Monday, 31 March 2014

Big Enough to Cover a Dachshund

the book: Under The Skin by Michel Faber    

published  2000

From regular guest blogger  Colm Redmond

She padded over to the wardrobe and selected her clothes for the day, the same clothes as yesterday. The choice, in any case, was from among six identical low-cut tops in different colours, and two pairs of flared trousers, both green velvet. She possessed only one pair of shoes, a custom-made pair which she’d had to return to the shoemaker eight times before she could walk in them. She did not wear underwear, or a bra. Her breasts stayed up by themselves. One less problem to worry about, or two.

[She picks up a hitcher.] 

Observing his rescuer, the hitcher was not impressed. What was this obsession women had with showing cleavage these days? he thought. You saw it all the time on TV, all those greasy-haired young females in London, going to nightclubs wearing little black vests not even big enough to cover a dachshund. They’d get the shock of their lives if they had to survive in the wild, that’s all he could say. No wonder the army wasn’t happy about women soldiers. Would you trust your life to someone who went out in the snow with an acre of tit showing?

observations: The woman in these extracts is Scarlett Johansson’s character in the brilliant film of Under The Skin, in cinemas right now. But the film is so different that it’s scarcely the same story. She doesn’t look or dress much like she does in the book - actually, she looks a little like an androgynous male rocker, like she could have fitted right in with the New York Dolls, below.

The black hair and very-red lips look surprisingly good on her, as you can see in this film still.

The two versions of the character have different names, even; but they do share one thing: they each spend almost all their time in a car, like the unknown lady in the main photo.

The book (like the film) is grim and sometimes horrific; but it is sometimes very funny, particularly in the words of the succession of hitchhikers she collects, and sometimes in her reactions to them. There’s a fine scene where a hitcher suddenly breaks into song and the woman has to choose how to react. Faber - who also wrote The Crimson Petal And The White - doles out information about her slowly, but it is obvious at once that she is in some way other; certainly very different from the generally rough and ready men she picks up.

There’s an element of the “Martian” [describing ordinary things through the eyes of a protagonist to whom they’re not familiar] to all this, and I have a very low tolerance for that device; but I’m happy to say it doesn’t outstay its welcome here. Too often it’s an excuse for being a smartarse, and wasting a lot of words; but Faber uses it mainly as an excuse for being funny when nothing much that’s funny is going on.

The woman is obsessed with her body, for reasons we can’t discuss because it would be a spoiler. In the film, unlike in the book, it’s not her breasts that preoccupy her; but we won’t let that stop us using a splendid pic of Scarlett in best décolletage mode (and a beautiful gold frock to match her usual hair colour.)

If you read Under The Skin, I would advise not looking up unfamiliar words as you go along. Quite a few are not in the dictionary, because they’re made up words and if you Google them you’ll get straight to spoilers about this book, like I did.

Thanks are due once again to Dr Trish Winter for the recommendation.

For more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mother’s Day: The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

published 1908 this section set around 1870

book 2 chapter 3


[Constance and Samuel Povey have a new baby, Cyril]

When the baby was installed in his cot for the night, she came downstairs. She sat down, leaving the door open at the foot of the stairs….Then she would raise her head and listen…

[The baby starts crying]

“He must cry," said Mr. Povey, rapidly, without looking up.

"I've made perfectly sure he's comfortable," said Constance. "He's only crying because he fancies he's neglected.” That distant, feeble, querulous, pitiful cry continued obstinately. It continued for thirty minutes. Constance could not proceed with her work. The cry disintegrated her will, dissolved her hard sagacity. Without a word she crept upstairs. Mr. Povey hesitated a moment and then bounded up after her. He saw Constance with her hand on the bedroom door.

"My dear girl," he protested, holding himself in. "Now what ARE you going to do?"

"I'm just listening," said Constance.

"Do be reasonable and come downstairs”

"Suppose he's not well?" Constance suggested.

"Pshaw!" Mr. Povey exclaimed contemptuously. "You remember what happened last night and what you said!" They argued, subduing their tones to the false semblance of goodwill, there in the closeness of the corridor. The baby's cry, behind the door, rose to a mysterious despairing howl, which had such an effect on Constance's heart that she could have walked through fire to reach the baby.

[They are interrupted, and Mr Povey is called away]

She turned the door-knob softly, slowly, and crept into the chamber. A nightlight made large shadows among the heavy mahogany and the crimson, tasselled rep in the close-curtained room. And between the bed and the ottoman (on which lay Samuel's newly-bought family Bible) the cot loomed in the shadows. She picked up the night-light and stole round the bed. Yes, he had decided to fall asleep. …Fate had bested him. How marvellously soft and delicate that tear-stained cheek! How frail that tiny, tiny clenched hand! In Constance grief and joy were mystically united.

observations: Surely all parents will recognize this scene, and it is somehow reassuring that this was going on 150 years ago, and presumably farther back to the beginnings of time. The Old Wives' Tale provided a handful of entries on the blog a while back, and I said then what an under-rated writer Bennett is: he is seen as very middle-brow, popular enough in his day of course, but nothing more than that. But this book has a whole world in it, right from the unlikely opening page which describes its setting near a hill ‘famous for its religious orgies’ at a time when ‘garroting was the chief amusement of the homicidal classes’, although nothing later in the book has much to do with this. But the story takes us through the long normal-but-complicated lives of the two young women within – one staying close to home, the other wandering to Paris – to a satisfying conclusion. The women characters are terrific, and the mother-child relations throughout, by no means always smooth, are convincing and delightful, making it the ideal choice for Mother’s Day.

