Friday, 25 July 2014

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie

published 2013

The music had begun. “Let’s dance?” he asked. She nodded. He took her hand and then smiled at Ginika, as though to a nice chaperone whose job was now done. Ifemelu thought Mills and Boon romances were silly , she and her friends sometimes enacted the stories, Ifemelu or Ranyinudo would play the man and Ginika or Priye would play the woman— the man would grab the woman, the woman would fight weakly, then collapse against him with shrill moans— and they would all burst out laughing. But in the filling-up dance floor of Kayode’s party, she was jolted by a small truth in those romances. It was indeed true that because of a male, your stomach could tighten up and refuse to unknot itself, your body’s joints could unhinge, your limbs fail to move to music, and all effortless things suddenly become leaden. As she moved stiffly, she saw Ginika in her side vision, watching them, her expression puzzled, mouth slightly slack, as though she did not quite believe what had happened.

observations: This is a phenomenally interesting and enjoyable book, achieving something very rare: it combines being a fascinating funny story, a page-turning read, and a polemic with something important and serious to say about race, immigration, culture and modern life.

The two young people above are students in Nigeria: they fall very much in love, but both feel they have to leave in order to achieve what they want in life. Ifemelu goes to the USA, Obinze to England, though they will both return. The book opens with Ifemelu getting her hair braided in a black salon in Trenton NJ (she can’t get it done in Princeton). As she sits for the hours it takes - observing the ways of the salon, talking to the staff – she thinks back on her life till now, and her future: she is about to go back to Nigeria.

Adichie writes fascinatingly about the immigrant experience, some of which would be familiar to anyone moving in from any part of the world: the ways in which Americans are different, the eternal question – do you have to fit in, change, to get on? One character says ‘You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.’ Race comes up naturally in this context, and it is taken to a deep and engrossing level. But then, this is also – and to a very high level - a story about modern life, about dealing with your friends and your lovers and your parents. One really interesting strand is that Ifemelu becomes a very successful blogger, and the details and posts on this are particularly good: ‘She checked her blog e-mail too often, like a child eagerly tearing open a present she is not sure she wants’. The book makes you realize how little there is about this in modern fiction, it helps the book feel real. (Blogging, by coincidence, came up recently in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith – but only briefly, a pity there wasn’t more, as the author did it very well.)

Adichie has marvellous turns of phrase. The couple who have had ‘three years free of crease, like a smoothly ironed sheet, until their only fight’; the moment where Ifemelu ‘knew that for a long time afterwards, she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded.’ There are two brilliantly-observed dinner parties (as mentioned in my recent Guardian piece on the subject) – at one, a guest asks another about building work ‘Are they between you and the sunset?’ and there is mention of ‘a fantastic charity that’s trying to stop the UK from hiring so many African health workers.’

A character says ‘academics were not intellectuals; they were not curious, they built their stolid tents of specialized knowledge and stayed securely in them.’

Obama is elected President ‘And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America.’

Adichie is the real thing – such a talented writer, such a lot to say.

Her view of America, young people and educational establishments reminded me also of the work of Curtis Sittenfeld, Donna Tartt and Rebecca Harrington.

The picture is by William H Johnson from the Smithsonian.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Top Five Agatha Christie Novels

Five Little Pigs - nostalgia, childhood memories, and murder

I recently did a post on Sparkling Cyanide – yes, one of my favourites – and was idly saying that I should try to list my actual favourite, definitive, top 5 of Agatha Christie’s novels. Something I’ve been saying for ages. But this time my good blogging friend Christine Poulson took me up on it. Christine is the author of the marvellous Cassandra James novels, and the recent standalone Invisible – all of which have featured on Clothes in Books - as well as being a blogger and keen crime fiction fan.

Well, we decided we would both draw up our lists and publish them on the same day. So here’s mine, Christine’s list is here. And if you feel like making your own list, please tell me in the comments and I will link you in too

1) Five Little Pigs (1941)

A long-ago murder: Poirot is
The exact spot where the murder happened
asked to find out what really happened during the hot, tense houseparty that ended with the death of artist Amyas Crale. He interviews each of the main characters, and then gets them to write their own accounts of the days around the murder. It’s a strange dreamy story, full of regret and memory and realizations, and with very strong characterizations. I like it in part because it is very recognizably set at Christie’s holiday house at Greenway in Devon (one of my favourite places in the world, and where this photo, with Elsa's yellow jumper, was taken), and because there was a marvellous TV adaptation of it. Blog entries here and here.

