Monday, 30 June 2014

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff: Part 2

published 2014

As predicted, my boss arrived at ten, swathed in a whiskey mink, her eyes covered with enormous dark glasses, her head with a silk scarf in an equestrian pattern. “Hello,” I started to say, rising from my chair, as one might for royalty or clergy. But she swooped past me into her office, as if her glasses prevented peripheral vision.

My boss, as far as I knew, had no children, and she – like a certain breed of adult – appeared to have never been a child herself, but rather to have materialized on earth fully formed, in a taupe-hued pantsuit, cigarette in hand.

observations: For the first entry on this fabulous book, see here.

My Salinger Year – a fictionalized memoir - goes down a treat. It is so well-written, and with lovely turns of phrase: Her boss, the woman above, reminds her of ‘Don Corleone and Lauren Bacall’ simultaneously.

And strangely, although the narrator has the most dreadful boyfriend, and it is obvious to everyone that she should get rid of him, this is not as infuriating as it normally is in books, even if you do long to yell at her about him.

Her encounters with JD Salinger - even if it is just her trying to tell him her name, because he is deaf - have the fascination of the truly rare. Everyone is very funny about the hapless Hapworth 16, 1924 – the Salinger story, long more or less unseen, published only in the New Yorker. Salinger suddenly decided a tiny publisher could bring out a new version – a venture that was bound to end badly. (Hapworth itself will need an entry of its own.)

While Rakoff's boyfriend is a complete horror story, her parents aren’t much better (to the outside eye), although she loves them dearly: the scene where her father gives her two envelopes on her birthday, and explains what they are, is, seriously, one of the most chilling things I have ever read.

The opening pages deliberately echo Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (on the blog here – ‘What a sophisticated-looking girl! - and click on the labels below for more entries) – the young women rushing to their jobs in Manhattan offices, handmaids of the arts, hoping for a bright burnished future. 

For entries on Salinger himself, click on the label below.

The mink picture is an advert, and came from the Dovima is Devine photostream.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Third Man by Graham Greene

published 1950


[Post-war Vienna: a multi-national police team has come to arrest Anna]

There is a lot of comedy in these situations if you are not directly concerned. You need a background of Central European terror, of a father who belonged to a losing side, of house-searches and disappearances, before the fear outweighs the comedy. The Russian, you see, refused to leave the room while Anna dressed: the Englishman refused to remain in the room: the American wouldn’t leave a girl unprotected with a Russian soldier, and the Frenchman – well, I think the Frenchman must have thought it was fun. Can’t you imagine the scene? The Russian was just doing his duty and watched the girl all the time, without a flicker of sexual interest; the American stood with his back chivalrously turned, but aware, I am sure, of every movement; the Frenchman smoked his cigarette and watched with detached amusement the reflection of the girl dressing in the mirror of the wardrobe; and the Englishman stood in the passage wondering what to do next.

I don’t want you to think the English policeman came too badly out of the affair. In the passage, undistracted by chivalry, he had time to think, and his thoughts led him to the telephone in the next flat.

observations: In a recent Guardian piece on character names, I discussed the main character of this novella, Rollo Martins, whose name was changed to Holly (or Holley, according to Greene) for the noted 1949 film. I described him as a tough guy, and a comment on the piece argued with that. But I think that, although he is a figure of fun, and comes over as rather foolish, he does have pretensions to being a tough guy, and is described as ‘Drinks too much and may cause a little trouble.’ He is attractive to women, and – it turns out – handy with a gun. It would be more reasonable to object to my comments on his name: Graham Greene wanted him to have an absurd name, so perhaps it was not my business to complain.

The novella itself – a form of novelization of the film screenplay – is a short, rattling good read, and of particular interest when compared with the film. There are a few marked differences: in particular a very different ending. The last few minutes of the film are legendary, and still heart-stopping, and pretty much everyone agrees, including Greene, that this is a better ending than the story. Greene thought it wouldn’t work – his preface to the book is full of such fascinating facts, concerning a film that is mythical already, with the Orson Welles connection (he appears on screen for a very short time, but is wholly charismatic, you can’t take your eyes off him for every second he’s there) and the various rumours about the writing and direction.

As a thriller The Third Man is excellent, and also as a work of literary fiction. Greene was such a good writer:
We never get accustomed to being less important to other people than they are to us.
[He] walked up and down underneath the little windows. He felt, he said, rather like a Romeo who wasn’t sure of Juliet’s balcony.