I loved this, as a daughter walks into the kitchen where her mother is busy baking:

"Put this curl straight," said Mrs. Baines, lowering her head slightly and holding up her floured hands, which might not touch anything but flour.
That’s the work of an observant man, and one who likes women, mothers, and daughters.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all. 

The picture is called Master Baby (most certainly what this little boy becomes) and is by Sir William Quiller Orchardson from the Athenaeum website. Of course the baby in the book is asleep (in the end) but this picture seemed the perfect representation of a mother focussing totally and happily on her child.

Last year's Mother's Day entry was from Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (mother defending her child): in 2012 the book was I Capture the Castle - let's hear if for Topaz, a great stepmother.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Paris Album 1900- 1914 by Jean Cocteau

published in French as Portraits-Souvenir in 1935
this translation by Margaret Crosland published 1956

A vital signature has made its mark on the light heart of the town. The signature of Paul Poiret. 

Already the stiffness… has relaxed. The corsets are unlaced… The Duchesses are ready for Paul Poiret to dress them, undress them and put them in costume. There is no question yet of pushing out the stomach, walking like a crab and a praying mantis, putting one hand on the hip and making the jaw-line cruel and disdainful. It is a question of being an almeh, a bag of silk and fur, a lamp shade, a cushion from the harem of a fashionable sultan. A pale sultan, an emir with a chestnut beard and protruding eyes, an actor like Nero, changing women into odalisques and capable himself of incarnating innumerable types with the rags that he picks up round about him.

observations: In an earlier entry (which should be read with this one), Jean Cocteau considered the way fashions change. At the end of the book, he becomes very specific about the new freedoms which women will find at the time of the first world war: they will also be dancing the foxtrot (a dance which apparently premiered in 1914). Both almehs (Egyptian) and odalisques (Turkish) were exotically-imagined women of the east.

He is very interested in appearances and describes clothes a lot, and wonderfully well, in this book. He even manages to describe the eye makeup of the music hall star Mistinguett:
with her ‘bicycles’, the makeup she always used, which consisted of drawing the spokes of a wheel in blue pencil to imitate the shadow of the eyelashes between her eyebrows and the rim of her eyes. 

(This sounds quite similar to Twiggy’s makeup style, which she describes in her autobiography - on the blog recently.)

Cocteau seems to have been a very good-looking and advanced young man, who attracted the attention of a lot of people. He writes of them with great affection: particularly the comtesse who, after a heated discussion of religion, chased him out of her apartment, then leant over the bannisters shouting ‘In any case, it’s straightforward. If God exists, I would be the first person to be told.’

As we said in the earlier entry, it is an absolutely delightful book, full of great stories and great writing.

Poiret’s liberating new designs also featured in Eva Ibbotson’s Madensky Square, here, and the blog is very fond of this picture of some of his evening coats:

The top picture is a Poiret design from a fashion magazine of 1912.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Bad Mothers in Books

Is she perhaps neglecting her children?

Today’s entry appears at Guardian Books Online. This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the UK, and I thought it might be refreshing to take a turn round some rather imperfect parents in fiction - this is how the Bad Mothers' literary litany starts:

Mrs Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is always Exhibit A – but her real crime seems to be that she embarrasses her sensitive children. Read it as a teenager and you wince for poor mortified Lizzy and Jane, thinking perhaps of times when our own mother said the wrong thing. The older reader - more robust, a parent - can think it is the positive duty and pleasure of a mother to embarrass her child from time to time, stop them getting on their high horse. And, as apologists of Mrs B have pointed out, at least she is trying to do something about the family’s woeful situation, she appreciates the poverty and misery that will face them all if marriages are not made. Perfect Papa Mr B – so lovely, so witty at the expense of his family – appears not to give a toss about what will happen to his daughters.  
Charles Dickens had an extremely difficult relationship with both his parents – they were feckless, and he felt they let him down badly - and mothers do not come off well in the books. His picture of his own mother is Mrs Nickleby – mother to Nicholas and Kate – and is quite painful. She is incompetent, foolish, and no good in a sickroom – ‘coming into the room with an elaborate caution, calculated to discompose the nerves of an invalid rather more than the entry of a horse-soldier at full gallop’ – very unhelpful given the amount of illness and nursing occurring in the oeuvre. Mrs Copperfield, horribly, fails to protect David from his stepfather, while Bleak House’s Mrs Jellyby lets the children fall downstairs and get their heads stuck in railings because she is so busy with her charitable works….

-- where the list moves on through the works of blog favourites such as Marilynne Robinson, Nick Hornby, Philip Hensher, Denis Lehane, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and many others. 

Is Brenda Last thinking about child or lover?
The Jezebel.

To see all the blog pieces featured at the Guardian, click on the tab above.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Siege by Ismail Kadare: Part 2

Published 1970
This translation by David Bellos, 1994 and 2007

Also known as The Rain Drums, or The Castle

“Let’s go out,” the Quartermaster suggested when the courier had left. “We’ll have a better chance to talk outdoors. Otherwise the thorns of everyday business will throttle the violet of our conversation!”…

Dusk was falling. The camp was in a state of lively activity. Akinxhis were coming from all directions, leading their horses to water. Standards rustled in the wind from the tips of the tent poles. With the addition of a handful of flowers to add their smell, the many-coloured camp would have looked less like a military installation than a blooming garden. The chronicler remembered that none of his colleagues had ever described an army as a flower garden — a gulistan — but that was what he was going to do. He would liken it to a meadow, or else to a polychrome kilim, but one from which, as soon as the order to move forward was given, would emerge the black fringes of death.

observations: Second entry on this book – the first one explains more about it.