2) The Moving Finger (1943) 

Poison pen letters in a small village: Miss Marple investigates. This has been one of my favourites since I first read it as a young teenager – it has a particularly satisfying plot, very well-worked-out, and Marple is sharp and has sensible things to say. But of course secretly, what really sold it to the very young me was the makeover scene, where Megan Hunter is whisked off to London by narrator Jerry, because he has recognized her inner beauty. This was one of the original scenes I wanted to illustrate on Clothes in Books (see more of them in this entry), and it is astonishing that I haven’t yet done it. Coming soon.

3) Sparkling Cyanide (1945)  
Adultery, robes and cigarettes

See this very recent blog entry: again I like the sad atmosphere and strong characters.

4) The Hollow (1946)

This should be the archetypal bland country house mystery - Poirot is invited over for lunch to join the houseparty, and finds a tableau-like murder scene. But it has much more going for it – great atmosphere, complex plot, and some wonderful characters. Henrietta Savernake might be the best of Christie’s women.

5) Death on the Nile (1937)  

What the richest woman in the world wears
In a blog entry here, I said about this one: the relation between Poirot and the murderer in this book is exceptionally well done. It’s hard to discuss without spoilering, but there is a depth and sadness to the ending of the story that hits home and lingers in the memory. The murder is good, an unguessable plot and good clueing, but it’s the psychology of the main characters (who at first glance might seem like total stock figures from central casting) that is striking. And there is a very compelling use of the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite – it is one of the most heart-stopping moments in the Old Testament (‘You are the man!’) and the effect is very similar here. ‘Do not open your heart to evil’, indeed.


So my favourites cover only nine years – nothing compared to Dame Agatha’s writing life – and 4 out of 5 are Poirot rather than Marple, which slightly surprised me. I might make a different list on another day: I just pulled up a complete list of Christie works, and had to look away quickly before I started tinkering with this list… (OK I just have to name two runners-up: Man in a Brown Suit - a very non-typical, very funny, early Christie - and Hercule Poirot's Christmas, or En Route to the House Party of Death as I called it in this blog entry.)

Just to whet your appetite:  Christine’s list has just one in common with mine, although it also features one of my runners up.  And as she points out, we're not saying '5 best' - or even that we'd have the same lists in a week's time. 

We would  be delighted to read anyone else’s, so please join in… Vicki (Skiourophile) has already added hers below. Col has a very individual list below (bless), and Sarah and Uriah posted full lists. Lucy Fisher posted hers on her blog here.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West 1910-21 (part 2)

edited by Mitchell A Leaska and John Phillips

published 1989

25 January 1918

Once upon a time there lived an artist and a woman, and the artist and the woman were one. In the course of time the woman married; she married the prince of her dreams, and irrevocable, changeless contentment descended upon her. The artist was temporarily forgotten: wrapped in comfortable torpor, the artist slept, and the woman gloried in her womanhood and in the happiness she could give.

One day the artist awoke to find the chamber of her slumbers shrunken and distorted, the windows had become so small, she could scarcely see out of them, the brocades were faded; damasks and satins hung like limp ghosts on limp nails…. Stricken with panic she rushed to her window; she saw a woman playing on a smooth lawn with a laughing child. Presently, they met; they confronted each other, the woman serene, loving imperturbable, the artist defiant, jealous, irritated beyond endurance. And the artist stood and jeered at the woman. Poor artist: Dishevelled, irresponsible gypsy, it was more than she could bear – Now the woman belonged heart and soul to her husband and her children, but the artist belonged to no-one, or rather to humanity. Fancy one, she roams the earth, here today, gone tomorrow – the world is stuck with the useless flowers of her favour…

The combination of the woman and the artist had produced a species of mentality as rare as it is sublime; an artist whether it be in painting, in music or in literature, must necessarily belong to both sexes, his judgment is bisexual, it must be utterly impersonal, he must be able to put himself with impunity in the place of either sex.

observations: This is Violet Trefusis writing to her lover Vita Sackville-West, again - see another letter here

This week I looked at Harriet Lane's marvellous Her, and was very interested in what the book (which is primarily a thriller with excellent social observation and comedy) had to say about women's careers, and motherhood, and particularly about women artists. So that reminded me of this, which although it was written nearly 100 years ago still seems to have something to say,

Violet is very pro-women, although you don’t think of her as a great feminist. But this particular passage could have been written today, there is nothing in it that wouldn't make sense to a modern woman. She is of course rather sadly looking at Vita. Her concern about domesticity reflects her concern and fear that Vita will choose husband and children over Violet, as well as over art – and that is pretty much what Vita did in the end.