[At the hilarious literary talk] A number of names were simultaneously flung at Martins – little sharp pointed names like Stein, round pebbles like Woolf.
Great lines, and all relevant to the tight story. And the film is still well worth watching too.

Film and book both mention a black market in the artificial sweetener saccharine – this is something that crops up in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, and is still rather hard to imagine.

For more Graham Greene on the blog, click on the label below.

The picture is by Willhelm Gallhof, from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Wedding Special: The Godfather by Mario Puzo

published 1969

The wedding of Miss Constanzia Corleone [was] celebrated on the last Saturday in August 1945. The father of the bride, Don Vito Corleone, never forgot his old friends and neighbours though he himself now lived in a huge house on Long Island. The reception would be held in that house and the festivities would go on all day. There was no doubt it would be a momentous occasion. The war with the Japanese had just ended… A wedding was just what people needed to show their joy. And so on that Saturday morning the friends of Don Corleone streamed out of New York City to do him honour…

There were, now, hundreds of guests in the huge garden, some dancing on the wooden platform bedecked with flowers, others sitting at long tables piled high with spicy food and gallon jugs of black, homemade wine. The bride, Connie Corleone, sat in splendour at a special raised table with her groom, the maid of honour, bridesmaids and ushers. It was a rustic setting in the old Italian style…

Connie Corleone was a not quite pretty girl, thin and nervous… But today, transformed by her white bridal gown and eager virginity, she was so radiant as to be almost beautiful. Beneath the wooden table her hand rested on the muscular thigh of her groom. Her Cupid-bow mouth pouted to give him an airy kiss.

observations: Last year Mario Puzo’s essay The Making of the Godfather featured on the blog, and the entry should be consulted for my important views on how the book works. One of the things I said was: It is a great American story, with a superb moral framework, and what is says about American history, immigration, and attitudes is well-worth reading, and will remain so for a long time.

The long opening chapter about the Sicilian wedding in Long Island is an object lesson in how to set up a story, how to introduce your characters, and how to get all your plot strands moving. Puzo’s writing is not literary, but it has a tremendous onward force, and his structure is superb.

For EW and TH, on their own wedding day 

The photos above are from Perry Photography and 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.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Parade’s End: Some do Not… (book 1) by Ford Madox Ford

published 1924

She wore a black hat like a cartwheel and her dresses appeared always to consist of a great many squares of silk that might have been thrown on to her. Since she considered that her complexion, which was matt white, had gone slightly violet from twenty years of make-up, when she was not made-up – as she never was at Lobscheid – she wore bits of puce-coloured satin ribbon stuck here and there, partly to counteract the violet of her complexion, partly to show she was not in mourning. She was very tall and extremely emaciated; her dark eyes that had beneath them dark brown thumb-marks were very tired or very indifferent by turns.

observations: I was going to move on to the next in this tetralogy, after an entry on this book here, but in the end I couldn’t resist trying to find a picture to illustrate this description. Full marks Mr Ford – he nearly always tells you what people are wearing. This is Sylvia Tietjens'  mother, Mrs Satterthwaite, a very interesting character who makes a big impression in this early scene, but then sadly disappears from the books – she is mentioned, but always in the background. Here she is visiting a German town, and giving some cover to her daughter’s scandalous goings-on. An Irish Catholic priest, Fr Consett is part of her party, enjoying his bridge (trying to finish before midnight if he is saying Mass the next day) and lecturing Sylvia severely about her wicked ways. She shows yet more badness by sabotaging his fasting for Mass. Fr Consett’s fate – most unexpected – will be revealed later. In this scene Tietjens’ wife is referred to as Sylvia and as Mrs Tietjens alternately, which is unsettling. Sylvia claims at one point that her husband believes in eugenics, but this is not followed up. It wouldn’t surprise you unduly.