I said earlier that some of the book reads anachronistically, which is deliberate, because the whole thing is a response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. That left Albania – a communist regime but one not aligned with the USSR – very very isolated and concerned. This is how the very helpful translator, David Bellos, puts it: 

The intentional anachronisms in tone seek to achieve a two-sidedness characteristic of all Kadare’s fiction. The use of show trials, of banishment to “the tunnel”, the unquestioned authority of the Pasha and the shifting chain of command beneath him — all these details make the Ottoman world, ostensibly the very image of Albania’s Other, merge into an evocation of the People’s Republic that Kadare could not possibly tackle directly. In a magical way that perhaps only great writers can achieve, Kadare’s Turks are at one and the same time the epitome of what we are not, and a faithful representation of what we have become. 

But you don’t need to know that at all. His writing is mesmeric, and summons up a world you know nothing about, and one that presumably he only knows through research. He likes his carpets – earlier than the passage above, Kadare says:
At the moment the army was swathed in darkness, but at the crack of dawn it would shimmer like a Persian carpet as it spread itself out in all directions.
It is a strange and wonderful book, eerily real, which convinces you that Kadare does know (but how could he?) what it would be like to be a common soldier, a pasha, a chronicler at this military event.

The top picture of two men, from the NY Public Library, is from the 19th century, ie 400 years later, but it is very hard to find older images, and the dress is supposed to be traditional Albanian dress… and perhaps Kadare wouldn’t mind anachronisms as he used them himself.

The other picture is an Ottoman official – who I’m seeing as the Pasha in this book – and two janissaries under his command, a late 16th century picture.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Death has a Past by Anita Boutell

published 1939 chapter 8

A few minutes later, at precisely a quarter to nine, Frankie, immaculate in white, came down the stairs. She looked serene and cool, and as usual carried about her that faint air of disdainful effrontery which is the essence of chic. In the depths of her outrageously large white handbag – Lilly Dache, Paris, New York – reposed her letter to Drogo Blanc…

Rita said sweetly, “Good morning, Frankie, dear, you’re looking lovely. There’s nothing like white for summer, is there? And it matches your hair…”

She walked on. Her white dress flickered sunlight and shadow as she passed under the trees, and she looked regal and impervious to doubt or mischance. Imperious and serene, she carried her air of disdainful authority as an immunization against defeat. Her magnificent assurance left no hold for failure or despair. She swung her white bag gently to and fro, and from the supreme confidence of her manner it might already have held the saving £10,000.

Frankie was herself again.

observations: Martin Edwards, as well as being a noted crime writer, is also a knowledgeable fan of crime books in general, and I heard about this one on his blog, Do you write under your own name? Like him, I had never heard of book or author, but his review sent me off to find a second-hand copy - it is long out of print, but could be a candidate for resuscitation, now so many old crime stories can be cheaply put out as ebooks.

It is a very clever book, written round a conceit. Six women are gathered in a house: most have reason to dislike or be jealous of the others. Money and love affairs are causing endless trouble. And we know from the opening pages that there will be ‘an act of violence followed by a confession and a suicide.’ The book is 198 pages long, and only on p198 do you find out who is dead and why. This is a considerable feat by the writer, and less tiresome than it sounds. The women are by no means ciphers, and though at first it is hard to keep track of who they are and what their relationships are (a family tree would have helped) they become real and interesting. In the manner of an episode of Murder She Wrote, every character is given a motive, and there aren’t any killer clues to follow, but still I found the ending surprising and satisfying.

The book is certainly entertaining – there is one very funny thread where a misunderstanding over white rhododendrons means others are constantly dropping hints to Rita about them, and she has no idea why she is being harassed in this way.

About the bag – Lilly Dache, a top designer of the era, has featured before on the blog, and you can see two of her hats in these entries. Millinery was her speciality, and I couldn’t find any pictures of bags. But I was intrigued by this line in the book: someone admires the bag, and Frankie says “It’s got an indecent nickname. I’ll tell it to you sometime.” Sadly she doesn’t tell us, but the mind boggles. It sounds very specific.

The radiant picture is from the Dovima is devine photostream.

Thanks to Martin for the tipoff.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog

the book: Passing by Nella Larsen 

published  1929

from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

Gertrude, Irene thought, looked as if her husband might be a butcher. There was left of her youthful prettiness, which had been so much admired in their high school days, no trace. She had grown broad, fat almost, and though there were no lines on her large white face, its very smoothness was somehow prematurely aging. Her black hair was clipped, and by some unfortunate means all the live curliness had gone from it. Her overtrimmed georgette crepe dress was too short and showed an appalling amount of leg, stout legs in sleazy stockings of a vivid rose-beige shade. Her plump hands were newly and not too competently manicured – for the occasion, probably. And she wasn’t smoking...

