and cinemas far–distant, where the whole village will turn out for the show. And it might be hard to get back late at night across fells, mountains and rivers. There is an adventure concerning a historic notebook, and narrator Bill gets caught up in a vanity publishing scam.

I mentioned before that the books can be surprising. Trease was trying to pitch it in a middle ground that many of his readers might expect to recognize: not boarding school and young toffs, and not slumming it with the Family from One End Street. For sure, I can still remember my utter surprise when I read the first one many years ago – in which the narrator explains that their father has left the family, the mother is bringing them up alone, and no Dad’s not going to be coming back in the final chapter. That, hard though it may be to believe, was completely unprecedented in the books of the time.

I was also surprised that a waffle iron is given as a Xmas present.

**The entry on the tangerine trousers is here

More Xmas entries all over the blog - click on the labels below. 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Xmas in Wartime: Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell

published 1941

[Mr Downing has been invited to a Christmas tea-party]

The drawing-room was a blaze of comfort. The blackout had already been done, a wood and coal fire was throwing out grateful heat, all the lights were on and the room was full of laughter, smoke and noise. Mrs Turner, sitting on a sofa before a low table, was pouring out tea. Her other niece and Mr Greaves were sitting side by side at the piano with a large plate of cake and two cups of tea by the music stand, singing a duet and sharing the accompaniment

[Two others] were sitting cross-legged on the bearskin hearthrug and toasting scones. Mrs Paxon, in a red coat and skirt and a bright green halo hat, was near the tea table having a violent flirtation with Colonel Passmore, and Mrs Turner’s two good little evacuee boys, Derrick Pumper and Derrick Farker, were sitting under the piano dressed as Red Indians, with a third little boy, wearing a mask with a dog’s face, whom Mr Downing subsequently discovered to be their cousin who has been invited for Christmas because his mother had a new baby. All three little boys were gently playing mouth-organs, [and] someone had left the wireless on at full blast in the dining-room…

observations: Although the party is shown as being delightful, Thirkell has prefaced this social event with some more cynical sentences:
No one has ever yet described with sufficient hatred and venom this Joyous and Festive Season. As the Rector when off his guard so truly said, the war was little but an intensification of Christmas in that it either separated families that wanted to be together, or far worse, herded together families for whom normally 12 counties were not large enough.

This is the early days of the war – the whole of the book is set in the period – and people are making the best of it. One of the characters above is never given a name: Mrs Turner has a niece called Betty, and then there is someone who is referred to throughout the entire book as ‘Mrs Turner’s other niece’ or sometimes just ‘the other niece’ when being informal.

One interesting thing about the book is that no-one dies in it – not even in the normal run of things, let alone because there is a massive conflict raging not that many miles away. And also there are people who are figures of fun in it – as mentioned in this earlier entry on the book  – but no real villains, no-one behaves horribly badly.

The lovely photos of a wartime Christmas party come from the ever-excellent Imperial War Museum collection.

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Ghost Rider by Ismail Kadare

first published in Albanian in 1980

this edition translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by Jon Rothschild, then updated, with new sections added, by Ismail Kadare and David Bellos

From the four corners of the principality people flocked to the funeral of the Lady Mother and her daughter. Since time immemorial, events have always been one of two kinds: those that bring people together, and those that tear them asunder. The first kind can be experienced and appreciated at market days, crossroads or coaching inns. As for the second, each of us takes them in, or is consumed by them, in solitude. It soon became apparent that the funeral belonged to both categories at once. Although at first sight it seemed to belong to the crowd and the street, what people said about it brought to the surface all that had been whispered or imagined within the walls of every house, and brought confusion to everyone’s mind.

Like any disquiet that gestates at first in solitary pain before coming out into the open, rumours about Doruntine grew and swelled up, changing in the most unforeseeable ways. An endless stream of people dragged the story behind them but were yet drawn forward by it. As they sought to give it a shape they found acceptable, they were themselves altered, bruised or crushed by it.

observations: Ismail Kadare is Albania’s greatest writer, and when I featured his book The Siege on the blog I just really wanted to run the whole book, with pictures – see endless entries by clicking here. I find his style mesmerizing and fascinating – even in translation he has something very charismatic about him, I think shown in some of the sentences above. The Ghost Rider is a novella or long story, and can be read in one eerie sitting. The story is apparently a traditional folkmyth found all over Eastern and Balkan Europe in differing versions: the young woman Doruntine – married away from home - is brought back to her mother by her brother Kostandin. They turn up late at night on horseback, and then the rider departs. But her brother died long before – so what is really going on? As the title suggests, this might be a really creepy ghost story – it is very atmospheric and quite scarey. But then perhaps there is a more straightforward explanation for what happened – I went back and forward on whether there was going to be a truly supernatural element or not. Does the young woman have a lover? Did she know [all] her brother(s) was/were dead? Is she happy living with her new husband so far away from her friends and family? What about the sacred promise that the dead brother made to his mother – that he would always bring Doruntine home if she was needed… would he do this from beyond the grave?