Mothers are important in the book: Mrs Wannop – mother to Christopher’s great love Valentine - has a key role too. But, her character changes dramatically and unconvincingly after her first appearance. There is a quite splendid breakfast party scene, which must be one of the great meal scenes of all literature, and Mrs Wannop is a gatecrasher who behaves very badly (though not so badly as the host) - it is hard to imagine the Mrs W of later scenes doing that. She is, after all, meant to have written the only novel worth reading since the 18th century, one of Christopher Tietjens’ infuriatingly pompous judgements. There is a very funny thread in which Christopher is helping her write newspaper articles – for one of them she wants to write about a rise in illegitimate births during WW1, but he (a statistics expert) keeps telling her there is no such rise. And, as Valentine sees, he gives himself away when he explains why that is so. That’s the kind of thing that Ford does brilliantly.

There’s a lot about lies and truth – CT is fated not to be believed when he tells the truth. As his General says,
‘Damn it all, it’s the first duty of a soldier – it’s the first duty of all Englishmen – to be able to tell a good lie in answer to a charge.
But Tietjens telling unconvincing truths and not trying to convince his listener – is that not a form of lying? CT’s morals suit only himself.

More, much more, to come on these books.

The lady in the black dress and hat is Lillie Langtry. The top photo is from a collection at the Library of Congress.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Books of 1963: The Trouble-Makers by Celia Fremlin

published 1963

That night Katharine had a curiously vivid dream. Once again she seemed to be in the deserted cafeteria, but this time it was not Mary who was her companion, but a dark man in a raincoat. The raincoat was lightish in colour, shabby, and hung shapelessly from his sloping shoulders; and the man himself was dark , not merely in the sense of having dark hair and complexion, but more as if his whole face was enveloped in darkness; as if a deep shadow was thick upon him, hiding his features. At the beginning of the dream, Katharine was not paying much attention to the man; it seemed natural that he should be there. Her attention was wholly taken up with anxiety about the time.

observations: In an earlier entry this month – on Patricia Moyes’ Murder a la Mode – I explained the Books of 1963 challenge thus:

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. For June, he suggested that prospective participants should concentrate on one year: the 1963 challenge.

The Moyes book was my 1963 book, but as it turns out, I can’t resist squeezing another one in before the end of June. Because Rich’s blog also reminded me of the wonderful Celia Fremlin – he quoted from the Shiny New Books site about her being re-published in ebooks by Faber.

It’s hard to find a category for Fremlin – if you use the word ‘domestic’ then it sounds as though they are cosy, and the books are from that. The settings tend to be suburban houses in the 1960s and 70s. The protagonist in this one is a married woman with children, a house, a husband and a job. She is vaguely dissatisfied, and so are her friends and neighbours. That could be any kind of book from 1963…

Specifically, there is trouble next door. Is a man in a raincoat haunting the neighbourhood? Is he a danger, a threat? Who did attack Mary’s husband Alan? Fremlin is terrific at two specific things: creating an atmosphere of tension and menace, and describing domestic life wonderfully well. I read this book many years ago – I think before I had children of my own – and it struck me then as very authentic picture, and now I am even more impressed. Then, I liked her heroine at the launderette being bothered about seeing her machine was ready before anyone else could point it out to her. Now, I appreciate her descriptions of children’s ability to say the wrong thing.

Despite the book’s being more than 50 years old, and the lives of women having changed dramatically in that time, I think everyone who reads it would recognize some of her observations on life – on children, on partners, on living together, on gossip. Katharine’s husband Stephen ‘always washed up in anger’, but not ‘out of spite’ – he’s bothered about the little mop, just like Adam in Cold Comfort Farm. And she has trenchant things to say about the power of gossip, and the competitive way women criticize their partners to others. Although some of the details are quaintly of their time (the description of the back-garden bonfire party has the children holding the fireworks…), there is still a lot of relevance today. And it is also a very chilling story.

The men in raincoats are from fashion ads. 

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

published 2014

On my first day at the Agency, I dressed carefully in clothing that struck me as suitable for work in an office: a short wool skirt, in Black Watch plaid, and a dark green turtleneck sweater with a zipper up the back, from the 1960s, purchased in a London thrift shop. On my legs, thick black tights. On my feet, black suede loafers… I had never worked in an office before, but I had acted – as a child, in college, after – and I regarded this outfit as a costume. My role being the Bright Young Assistant. The Girl Friday...