[Irene] remembered her own little choked exclamation of admiration, when … she had rushed into the living room where [her husband] Brian was waiting and had found Clare there too. Clare, exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting, in a stately gown of shining black taffeta, whose long, full skirt lay in graceful folds about her slim golden feet; her glistening hair drawn smoothly back into a small twist at the nape of her neck; her eyes sparkling like dark jewels. Irene, with her new rose-colored chiffon frock ending at the knees, and her cropped curls, felt dowdy and commonplace. She regretted that she hadn’t counselled Clare to wear something ordinary and inconspicuous

observations: One would hardly guess that Irene’s old friends Gertrude and Clare are both – in the terminology of their time – negroes; and that is the point of the book. ‘Passing’ commonly means pretending to be white when one is black, as they both do; but it can also mean presenting as having a different gender or sexuality, race, ethnicity, or social group than one’s own. So cross-dressing counts (but only if it’s meant to deceive) and so does dressing up posher than one is, although that seems a distinctly subjective sociological grouping, to me. Irene – who is of mixed race, like Clare, but identifies herself as black – often seems more than amiably fascinated by Clare’s gorgeousness, and some people perceive that Irene herself is also ‘passing’, but as heterosexual.

This is in one sense a very traditional novel of manners, where apparently-anodyne sentences explode like bombs in conversations that then carry on as though nothing has happened. But it is full of unusual tensions, between people whose very way of life depends on continuing to ‘pass’. One person might have a whole social circle complicit in the deception, while another’s own spouse may not dream that their marriage is interracial. It is a fine book, managing to be exciting and suspenseful while, for the most part, nothing very tangible is happening.

The characters also know people who pass in the other direction. One of several juicy pieces of unfamiliar slang is the word ‘fay’, an offensive adjective for a white person, roughly the converse of ‘nigger’. It’s only used once, about someone passing for black, and the author places it in quote-marks even though it is within reported speech. I can’t tell if that’s because it’s so very offensive, or because the [black] speaker, who is among presumably like-minded friends, means the usage ironically rather than offensively.

The word ‘sleazy’ here means flimsy. I don’t know how it came to have the connotation it has nowadays. Regular readers of CiB will know that however sleazy, Gertrude’s stockings can’t actually have been sheer, because of this entry and the discussion about it. Another fine word is ‘dicty’, which means posh or maybe swanky (or fancy, in the American usage.)

I think Clare’s frock must have been something like filmstar Anna May Wong’s outfit, in the main pic. And from the neck up: I guess she looked a lot like the beautiful pic of Billie Holiday. To my knowledge Holiday never had the least intention of passing, but it’s no secret that African-American celebrities in most of the 20th century were often encouraged to look as un-black as possible, and this pic looks designed to achieve that.

The novel Imitation Of Life is about passing, as are the two film adaptations of it (although the three works have differences of plot.) The proto-grunge band Big Black, a major influence on Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, had a song called Passing Complexion. It would be an exaggeration to say its brief lyrics address the issue; fairer to say they mention it.

The tagline comes from this famous 1993 cartoon, an early identification of the internet as the new homeland for all types of passing:

For  more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Siege by Ismail Kadare

published 1970

this translation by David Bellos, 1994 and 2007

also known as The Rain Drums, or The Castle

[The voices of the Albanian citizens and soldiers in a besieged stronghold in the 15th century, talking about the Ottoman army beyond their walls]

At first we watched with amusement as regiments marched off to exercises and marched back again to a chorus of orders and songs amid a jolly patchwork of brightly coloured banners and toy-like, hastily built wooden minarets, and as flutes, drums and cymbals played heart-rending tunes while horsemen ran races or competed in equestrian games.

Quite a few of us were bemused by it all. Some even went so far as to wonder whether the Turks had given up the idea of making war on us. Perhaps they had received an order — a firman, as they call it — from their monarch who lives at the other end of the earth? People began to pray. May they vanish from our sight as speedily as they can! In short, after seeing much that was truly unbelievable, we noticed dozens of soldiers going about in flower-patterned robes and feminine adornments bought from the stalls set up in the camp. We thought either we were having a bad dream, or the Turks had truly gone out of their minds. We gathered our men and told them they would do better not to look down on what was happening in the plain. We also pointed out that an army capable of taking on the appearance of a horde of mercenaries, then of an iron monster, and then of a loose woman, must surely be a satanic force such as is rarely seen on earth. 

observations: Ismail Kadare is Albania’s best-known writer, which you might think isn’t saying much. He won the International Man Booker Prize a few years ago, to the great delight of those who like him. Perhaps we feared that now he would become well-known internationally, with everyone and his bookgroup latching on, but no chance of that. Maybe a few more people know who he is now, but he isn’t making the 3-for-2 table at Waterstones. He is often tipped as a future Nobel Prizewinner, perhaps that will do it.

He IS a wonderful writer, and he should be more widely-read, to stand alongside internationalists such as Borges, Orhan Panuk, and Umberto Eco. He seems to be very well-served by his translators – this one was translated by the American academic David Bellos, who also contributed a fascinating and sympathetic afterword, which adds hugely to your understanding of the book, as well as explaining much about the history of the book itself, in the sense of different editions & translations, and alterations to the text.

The story is about a siege of an Albanian unnamed city by Turkish/Ottoman troops, at a time never specified – though an Albanian would know because the country’s great national hero, Skanderbeg, is mentioned. His dates are 1405-1468. And there is mention of the siege of Trebizond (called Trabzon in the book) by someone who was there – Trebizond has a fiery past, and seems to have been often besieged, but there was a relatively famous one in 1461 and a smaller one in 1456.

The book gives a very detailed and convincing-sounding picture of the opposing armies, but there are anachronisms – this is a complex point, and will be looked at in another entry later in the week, and probably another one after that – this mesmerizing book is full of fascination.

The Albanians (inside the city) give their view of events in short passages between chapters, as above, but most of it – strangely – is from the point of view of the Turkish/Ottoman army. Apparently what Kadare really wanted was a one-word title that meant ‘the beseigers and the besieged’.