It is also true that in my (important) opinion, Vita was not a great artist at all, and Violet is a much better writer. It is also true that neither of them was particularly burdened by domesticity, as there was plenty of money and a large number of servants cushioning both of them.

Claire Messud's 2013 The Woman Upstairs looked at women as artists, on the blog here - many people found the book very telling on the subject, though I didn't myself.

Virginia Woolf - another of Vita Sackville-West's lovers - had her own strong views about women and their place in the world. This blog entry from Orlando is particularly interesting. 

The picture is a portrait of Violet Trefusis by John Lavery.

I have been covering a lot of books by and about Trefusis and Sackvill-West on the blog this year: click on the labels below to summon the entries.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Books of 1939: No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer

published 1939

[A rather grand dinner at a country house]

Hugh… demanded to be told why the notorious Miss Fanshawe was not present.

‘She’s going to make an Entrance,’ replied Mary gloomily. ‘I had one or two things to see to after I’d changed, so I hadn’t time to find out what her role is for tonight. She was a femme fatale last night, but I shouldn’t think she’ll repeat herself quite so soon.’

She was right. Vicky, entering the room five minutes later, was dressed in a wispy frock of startling design, and still more startling abbreviations. She displayed, without reserve, a remarkably pretty back, her frock being suspended round her neck by a plait of the material of which it was made. Her curls stood out in a bunch in the nape of her neck, but were swept severely off her brow and temples. A diamond bracelet, begged from Ermyntrude’s collection, encircled one ankle under a filmy stocking, and her naturally longer lashes were ruthlessly tinted with blue.

‘One of the Younger Set,’ said Mary knowledgeably.

observations: For the second time this month: Rich Westwood, Mr Past Offences himself, does a roundup each month on his blog of Classic Crime in the Blogosphere, a meme in which Clothes in Books is proud to make regular appearances. In June, he suggested that prospective participants do a 1963 book – see the fascinating results here. The July year (chosen by ME) is 1939: I covered a John Dickson Carr book a week ago, and this is my second entry for the month.

This is a good, entertaining, Golden Age mystery – very funny and clever. It is not too difficult to guess who committed the murder (once a certain legal point has been cleared up) but the method would be much harder to guess, and seems extraordinarily unlikely. But never mind: the main reason to resurrect the book is the character above, Vicky Fanshawe, who is hilarious. She is the daughter of the big house, with an ex-actress mother, and a considerable fortune in her future. She is not the heroine: that is sensible nice Mary, who gets rather annoyed with Vicky, whose life, as you can see above, is one long succession of roles: Sonia the Spy, Tennis Girl, A Notorious Woman. Vicky enters into her roles with gusto, and it is pure joy for the reader. Heyer resisted the temptation of making her a nitwit – she is actually very clever, manages everything very well, and is a kind good person. She is a wonderful creation. The scene where she plots (three steps ahead of everyone else) to stop her mother considering a foreign Prince as her next husband is an epic masterpiece. As Vicky says, in one of her typically fabulous turns of phrase, she had to do it because ‘it would be fatal for [Mother] just to trickle away to some frightful person on the boundary.’

Heyer is best known for her Regency romances, and sometimes while reading this you half-expect the entire cast to move to Bath, have an attack of the vapours or give each other sharp set-downs. But what occurs to the reader of both her series, is that her romance books often had strong plots with crime, clues and jeopardy involved, while her murder stories (see another one here on the blog) contain romances. One can only hope that Vicky’s eventual partner will appreciate her many elaborate roles.

Highly recommended, but more for the cleverness and comedy than the detection. And there is nothing in the book, not one word, that relates or limits it to 1939. It could have been produced any time in the previous 20 years, has no political or international content at all, and you would never guess from reading it that the world was about to fall into a giant pit....