At the station’s west side, I pushed open the heavy glass doors and stepped out into the freezing wind. Slowly, I made my way west through the deep snow on Forty-Third Street, until I encountered something even stranger than a silent, unpopulated Grand Central Station: a silent, unpopulated Madison Avenue. The streets had not yet been plowed. The only sound was the wind. An untouched mantle of snow stretched evenly from the shops on its east side to those on its west, marred by not a footprint, a candy wrapper, not even a leaf.

observations: Is this a good title? No, I think it’s terrible - because it summons up a picture of a completely different book, and of a Goldilocks moment. This is the book it sounds like, in the aspiring writer/blogger’s thoughts:
‘I’ll read everything Updike wrote, and I’ll see if it makes me happy, and I’ll blog about it, and there’ll be interplay with my personal life, and then I’ll  get a book contract, and Jennifer Lawrence can play me in the movie. Nah, Updike wrote too much. Harper Lee? No, not enough. I know, Salinger. Just right. And everyone loves Salinger.’
Julie & Julia has a lot to answer for.

But actually it isn’t that book at all, it’s something much better. Joanna Rakoff took a job in New York in 1996, working for an old-established literary agency: she was in her early 20s, had just got her Masters, and had the boyfriend from hell 
(has the original read it?) . Her office was bizarrely old-fashioned – no computers, business methods from a statelier age – and her clothes also sound wrong for the time. Her boss was agent to JD Salinger, and over the year Rakoff speaks to him over the phone, meets him once, and answers letter from his fans – Salinger refuses to have any mail forwarded to him. This is a lightly fictionalized memoir of the time, and it is charming and delightful, and will resonate with anyone who ever had a first job – any kind any time. 

More on this book in another entry soon. For posts on JD Salinger, click on the label below.

Today I have re-used the illustration from an earlier entry: the picture is such a good one I think that’s fine. I first used it for Nicholas Mosley’s wonderful Impossible Object – but the excerpt above simply cried out for this image. It is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ie weather archives, shows a storm in Manhattan in 1969, and has the popular title ‘Miniskirt in a snowstorm.’

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Devil at Westease by Vita Sackville-West

published 1947

[The narrator is visiting a country village]

The landlord came out with me to give me directions, and as we stood together in the sunny street where the Jaguar patiently and incongruously waited, a girl came along riding on a sleek pony. Bareheaded, with short dark curls, a yellow jersey clipping her slim figure, well-cut jodhpurs encasing her long slim legs, she rode with a careless grace, long stirrups, and an easy rein. On seeing the landlord, she stopped.

“Morning, Mr Sivewright,” she called out. “I’ll be coming down presently with the trap to fetch Fathers’s beer.” Then she looked at me, the stranger. “Is that your car?” she said, pointing at the Jaguar with her whip.

I was a little surprised, since the English, although a most individualistic and even eccentric race when you get to know them, are superficially conventional about such things as taking the initiative without an introduction.

observations: Various surprises here. Vita Sackville-West, a fairly iconic figure of the first half of the 20th century, wrote a lot (see here, or click on the label below, for blog entries on her books or about her, or about Violet Trefusis) but until I read this I had no idea the oeuvre included a straightforward murder story – thanks to Kate Walker, who also suggested The Agony Column. As a 1947 murder story goes, it is quite clever, but at the same time strangely conventional and pedestrian – I was expecting something more – what? Theatrical? Metaphysical? Poetical? It is none of those things, and if I’d read it blind I would never in a million years have guessed who wrote it.

The narrator, Roger Liddiard, is revealed casually on p57 to be Sir Roger: the policeman is about to ask if he wouldn’t mind ‘stepping round [great Golden Age phrase of motion] to the Manor House’ to inspect the body. Vita S-W was truly a most tremendous snob – even her friends and defenders don’t argue with that. The book is quite like the recent ones I have read by Thurman Warriner, of a similar era, here and here, and goodness knows I didn’t ever think I’d be looking back nostalgically on them for their egalitarian socialism, but VS-W would have benefited a lot from the introduction of a spiv and his moll – extra investigators in the Warriner books.

Late on a character says to the hero: ‘there’s a streak of grudging ungraciousness in you, Liddiard, which I have often deplored.’ Perhaps one is not meant to take this character’s comments entirely seriously, but I felt like applauding.

The woman with the horse is from the Helen Richey collection at the San Diego Aviation archives, a fruitful source of wonderful photos for the blog. This one is plainly the same woman as above, though not actually Helen Richey I think.

The other two women, in trousers and yellow tops, are from the Dovima is Devine photostream, and for sure Mary looks a lot more like the San Diego woman (horsey Englishwomen don’t do Vogue), but I couldn’t resist the pictures.