The top pictures of Ottoman soldiers, with banners and stick, are from the work of Melchior Lorck, a Danish-German illustrator, who visited the Ottoman court in the 1550s (ie 90 years after the events in the book) and made an extensive set of drawings of people he saw there. The images are copyright the Trustees of the British Museum, used with their kind permission – they have many of Lorck’s illustrations, great pictures, I was spoilt for choice.

The lower picture shows Skanderbeg going into battle with his Albanian troops.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Fall by Claire McGowan

published 2012


[A Saturday morning in London: police have turned up to arrest Charlotte’s fiancé]

Hegarty hardened his heart against the hysterical blonde girl who was spilling out of her little silk nightie. ‘Miss, we’re here to arrest him,’ he tried again, raising his voice over her sobs. ‘He left his credit card, easy to trace. We have to detain him.’ ‘But everyone does it,’ she was babbling. ‘I don’t even do drugs. It was the first time, I swear.’…

As Dan was being bundled down the stairs, Charlotte stood still in the middle of the living room until she realised she was shivering. She had on her skimpiest nightie, and the policeman had probably seen the side of her breasts. She didn’t even remember putting it on. Snapping out of her frozen calm, she went to the bedroom for a jumper.

observations: This is a very unusual thriller – it has been described as a cross between a murder story and chicklit, and that’s not a bad description. The book starts with a night out for two very different couples: Dan and Charlotte are a white couple – he a banker, she in PR – who are about to be married. Chris and Keisha are black and mixed-race: they have a child (being looked after by Keisha’s mother) and a violent relationship. Both couples end up in the same nightclub, and by the end of the night the club owner is dead. Dan is arrested for his murder the next day.

It is fairly obvious to the reader what has actually happened: but the book then follows Charlotte and Keisha and the investigating policeman, Hegarty, in the months that follow. Charlotte’s life has come crashing down around her: she ends up with no job and no money as well as no wedding and a fiancé in jail. Keisha has her own problems with Chris and her family. Eventually the two women link up, and live together. Charlotte is trying to exonerate Dan, and Keisha may or may not be able to help.

The plot is all over the place, and a lot of the events seem unlikely in the extreme. Ideas are picked up and then thrown aside. Dan tells Charlotte to look for something hidden in a cupboard, so you would think… but she doesn’t bother for months and months. It’s never clear what is important and what isn’t. Some key events happen offstage and are then referred to in passing – I kept wondering if I’d missed a bit, restarted reading at the wrong point. Some of the descriptions of the two young women and their thoughts and differences are very heavy-handed, other characters are stereotyped. But in the end I kept on reading, and I did want to know how it was going to pan out. And I really can’t think of another book, in any genre, quite like it. So, actually, worth reading.

The silk chemise above comes from a firm called Silk Cocoon. The grown-up Bridget Jones wears something similar in this entry.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Brave Hearts by Carolyn Hart

published 1987

[Catharine Cavanaugh is an American diplomat’s wife, in London in May 1941]

She sat at the luxuriously appointed table in a pool of quiet as her companions talked, a breathtaking, lovely woman with fine chiselled features, glossy soft black hair that hung around her face, and enormous violet-coloured eyes. She wore a soft blue silk dress that clung to her with grace, revealing a slim supple body…

Why had she caught his gaze? It wasn’t just her beauty. There were more striking women around the room, women who looked quite approachable. But there was something about this woman, something about her face, something about her eyes. She was with a vivacious crowd, women in evening gowns, the men, of course, in uniform … She wore a pale blue silk dress. He knew from years of looking at people, and dealing with all kinds, that the dress was very expensive…

observations: I read a review of this over at Col’s Criminal Library, and when I commented on how interesting it sounded, my friend Col generously sent it over to me – you can read his original review here. Carolyn Hart is one of those writers with an astounding work ethic – I knew she had written a number of cozy mystery series, and had sampled some of them, but then found she has written 50+ books, including several standalones such as this one, which is more of a romantic adventure. It’s almost unfair to illustrate it with the excerpt and top picture above, because the meat of the book comes in the second half, when the characters are caught up in the Philippines in wartime and undergo a hazardous and testing time, and considerable deprivation – there’s no more blue silk dresses, that’s for sure. Hence the other pictures.

The Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines, and the dramatic battles of Bataan and Corregidor, were pretty much unknown territory to me. The book is very melodramatic, there’s not much humour, and the love scenes are a bit over the top – but it is informative as well as entertaining, and presents a convincing picture of the country and the events. That seems to have been Hart’s intention: although fiction, the story is meant to present a true picture of the times.

The early scenes in London are reminiscent of The West End Front. The Cole Porter song Begin the Beguine comes up: you can see Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dancing to it in this blog entry.

Thanks to Col for the book.

The top picture is from Dovima is Devine.

The second picture is from the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives, from a military collection of photos of the era, only described geographically as the South Pacific. The lower picture from the US National Archives shows US troops making friends with Filipino children in 1945.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham

published 1938  chapter 7

He glanced across the dance-floor and caught a fleeting glimpse of Georgia dancing. It was only a momentary impression, but he recognized her by her distinctive silver dress and the ridiculous but charming spray of swallows on her dark crown. His astonishment was considerable, therefore, when his glance, travelling back, lighted upon her still sitting at the table… He sat up and looked out at the floor again and his expressions changed. His mistake was triumphantly justified.

Another woman of Georgia’s type was wearing a replica of Georgia’s silver dress and Georgia’s silver swallows. Her dark curls were dressed in Georgia’s style and at a distance the two faces were indistinguishable….