The introduction tells us that the tale has a huge political meaning also, revolving round the much-repeated word besa - a promise or an oath, but representing much more than that in Albanian society. It was most interesting to read that, and it adds to the story, though you can certainly read it without knowing anything about the background.

The story is set in some unspecified long-ago time, but the policeman who investigates the case, Captain Stres, could come from any European crime novel of today as he thinks about the case, talks things over with his wife, and has a rather unexpected sex scene.

This is a fantastic story, one of the most unsettling I’ve read in a long time.

Pictures of Albania (taken there earlier this year) come from my favourite source, Perry Photography, and are used with her kind permission. You can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Thursday List: Christmas Books - Reader Recommendations

Last week I did a list of some Christmas-y books for the festive season: blog readers always come up with great additions to any list I do, but this time they excelled themselves. As I noted them down, they just looked like the perfect Xmas reading list – Mark 2.

1) Christmas with the Savages by Mary Clive – suggested by Lissa Evans (writer of one of my favourite books this year, The Crooked Heart, and new blogfriend.) She says: ‘it's perfect in every way (the story of a prim little girl at an Edwardian house party - funny, orginal, touching), and also perfect for Clothes in Books.' I ordered it straight away.

2) Lisa said ‘There is also Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding, set during two different Christmas house parties, & a lot of fun.’ I am a Nancy Mitford obsessive, but my re-reading generally starts with the later Pursuit of Love, so she’s right – I need to go back to this one.

3) Margot Kinberg – doyenne of crime fiction bloggers at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist - said ‘Have you read Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel? I think that's another that might fit on this sort of list.’ I have just resolved to read and re-read more of Marsh, so this one goes to the top of the list.

4) Margaret Jones had several great suggestions: ‘Maigret's Christmas is also really good, a great selection of short stories some of which genuinely have a Christmas theme; and of course I love ghost stories at Christmas too. John Masefield's Box of Delights is a fun Christmas-set read as is Arthur Ransome's Winter Holiday.’ Winter Holiday was my favourite of the Swallows and Amazons series, and now I want to read it NOW.

5) Another Antonia Forest fan! Nomey points out that her 'Peter's Room (also brilliant) takes place entirely in the Christmas holidays as does... her Runaway Home'. She says that ‘Forest's characterisation is far superior to many an award-winning fiction writer.’ And I totally agree with her. 

Santa settles down with a cup of coffee to read a good book

6) ‘One of the most entertaining Christmas stories I know’ says Cecilia. It is Stephen Leacock's Hoodoo McFiggins Christmas, and you can find it online here.

7) Another favourite writer, Christine Poulson gave a second vote for Maigret, and also mentioned ‘Arnuld Indridason's Voices, which is set at Christmas. And then there's Nicholas Blake's The Abominable Snowman.’

8) Audrey nominated Little Women ("Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" grumbled Jo, lying on the rug) and James Joyce's wondrous The Dead. I should do a Twelfth Night list. 

9) TracyK (of Bitter Tea and Mystery) said 'My absolute favorite Christmas mystery is Jane Haddam's Not a Creature was Stirring, the first in the Gregor Demarkian series. I read it twice and could read it again. From last year's Christmas mysteries, I would recommend The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott, a historical mystery set in Australia during World War II. One mystery I read this month was Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod. It is an old favorite of mine. Her first novel and an academic mystery. The other was A Season for Murder by Ann Granger, a fine mystery set among Christmas festivities. Both have skulls on the cover! I will be reviewing them this month.' Tracy's review of the Granger is here.

9) John H Rogers also recommended  Jane Haddam's Not A Creature Was Stirring (and I agree with him and Tracy) and added Cyril Hare's An English Murder. Then he said 'I highly recommend the Robert Benchley collection A Good Old- Fashioned Christmas, especially "Christmas Afternoon" ("God help us, everyone") and "Editha's Christmas Burglar".'

10) Steve Mitchell  -  the Opinionated Film Buff, currently reviewing the ten best Christmas films - said 'I like John Grisham's Skipping Christmas. But my favourite Christmas book ever ever ever is A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas.'

So there you go - some really excellent suggestions from the blogging community, making up a really perfect Christmas reading list. And more ideas still welcome - add your favourite Christmas book below.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov

published 1969

A victoria had stopped at the porch. A lady, who resembled Van’s mother, and a dark-haired girl of 11 or 12, preceded by a fluid dackel, were getting out. Ada carried an untidy bunch of wild flowers. She wore a white frock with a black jacket and there was a white bow in her long hair. He never saw that dress again, and when he mentioned it in retrospective evocation she invariably retorted that he must have dreamt it, she never had one like that, never could have put on a dark blazer on such a hot day, but he stuck to his initial image of her to the last…

They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily.

observations: This is the first meeting of Van and Ada, in a book whose purpose is to trace their relationship. It reads well enough, doesn’t it? Sounds like a perfectly reasaonable early passage in a family saga.