I’m sure they have never lived in the same sentence before, but Enid Blyton, like Vita Sackville-West, always puts people into yellow jerseys if they are going riding – was there a secret dress code?

A yellow sweater goes skiing in this entry

Monday, 23 June 2014

The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding

published 2006

‘We’re from Drury Lane. Lady Elizabeth is expecting us,’ said Pedro, ignoring the outstretched hand and making to step inside. ‘I doubt that very much,’ said the footman with a sardonic smile, blocking his way.

‘We’re here for the tea party,’ I added boldly, annoyed by the man’s supercilious attitude. ‘If you don’t believe us, why don’t you ask her?’ Perhaps our confidence made him think better of shutting the door in our faces.

‘Wait here,’ he ordered. He turned to another footman standing in the hall. ‘Watch them,’ he told his colleague. ‘See that they don’t touch anything.’ He then strode swiftly up the red-carpeted stairs. We stood under the hawkish gaze of the second servant, waiting for our fate to be decided. Before long, the footman returned and reluctantly opened the door wide enough to allow us in.

‘Apparently, you are expected,’ he said with ill grace. ‘Would you like to leave your cloak here, miss?’ I took off my hood and handed over my old black cloak, revealing underneath the white muslin dress with a green silk sash Mrs Reid had made for me from one of the ripped ballet dresses she had stashed away. The footman’s manner instantly became more respectful. ‘Step this way, miss,’ he said, bowing me up the stairs.

observations: This delightful book won the Nestle Children’s Book prize when it came out, and has been followed up with five sequels – I’m not surprised, but I do have a huge complaint about it, which is that it didn’t exist when my own children were younger, let alone when I was a child. It is a rip-roaring adventure with a great heroine (surrounded by a gang of excellent other characters, young and old), very well-written in accessible but vaguely-authentic-sounding language. I, and my children, would have loved it and gone all out to get the whole series.

Narrator-heroine Cat Royal is an orphan who lives at the Theatre Royal in London’s Drury Lane – a foundling rescued by the playwright RB Sheridan. After the opening fake reviews (‘I have made it required reading for every midshipman’ . . . ADMIRAL NELSON ‘Write on, sister’ . . . MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT) this is her first line:
Reader, you are set to embark on an adventure about one hidden treasure, two bare-knuckle boxers, three enemies and four hundred and thirty-eight rioters. It is told by an ignorant and prejudiced author . . . me.
Irresistible. The story is set in 1790: she gets involved with politics and cartoons, gangs and valuable jewels, cross-dressing and refugees from the law.

The picture – Portrait of a Young Girl by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, from the Athenaeum website – is of the right era, and although it doesn’t represent the fun and excitement of the book, I liked the Young Girl’s smart and knowing gaze - I imagine Cat must have had exactly such a look.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Marble Foot by Peter Quennell

published 1976


[Quennell goes to work for an advertising agency in the 1930s]

The client, too, will sometimes demand an exasperating alteration; such-and-such a point has been neglected, or a cherished phrase omitted. These set-backs, however, were all a part of the elaborate game we played – a cynical game perhaps, but odd and difficult enough to amuse an expert player. Although I could not immediately grasp its rules, I soon acquired some basic training, and found that my prose style could be employed with advantage upon a special range of subjects. I could be as ‘literary’ and decorative as I pleased, writing about products that appealed to women; and in that important field, before my career ended, I had become a virtuoso.

Corsets were my first theme; the type of corset we advertised had been designed by a crippled middle-aged lady; and my weekly task was to immortalize her conception of ‘the body beautiful’, emphasizing the fact that, if it were to remain beautiful, ‘adequate support’ was needed. Miss J liked my style, appreciated my interest in her sex, and from her invalid chair would thank me for the euphonious tributes she once called my ‘ripping write-ups’. She headed a bizarre procession of female clients that eventually led to Miss Elizabeth Arden.

observations: This memoir has featured before on the blog, and we said then that Quennell was somewhat Pooter-ish. My favourite line in the book comes when he, a young and inexperienced Oxford undergraduate, has met a rather racy older women ‘a remarkable night-bird’ and a kept-women. He makes advances to her, he is ‘neither repulsed nor reproved’ and then:

That night I was carried off to Maidenhead.
Quennell was working in London, but ended up visiting the
Elizabeth Arden
USA regularly to see Elizabeth Arden when she became a client of the agency. She was one of the grand dames of beauty products in the USA, along with Helena Rubenstein and Estee Lauder, and Quennell’s dealings with her are quite entertaining. He describes the horror of a weekend party in the country – saying that such an event in the UK would have been very restful and relaxing, but the US version was non-stop and exhausting, ‘not a moment’s rest’.