Lady Papendeik [said] ‘Georgia looks exuberant doesn’t she? A woman who wears birds in her hair after 30 ceases to look like Primavera and simply reminds one of that song they will keep playing…’

observations: This is the duplicate dress incident mentioned in a previous entry. One of the joys of the book is the unspoken uncertainty over Georgia’s age: it is clear that although she mentions 36 at one point, this is not to be relied on at all, though Allingham is (uncharacteristically) not spelling it out. (The song mentioned is lost in the mists of time, but seems to have something to do with robins.)

Georgia certainly has wonderful clothes: the silver dress above, the white silk sports suit (the term ‘sports clothes’ in that era did not for a moment imply you would be doing anything active in them, so don’t worry about the dry-cleaning), a black dress with a transparent top and frills below. For a funeral she tells her companion ‘I say, don’t wear all black. I’m the widow. You don’t mind me saying that do you?’ – and wears a hat covered in black butterflies.

When a friend is trying to persuade her not to do something, he says
‘D’you remember that blank verse play you would try one Sunday? You do? It would be like that, only a million times worse’… Georgia looked chastened.
Proper theatres couldn’t open on a Sunday at this time, so that was the day to have play readings, tryouts and experiments at ‘theatre clubs’ – one such performance features in Somerset Maugham’s Theatre/Being Julia, and Julia is a very similar character to Georgia.

The book has a cast of hundreds: on the whole it is a tribute to Allingham that you can keep them straight, though there are constant mentions of the Tarentons, and I’m still not clear if that is a family, a mountain range, or a house.

After a recent re-read, I found out that there is a much abridged version of the book – she cut out 40,000 words herself for a reprint – and I still can’t tell which edition I have read. There are a lot of references to a major party which happens during the (short) timescale of the book, but isn’t actually described – perhaps that’s one of the scenes edited out, and maybe the Tarentons went too.

Two men looking at a dress are
on the verge of making the same mistake by deciding that its charm lay in its simplicity.
This trope of men and their lack of discernment appears often in books – you can find it in this entry on Christie’s Death on the Nile.

I’d like to mention again Julia Jones’ marvellous biography, The Adventures of Margery Allingham – anyone with an interest in MA should read it immediately. I gave it a write-up at the end of this entry. The previous entry on The Fashion in Shrouds is here.

PD James’s Cover Her Face, 25 years later, has two women turning up at a garden party in the same dress, and it’s not going to end well for one of them.

The lovely picture from the era is from Dovima is Devine – it shows bird headdresses by Jean Patou.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Film Club by David Gilmour

published 2007

from regular guest blogger  Colm Redmond

[The narrator’s son, Jesse, and his new girlfriend are of high school age.]

One day he brought a girl home. Her name was Rebecca Ng, a Vietnamese knockout. “Nice to meet

you, David,” she said, holding my eye.


“How’s your day going?”

“How’s my day going?” I repeated idiotically. “So far, so good.”

Did I enjoy living in the neighbourhood? Why, yes, thank you.

“I have an aunt who lives a few streets over,” she said. “She’s very nice. Old country but very nice.”

Old country?

Rebecca Ng (pronounced Ning) was dressed to the nines, spotless white jeans, maroon long-collared blouse, leather jacket, Beatle boots. You had the feeling she’d paid for these clothes herself, an after-school job in a Yorkville boutique, Saturdays serving drinks to ring-removing executives in the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel (when she wasn’t polishing off an early credit in calculus). As she turned her head to speak to Jesse, I caught a whiff of perfume. Delicate, expensive.

“So here we are,” she said.

observations: This true story ought to have been a novel. A dad lets his 15-year-old son drop out of high school in return for a simple promise: to keep away from drugs, and watch films with his dad. Three, of his dad’s choice, per week.

The first third of the book is brilliant: funny and charming, and packed with entertainment and sometimes insight. Not insight into what teenage boys are like, because there’s nothing special about this guy, no matter what his dad thinks. Nor into affairs of the heart, because the son and the dad seem equally clueless on that. (Early on he describes his ex-wife as “the kindest woman I’ve ever known” – nothing wrong with that, till you realise a few pages later that he is now re-married, and picture his current wife’s face as she reads the book.) But on fatally-attractive females, and film, it’s pretty good.

Author David Gilmour – no connection with Pink Floyd – is among other things a film critic, and judging by what he says about some films I like, he knows his stuff. (In other words he shares some of my tastes.) He also has a good turn of phrase. Jesse is “a boy with a white, untannable face in which you could see the arrival of even the smallest upset with the clarity of a slammed door.” And it’s really interesting to read about a film, pick up some insights and neat trivia, and find out how the teenager reacts to seeing it for the first time.

But that part gets drowned out by the rest, standard stuff that is not inherently interesting to us: his own career, and Jesse’s jobs, love life and attempts to be a musician. The boy’s main foil is the gorgeous but unlikable Rebecca, on whom Gilmour seems nearly as fixated as his son. He describes no one else’s clothes gratuitously, but always details her outfits, and sometimes the effect she has on adult males who see her. And although the extract above pins her down, quickly and vividly, you have to take it on trust that he’s describing her in terms of accurate clichés, not merely projecting stereotypes onto her, some racist and some sexist. The rest of the story supports his first impressions, it’s true; if this were a novel you’d say he’d justified it all. But it’s not. And that’s undeniably a problem: because the story is true it kind of bumps along, and isn’t very coherent or neat or paced. But still, you like Jesse and care about him and it pulls you with it.