The picture is from Dovima is Devine.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Her by Harriet Lane: Part 2

published 2014

[Nina is babysitting for Emma]

[Emma] asks me to ensure Christopher doesn’t drink anything else tonight – he has recently dropped the night nappy – and after that she and Ben retreat to their room while I pop the baby down on the carpet and help Christopher out of the bath. For a moment or two Cecily is content to sit there unsteadily, but then she starts to grizzle, looking for her mother, threatening to build up to something, so I hurriedly help her brother into his pyjamas, biting my lip as the cotton jersey snags and wrinkles on his small damp limbs: an ancient, just-remembered frustration. Now I’m under pressure to silence Cecily, to show them I can cope, so I scoop her up, lifting and then – as Christopher leads me to her room – jokingly half-dropping her, trying to distract her with excitement, needing to make her forget her tiredness and hunger, and my unfamiliarity. She’s not convinced at first, but then I feel it, a fat bubble of laughter rising up inside her, and I think, bull’s eye.

observations: Second entry on this book – should be read in conjunction with this one.

Her manages to be a page-turning thriller, as well as a great, and funny, piece of observational literary fiction.

There is a wonderful dinnerparty – not toxic, like the ones described in my recent Guardian article, but just embarrassing. I love the guest who 

refers to Audrey and Alfred as if they’re famous wits and sages, the key players in her social landscape. Often they are produced as trump cards, hijacking conversations, taking us off in unexpected directions, towards the things she really feels impassioned about: Ofsted reports, a column in the Guardian’s family section, the celebrated rudeness of the local butcher. 
Audrey and Alfred are her under-10 children.

Lane is just superb on the trials of motherhood – there are plenty of descriptions of this world out there, but I can’t remember any to match this. Going on holiday, ‘Emma’s candy-striped bag is packed with equipment for all evantualities including famine, sunstroke and plagues of insects, nappy changes and trips to the loo are counterbalanced by last-minute drinks of water.’

Emma’s commitment to the present, her past gone: ‘All those busy, healthy, confident years…the sense that it all must be leading, inexorably, to something. And now this. Was it always leading here, I wonder: to teetering piles of laundry, to teaching yourself to joint a chicken, to never running out of milk? Was it?’

And as we’re thinking about women’s lives: Last year I had a mixed reaction to Claire Messud’s book The Woman Upstairs – see blog entry here. In fact I find the picture of a woman artist (and her artist friend) in this book to be much more convincing and recognizable than in the Messud, as well as the picture of motherhood and women’s choices right now. I don’t suppose this book will be treated with half the seriousness of Messud’s, but I found it much more compelling, and with much more to say.

The picture is from Cornell University and shows a parenting class in the 1920s.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes

published 1963


[Inspector Henry Tibbett is investigating a murder at a fashion magazine, and visits a fashion designer’s salon]

Here, a yard away from his startled nose were – as far as he could make out – about 120 exquisitely lovely girls, dressed only in the briefest of panties and bras. It was only when he caught sight of an infinite series of Nicholas Knights diminishing down apparently endless corridors into the distance that Henry realised that the effect had been caused by the placing of two huge mirrors in such a way as to reflect each other. There were, in fact, only three scantily-clad girls, but that was quite enough.

Nicholas Knight was engaged in draping a swathe of green satin round the slim hips of a fourth model – a brunette with a head like Nefertiti, who stood like a resigned statue, regarding her purple fingernails with more interest than pleasure. She too was was naked from the waist up, except for a scrap of white bra….

[Henry] was fascinated by the fact that the girls showed absolutely no self-consciousness at the arrival of a strange man.

observations: Another visit to this old-style crime story: murder at a magazine called Style (for which read Vogue), and a highly-convincing picture of life at such a publication, along with photo shoots, designer studios, and the more low-rent side of the fashion business. See the earlier entry for more about the plot, where the question is: who put the cyanide in the thermos flask of tea?

Moyes’ regular policeman, Inspector Henry Tibbett investigates with a heavy hand, and apparently an expression of permanent surprise on his face at the excesses and excitements of the fashion business. In fact our sleuth Henry a) doesn’t listen to somebody trying to give him vital info early on, and b) is shown as rather dim in his deductions, I think most experienced readers will be way ahead of him. But the book is still great fun. A young woman is described as wearing shoes with ‘those dagger heels and pointed toes.’ A secretary is dismissively described as ‘the siren of Surbiton’.