This picture of Elizabeth Arden is from the Library of Congress. Quennell explains that Arden was very keen on horses and racing, and it looks as though this picture was taken at the races – you can just see someone looking through binoculars at the left-hand side.

Advertising offices in the 1930s have featured on the blog twice before – here and here – and this entry deals with reactions to lingerie adverts. Selling corsets in the 1930s is also a feature of blog favourite Miss Pettigrew Lives for A day.

The corset drawing from the 1930s comes from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Midsummer: The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

published 2014

During my lunch break, I ventured to the maypole to watch the midsommar performance. Students dressed in traditional costume were dancing. While I was watching, someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to see Mia, not dressed in white with flowers in her hair, as she had been on the beach, but holding a plastic refuse bag, picking up rubbish. She told me she’d specifically requested the job since she had no desire to dress up and be stared at…

I gently took hold of Mia’s arm and guided her centre stage, calling everyone together. Improvising, I began talking about the history of the midsommar festival. With the entire party gathered around me, including Håkan, I explained how this was the night of the year when magic was strongest in Sweden, how our great-grandparents would dance as a fertility ritual to impregnate the earth and bring full harvests to the farms.

observations: I wanted to like this book, and was confident that I would. I haven’t read his earlier trilogy of thrillers set in the Soviet Union, but at least one of them – like this book – got rave reviews from people I trust. This one was an easy read, and quite compelling, but I was hoping for something more like literary fiction, and it didn’t fall into that category.

Narrator Daniel gets an unexpected phonecall from his deeply distressed father: his parents went to live in Sweden a year earlier, and now the mother (who is Swedish) is deeply disturbed, has mental health issues. The mother discharges herself from a mental hospital, comes to London and tries to convince her son that it is she who is sane: she makes serious accusations against her husband and some new friends he has made in their new home village in a remote part of Sweden.

An enticing setup, anyone would agree. Most of the book consists of Daniel listening to a monologue from his mother about their move to Sweden and what happened there. She has a bag containing notes, journals and bits of paper that she considers to be evidence to support her case. Daniel and the reader have to try to decide where the truth lies.

But then – it’s written so the reader can look at what the mother says and think ‘maybe that’s as she describes, but it could equally well be X.’ It’s all like that, and that became wearisome. And in the end the reader is thinking ‘So we’re constantly told, it’s her or him telling the truth, one of the other’ – and that isn’t very interesting, not over a whole book – ‘but, oh, I’ve read books before. Maybe it’s not going to be that simple. So what might it be?’ I did not find anything much about the ending surprising, other than the fact that a few things were unexplained – the mushrooms?

A quick holiday read, but not more than that for me: the writing was pedestrian to the point of being childish, apart from some hammered-home symbolism, and for example Daniel’s homelife, and the fact that he had never told his parents he was gay, didn’t really feature at all, except apparently to show they were a family with secrets.

The pictures of midsummer celebrations come from the Swedish Heritage Board.

For a varied selection of previous midsummer entries - Bridget Jones, Stig of the Dump and others - click on the label below. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

The Quick by Lauren Owen

published 2014

set in the 1890s

She found herself engulfed by a crowd of fellow passengers, hemmed in on all sides and borne helplessly forwards. She could smell dirt, sweating human bodies and damp wool and wet dog fur, a thousand other ripe and rotting things all blended together. The station was cold, and she felt insignificant beneath the ceiling, as if she had dissolved entirely into the crowd. The taste of smoke lingered at the back of her throat.

She had never seen so many people gathered in one place. The women were almost as soberly dressed as the men, in dim tasteful colours from which the odd touch of brightness stood out sharply: an Indian shawl, a blue woollen scarf, a red travelling cloak. She passed servants carrying travelling furs, an elderly couple struggling with a large picnic basket, a Scotch family with a pack of lively dogs, a little girl and her nursemaid – the woman reaching a swift hand, pulling the child back from the platform edge as a train began to move with a wrench of metal and a billow of smoke.