Yorkville is a very, very high-end shopping district in Toronto.

The pics are of another North American-born oriental knockout, Lucy Liu: Rebecca reminded me of her, in all her various charming outfits. You get the impression she would leap at the chance to do a tastefully saucy photoshoot like the main pic. She would definitely love that coat, worn by Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary (as was the third outfit). Of course, if anyone mentioned that it looks like she’s naked underneath, Rebecca would claim to be perfectly astounded…

Thanks to Amy Newton for the book.

For more from the guest blogger, click on his name below.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Mangle Street Murders by MRC Kasasian

published 2013  set in 1882

'Where did you get that sumptuous dress and what is that colour called? I am so out of touch, living in the wilds of Warwickshire.’

‘It came from a shop on Regent Street that was recommended to me by Mr Grice,’ I said. ‘The lady in the shop described it as dusty rose satin.’

‘What a clever name and how it complements your complexion. You do not call him Sidney?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘He is very correct.’ 

‘Then he is either a pompous ass or helplessly in love with you,’ she told me, ‘and, from the way you did not colour when you mentioned him, I should say the former. Oh, how disappointing. I had hoped he would have made you his mistress by now. How I could have entertained my tea-circle with that story. But do not worry, I shall anyway.’

observations: This exchange is not at all typical of this rather splendid book. Any clothes being discussed are usually terrible rags, or else something very blood-stained - although a buttercup yellow dress will be important later on, perhaps like this one used on the blog to illustrate Tudor mourning:

The narrator, March Middleton, is assistant & ward to a personal (not private) detective called Sidney Grice, and is helping him to investigate a gruesome murder. The description of life in the poorer parts of 1880s London seems authentically nasty and dirty, and the author doesn’t hold back from showing unpleasant sights. But the book is very very funny. Grice, the Gower St Detective, and his relationship with Middleton, are obviously a kind of spoof on Sherlock Holmes, but the whole thing is clever, original and refreshing. It is plainly the first of an intended series, and one that should be good fun. The murder plot is a good puzzle and on the whole well-worked out (I had got half of it but still had a few questions…). The combination of elaborate plots, excellent dialogue and funny jokes is a very promising one.

The main picture, by George Henry, is called Mary in the Pink Dress and is from the Athenaeum website. It is probably more low-cut and partyish than March Middleton would have worn for a day-time meeting, but the colour and face seemed right.

Another Holmes pastiche got short shrift in this entry, though a Sherlock Holmes fancy dress party was much admired here. The real Sherlock Holmes is here

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

published 1878

She was dressed in dark colours, with perfect taste; she was of middle height, and (apparently) of middle age—say a year or two over thirty. Her lower features—the nose, mouth, and chin—possessed the fineness and delicacy of form which is oftener seen among women of foreign races than among women of English birth…

The wedding was strictly private. A close carriage stood at the church door; a few people, mostly of the lower class, and mostly old women, were scattered about the interior of the building. Here and there Doctor Wybrow detected the faces of some of his brethren of the club, attracted by curiosity, like himself. Four persons only stood before the altar—the bride and bridegroom and their two witnesses… The bridal party (the bride herself included) wore their ordinary morning costume…The one remarkable person, the Countess herself, only raised her veil at the beginning of the ceremony, and presented nothing in her plain dress that was worth a second look. Never, on the face of it, was there a less interesting and less romantic marriage than this.

observations: Dr Wybrow (who is something of a Dr Gregory House: this mysterious lady visits him because ‘you are famous in your profession for the discovery of mysteries in disease’) is used to introduce the leading figures in the story and do a little investigation: Collins says
There was a time when a man in search of the pleasures of gossip sought the society of ladies. The man knows better now. He goes to the smoking-room of his club.
- and Dr W does so, to find out about the noble lord who has ditched his suitable fiancé, caught in the wiles of the adventuress. The good doctor then disappears, leaving this strange novella to play itself out: there are deaths, disappearances, ghosts, inheritances, and the eponymous haunted hotel – a converted palazzo in Venice – is suitably creepy. It’s an enjoyable if muddled story – you don’t feel it matters much whether you totally understand what went on. It is also mercifully short - unlike the wonderful No Name, which is long enough to have produced several blog entries (with one still to come).

Collins has plenty of portentous dark elements to the story, but he can’t totally resist some humour. Mrs Rolland – a severe and unbending maid – is explaining to the lady heroines what went wrong in her relations with a manservant:
'Mr. Ferrari behaved to me, Miss Lockwood, as no man living has ever behaved—before or since.'

'What did he do?'

Mrs. Rolland answered, with a stony stare of horror:— 'He took liberties with me.' Young Lady Montbarry suddenly turned aside, and put her handkerchief over her mouth in convulsions of suppressed laughter….

'And when I insisted on an apology, Miss, he had the audacity to say that the life at the palace was dull, and he didn't know how else to amuse himself!'
All evidence for my claim that – in regard to women characters – Collins is the anti-Dickens: you can’t imagine in a million years Dickens writing that.

The picture is from the Nantucket Historical Association, and shows Emily Frances Whippey in her wedding dress.

You can download Haunted Hotel for nothing for a Kindle.

Monday, 17 March 2014

My Friend Cousin Emmie by Jane Duncan

published 1964   set in 1951

....She was small, thin, dressed from head to foot in an indeterminate drab brown colour, and in this breezy sea-going atmosphere she had, somehow, the effect of a withered autumn leaf….