I have read some very long and complex books in my time. I have read Ulysses and Proust (some of it in French) several times over, and loved them. I quite liked Moby Dick. I do not shy away from the difficult, the elaborate, the exciting new world. I have loved other books by Nabokov, including Pale Fire. I don’t love Lolita, but I admire and respect it. 

But this book pretty much defeated me. It is almost 500 pages of a story which is always just off, always just out of reach. It takes place in a parallel world, there is a science fiction side to it. Whenever you think there’s some normal narrative or world here, it will veer off in a different direction. There are 15 pages of notes by Vivian Darkbloom, which I assume (based on familiarity with the Nabokov oeuvre) are part of the book – translations and explanations of foreign phrases. There are constant references to real people eg writers, but with the names subtly changed. This book is exhausting to read.

If it sounds interesting, then I would recommend you look at the very helpful Wikipedia page on the book: it’s the only reason Ada made any sense at all to me.

A dackel is, it seems, a German term for a dachshund.
In support of Ada’s contention, there aren’t many pictures of young women of the era wearing a black jacket over a white dress. This page from a magazine might give some idea of how she would have looked – picture from the NYPublic Library. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge

published 1935

Lady Kilmichael was one of those happy women who go on into middle life looking well in white – by good luck, she had a white evening dress with her which would show off the silver jewellery to perfection. So to please Walter – dear Walter! And he seemed altogether in a mood to be pleased – she very much did her best with herself; she was happy too, tonight, and presently came trailing down to dinner clothed in a singular radiance. Walter fairly stared at her – he had forgotten that Grace ever looked like that….

Nicholas first stood, and afterwards at table sat, entirely unable to take his eyes off her. What with working late, with evening walks, and frequently dining out in little restaurants, he had seen very little of Lady Kilmichael in evening dress… Beauty he had never looked for in her, beyond the beauty of ‘good bones’ and supple muscles, which he had appreciated with professional detachment; beauty now he found, and it left him dumb.

observations: When I blogged on Angela Thirkell’s Northbridge Rectory a while back, I said that the heroine, Mrs Villars, is ‘the usual woman of great humour and self-deprecation but terribly attractive to everyone etc etc – see all Thirkell’s books – and a repository for what one assumes were Thirkell’s own views.’ Blog friend Lucy Fisher came into the comments to say ‘how I loathe those! Ever read Ann Bridge?’ As it happened someone had just lent me one, so I picked it up.

Well. The book follows Grace, Lady Kilmichael, a well-off middle-aged wife and mother, who is restless and feeling annoyed with her loved ones. She worries that she no longer has a role in life, and that her husband has found another woman. The fact that she is one of the leading artists of her day is no consolation, apparently. So she goes for a painting trip to the Dalmatian coast. The book follows her travels, with plenty of tourist-guide but very artsy descriptions of the area. She meets a young man, Nicholas, and travels with him and gives him advice on his painting. (Their travelling together sounds rather compromising to me, but no-one else is bothered.) Eventually everyone understands her true worth and everything is all right again. The book is said to have inspired the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII, then Duke of Windsor) and Mrs Simpson to take a cruising tour of the Adriatic coast just before he became King.

Illyrian Spring was a huge bestseller in its day, and you can only think that this must have been massive wish-fulfilment for the novel-buying women of Britain: Grace is unappreciated, but there are plenty of small but satisfying gotcha moments where someone suddenly realizes how clever she is, or that she is a talented artist. At one point, she is conscious of being rather dishevelled: ‘She was quite unaware of how becoming and indeed rejuvenating an effect this had on her appearance.’ I find that authorial heavy-handedness very off-putting, but many people really enjoy the book and I can see it has a certain nostalgic charm.

Ann Bridge herself was a diplomat’s wife, and, intriguingly, a great friend of mountain climber George Mallory.

Grace’s train travels were reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Train, including getting off the train north of Paris and rejoining it later - ideal for committing a murder, but in her case a chance to meet up with the dealer who handles her artwork. Grace powders her nose using a ‘flapjack’ which was the current name for what we would call a compact. There is a character called Linnet, which I was only saying the other day is very rare: the name must have been having a moment, as Henrietta’s daughter here, and Linnet Doyle (The Richest Woman in the World) in Christie’s Death on the Nile, and Grace’s daughter, all would be approx. the same age. And kind readers in the comments pointed me in the direction of a couple more Linnets too – I need to collect them and do a dedicated blogpost.

The picture is from the Clover Vintage tumblr.