****CONTAINS A SPOILER, which I consider unimportant but YMMV**** 

This new book is tipped to be a big best-seller this summer, and indeed has a lot to recommend it. But the question of the spoiler is a difficult one. About one-fifth of the way through (thank you Kindle) you find out what the key driving force of the plot is. The whole of the rest of the book is entirely predicated on this, it is basically the subject of the book. It would be a recommendation to most of the people who want to read it – so why is it not straightforwardly being pushed as what it is? -  which is: 


… a book about vampires.

I would imagine most people will know before they read it. The opening chapters suggest dark Victorian Gothicism with some supernatural element just out of reach, and there is also another plot element, another feature of Victorian and modern life (which is then almost completely ditched in the rest of the book). I can’t understand why it is not being marketed as a vampire book.

Anyway. It is long and quite slow, you have to have some faith and confidence that Ms Owen is going to get you there – the book starts with a long description of a miserable childhood, a brother and sister pair. The boy grows up and goes to university and then London, where the plot really gets going, in what would seem to be the 1890s. He shares lodgings with another young man, tries to write, goes to see an Oscar Wilde play, makes small forays into society. He’s not a particularly appealing young man, and very socially insecure. The readers get hints of a secret and sinister gentlemen’s club called the Aegolius – what can they be getting up to there?

Once we know, the book packs in fake scientific research, diaries, new characters, a whole world in a different part of London. It is in turn infuriating and entrancing – it is difficult to keep track of the various threads, especially as at the end of a scene the author might or might not go back to tell you what led another character to the same place – and it’s by no mean always obvious whether it is old or new activity. I wish someone had edited the book severely. But it is very well-written, with some great descriptions and atmospheric scenes. I would not normally be that interested in a vampire book, but this one was overall an enjoyable read – an excellent choice for a long journey or a beach read. Ms Owen has plainly left the way open for a sequel.

Charlotte above – an excellent heroine – is travelling to London in search of her lost brother: the description is of Kings Cross, where she arrives in London, while the picture above (from the Library of Congress) is of York station in the 1890s, where she begins her journey.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Books of 1963: Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes

published 1963

Henry had had no very clear idea of what he expected the Editor of Style to look like, but the moment that Margery French walked in he realised that she filled the role to perfection. Everything was right – the beautifully-cut suit, the blue-rinsed hair, the impeccable make-up, the fine sensitive hands embellished with one outsize topaz ring on the wedding finger. It was hard to believe that this woman, who must be nearer 60 than 50, had been working late into the night: and still more difficult to remember that she had just been woken from her well-earned rest with news of a shocking disaster. Certainly the sergeant’s forebodings about hysterical women were unfounded in this instance.

“Good morning, Inspector Tibbett,” said Margery, briskly. “This is terrible and tragic business. Please tell me all about it, and let me know how I can help you…

observations: 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. For June, he suggested that prospective participants should concentrate on one year: the 1963 challenge. Perfect for me, as I’ve been meaning to feature this book for a while – and also this rather wonderful photograph.

Murder a la Mode is set in the offices of a fashion magazine, where one of the writers has been murdered in the aftermath of the Paris collections, as the staff pull an all-nighter to prepare for their biggest issue of the year. (Fans of The Devil Wears Prada and the film The September Issue will find this familiar ground.) While the magazine is called Style, you wouldn’t be in a moment’s doubt that we are talking Vogue here, and the authenticity is so very obvious that I didn’t really need to check on Moyes’ biography on Wikipedia to find out that she worked there as Assistant Editor. The Inspector Tibbett mysteries are very much cozy and traditional, and his wife Emmy is no feminist trailblazer: I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that Moyes had been a Home Counties matron writing books when not doing the flowers for the church – but that is far from the case, and she had an intriguing career.

The book is a joy to read just because of the setting, and the eccentric and Bohemian magazine staff and their associates, and the details of their working lives. For example, the editor above is earlier shown wearing her hat at her desk – something we looked at earlier this month in this entry, with this picture:

-- yes, it looks exactly like Clothes in Books herself, hard at work, but it is milliner Lilly Dache. 

In Murder a la Mode, ‘the black straw hat was beginning to grow uncomfortably tight around her temples, but she would no more have dreamed of taking it off than of undressing in public.’