....Miss Morrison sat beside [the captain] in the brown tweed coat and skirt in which she had come on board, eating prodigiously and speaking no word unless asked a direct question, and even then, sometimes, she would make no reply other than a flat stare, which indicated that the question was too basically silly to merit an answer…

...She was dressed for the day in her brown tweed coat and skirt, and came into the saloon carrying the canvas bag in one hand and the brown cotton umbrella in the other, depositing these on the floor on either side of her chair. The captain, and indeed all of us, watched with interest while she ate half a grapefruit, a plate of cereal and a kipper, and some toast… then asked for bacon and eggs.

observations: These extracts (3 separate ones) are all in the first quarter of the book, during the sea voyage from the UK to the (fictional) West Indian island of St Jago, where the rest of the story will take place. This is Cousin Emmie herself, and we get the rather repetitive point. She dresses badly and has an enormous appetite and a sharp manner. Her wardrobe (and as we have mentioned before, a ‘coat and skirt’ in this context and at this era means what we would call a suit) will not improve much in the tropics.

But the book is rather an improvement on some of its predecessors: I am reading my way through this series of early 60s bestsellers (click on the Jane Duncan label below to see the whole range) and this is definitely one of the better entries. Early on, the narrator (and authorial stand-in) Janet says: ‘My life… seems to contain much more of what the authors of books seem to regard as unimportant trivia, and I seem to be much more at the mercy of such trivia than the people in books.’ This is really one of her ‘I’m so endearing with my self-deprecating honesty remarks’ but also: she has a nerve. She writes this long, long series of books entirely about the trivia in her life and wants us to be interested. In each book various emotional goings-on force themselves on her: she thinks about the lives of her friends neighbours and family, and her own marriage, considers some possibility, dismisses it, drones on, then eventually realizes that the obvious is true (affairs, pairings, attractions, partings) without any apparent feeling that she could have been a bit more sensitive and sympathetic.

Janet quite dislikes Cousin Emmie, the lady in brown, for most of the book, but for once a character is allowed to overcome the Janet-ian prejudice. Cousin Emmie is really a rather marvellous creation: she has no truck with politeness or tact, and she steals biscuits, but it turns out she is annoyingly perceptive, and sees very well what is going on, and steps in to solve a problem. Janet is forced to admit that she is generally quite a good thing. And there is a surprisingly sympathetic and non-judgmental look at Lesbianism, for the era anyway.

Cousin Emmie will get herself a dress in foulard: one of those fabrics which now appears only in books. The term appears often up until about 20 years ago, but now has disappeared. It was ‘a lightweight twill or plain-woven fabric of silk or silk and cotton.’

The picture is from the Helen Richey archive at the San Diego Air and Space Museum: Richey was an aviation pioneer who seems to have left all her photo albums to the Museum, and the collection has a lovely random quality about it.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Norwich Victims by Francis Beeding

published 1931


[Richard, John and Hermione have a triangular relationship, and are also plotting together…]

‘Sweetheart,’ murmured Richard and kissed her again.

He held her back at arm’s length and looked at her.

‘Hermione,’ he said… ‘You are more lovely every time I look at you.’

‘Look as much as you like, if that’s the effect it has. But you create for yourself illusions, as the French say. Or perhaps it is my pyjamas?’

‘I adore you in black,’ said Richard, and drew her again towards him…

‘I must go and make myself respectable, darling’ she said. ‘John will be back any minute now.’…

[John arrives] Hermione, in her black pyjamas, was already sitting in the arm-chair and lighting a cigarette…

‘Back already, John. Tell us what you have been doing. Richard and I have been mooning here for hours, wondering how you were getting on. I’ve been too worried even to dress myself properly.’

observations: When two key crime fiction bloggers – Martin Edwards and Rich Westwood - both recommended this book it seemed likely to be a winner, and it absolutely is.

Francis Beeding is a Golden Age detective story writer, and that’s a pseudonym hiding a pair of authors – you can find out more at the links above. The book has been recently reprinted by the splendid Arcturus Press, but had been little-known or remembered till then.

It’s the kind of story where we follow the villains (the three people above) as well as their victims, the policeman, and a few other people. John, Hermione and Richard are conspiring to cheat an old lady of her money, and this is going to end in several murders and twists and turns. It’s intriguing, and just when you think you know what’s going on it can pull surprises…. Can’t say more than that. But, a really excellent final 20 pages.

It’s also very well-written and a lot livelier than most lost Golden Age books, and the glimpses into people’s sex lives are quite unusual too – Hermione is ‘the lady what ought to be Mrs Throgmorton’ ie living in sin, as well as keeping up another relationship. She is judged for several things, but not apparently for her freeness with her favours. I would say this was pretty rare in a cozy-style detective story.

A tiny glance at a lost world: listening to the radio news they hear ‘I am sorry that we are a little late with the news tonight. The time is now 9.37…We now begin the second news bulletin, copyright reserved.’ Whether this is an accurate transcription at the time or not, it’s hard to imagine on BBC Radio 4 these days.

One wonderful feature of this book is that there are PHOTOGRAPHS of the main characters. Clothes in Books applauds this (even though we’d be out of business if everyone did it) and – again, going to put this carefully – every reader will find him or herself turning back to look at them again on finishing the book. These are two of the photos - presumably posed by actors: 

So a big thank you to Rich and Martin: I will most certainly be pursuing more books by Francis Beeding.

The top picture is of Hollywood film star Claudette Colbert wearing black lounging pyjamas – suitable for informal entertaining, apparently. Which is another description of what Hermione has been doing above.