Fashion magazines, and indeed Vogue, also featured in blog favourite In the Mink by Anne Scott-James – click on the labels below to see several entries. The two books share a rather curious attitude to homosexuality in the fashion business – those expecting early tolerance in this industry will be sadly disappointed.

And the book covers similar ground (in a completely different era) to Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds – down to the disaster of two women in the same dress. One of the fashion shoots in the book has the model posed with a live cheetah – quite the trope at the time, and one we saw in this entry for Margery Sharp’s Something Light:

Girls in lingerie feature in the dress shop in the play Nine till Sixthis entry, with some astonishing pictures:

Saturday, 19 July 2014

A Conversation about Happiness by Mikey Cuddihy

published 2014

[Mikey is a young American girl at Summerhill school in the UK in the 1960s: this is her memoir]

With Ulla helping me, I am realizing my dream. Like Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, I can fashion anything I want, luxurious and wonderful, from the most humble of materials. Life, I’ve come to see, is punctuated by dresses, each one chosen and worn for a special occasion, and then discarded. Dresses conjure up a sense of nurturing affection. Homemade dresses (made with assistance) are proof of love, attention focused on me: turning tucking, pinning, darting. When I’m older, my first darts in a new dress make me feel proud to be acknowledged as a woman.

Ena takes me to London during the Easter holidays – just the two of us… I buy some Finnish curtain material to make a dress with, bright colours which you can’t buy anywhere else – fuchsias, oranges, reds. We go to John Lewis on Oxford Street, and Ena buys me a bra, black cotton, patterned with little pink flowers. I have been making do with hand-me-downs from Vicky, who is more developed than I am, so it is thrilling to have something new, and not Playtex.

observations: Summerhill is an independent alternative ‘free’ school in Suffolk in the UK – it opened in 1921, and was for a long time synonymous with its founder and principal, AS Neill. It was famed for its ‘no rules’, democratic, child-centred approach to education. Opinions divided as to whether it was an anarchic disaster or a super-successful experiment whose aim (to wipe out unhappiness) was successful in alumni.

Mikey Cuddihy’s memoir – most of it is an account of her years at Summerhill – would leave you somewhere in the middle, but then there is a lot more to her story than a school where no lessons were compulsory, and the children’s voices were as important as teachers’.

She was one of a group of siblings who were left orphans, and then tossed around among their remaining relations. As was absolutely normal in those days – early 60s – in all kinds of families, the children had no idea what was going on most of the time, and were not even informed fully about what the plans were for their future. They were sent off to boarding schools in England, with apparently only vague plans made for their holiday arrangements. The Summerhill she describes was extraordinary, and some of the goings-on would leave you very uneasy. But then you would also not think her own extended (and very wealthy) family was the ideal environment. As an on-the-ground report of what it was like being at the school it is absolutely riveting, but the whole story is completely heart-breaking, you keep wincing at the casual neglect and cruelty, and the simple fact that there was no-one for whom these children’s welfare was paramount. The moral would be, don’t be born to alcoholic or difficult parents, and even then, hope they don’t die. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Story of a Lost Childhood.’ It is written in a very flat, affectless style which suits the story: although completely written as an adult, she successfully describes events as they happen, without judgement or hindsight.

Cuddihy herself suggested I might be interested in her grandmother in a mink coat and Chanel, a coat that Cuddihy herself later wears – and did the grandmother look like this? (from the Joanna Rakoff book here). I am glad she suggested it to me, because it was a gripping, affecting and thought-provoking read.

I was fascinated by the theme of sewing throughout the book - as she explains above, the young Mikey is trying to make sense of her life by making sense of her clothes (as we all do) and reshaping, re-creating - and also fixing relationships with the women who help her with the sewing.

Summerhill still exists, and I looked up the most recent OFSTED (ie Government) report on it – it gets a very positive write-up, and would almost convince you you should send your children there. (Mind you the report itself is not well-written at all – if you are judging other’s educational abilities then you shouldn’t be producing this sentence: ‘Most of the pupils come from a wide range of international backgrounds and a few of them are at an early stage of learning English’.)

The picture shows pupils at Summerhill around 1968 – it was taken by John Walmsley for a book about the school.