The picture is by Toni Frissell from the Library of Congress: it is widely described, and has been for years, as being taken at Victoria Station (where fashion editors travelling back from Paris by the boat-train would expect to arrive). But in the world of crowd-sourcing correction, and in an unlikely conjunction of high fashion and trainspotters, it is now claimed for Paddington. It bears an entirely coincidental resemblance to one of yesterday's photos...

Rich Westwood of Past Offences has guest-blogged on Clothes in Books, on The Woman in White.

More from fashion magazines in the Anne Scott-James book In the Mink  - lots of entries, click on the label below. 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Everything was perfectly swell

the book: 2 B R 0 2 B by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

published 1962

from regular guest blogger Colm Redmond

[The scene is a clinic, where a painter is working on a mural and chatting to a man who’s about to become a father.]

A coarse, formidable woman strode into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag and overseas cap were all purple, the purple the painter called “the color of grapes on Judgement Day.”

The medallion on her purple musette bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.

The woman had a lot of facial hair – an unmistakable mustache, in fact.

observations: When you’re dealing with science fiction, let alone Vonnegut, you kind of know that if the first sentence is “Everything was perfectly swell,” happy times will not be ahead. In this dystopia, everything is “swell” because a cure for ageing has been found. So death by old age has been eradicated; but by law the population is stable - precisely stable. For every birth, someone has to die, voluntarily or not. And the guy’s wife is about to have triplets.

This is a marvellous story, and it’s not Vonnegut’s fault that I was sorely misled by its being advertised – in e-book form – as a novella. It’s a short story, and a really short one. Saki-length. But, like with the best of Saki, you feel like you’ve been through the wringer by the end of just a few pages.

The title looks like a Prince song title, years ahead of its time. But it’s actually a six-digit phone number, the letters signifying numbers on the dial, same as on a modern keypad. The zero is pronounced “naught”, so it sounds as “To be or not to be,” which is a rather dark joke explained in the story. When I was a child, not long after this was written, we knew a conundrum: “What does this say? YYUR, YYUB, ICUR YY4ME." So really, we were way ahead of Prince, never mind textspeak. (It says “Too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me.”)

An overseas cap - originally a WWI term - is like the one Veronica Lake is wearing in the amazing main pic.

Jordin Sparks (the 2007 American Idol winner) is modelling a Louis Vuitton musette for us, in the second pic. The defining feature is not the style or shape of the bag, but the long shoulder strap. This is often worn over the opposite shoulder by, for example, military personnel who can’t risk their cheaper and less decorative bags falling off.

Apart from the coarseness and the facial hair, and the lack of a coat or a cap or any purple, and the smiling, and the happy children nearby, and the brolly and the wrong kind of bag altogether, I think the lady in the extract must have seemed just like model Jean Patchett, in this 1954 magazine photo:

Vonnegut has featured on the blog before, here.

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

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas Fils

Lady of the Camellias - this translation by David Coward

published 1848

The first time I had seen her was in the Place de la Bourse, outside Susse’s. An open barouche was standing there, and a woman in white had stepped out of it. A murmur of admiration had greeted her as she entered the shop. For my part, I stood rooted to the spot from the time she went in until the moment she came out. Through the windows, I watched her in the shop as she chose what she had come to buy. I could have gone in, but I did not dare. I had no idea what sort of woman she was and was afraid that she would guess my reason for entering the shop and be offended…

She was elegantly dressed; she wore a muslin dress with full panels, a square Indian shawl embroidered at the corners with gold thread and silk flowers, a Leghorn straw hat and a single bracelet, one of those thick gold chains which were then just beginning to be fashionable.

observations: All kinds of name stuff first: camellia has two ls, but Dumas consistently wrote it with one, which was (according to this edition) because he didn’t know any better, and because the writer George Sand wrote it with one.

The heroine of the book is Marguerite Gautier, though in other versions of the story she is sometimes called Camille. But in the book she is the lady of the camellias just because she likes the flowers. In an astonishingly modern touch (and one really unimaginable in an English novel of the time), she wears a red camellia when she is ‘unavailable’ each month, and goes back to a white one when she is free again. Her lover is called Armand Duval.

One of the most famous versions of the story is Verdi’s opera La Traviata – again, this is no-one’s name, it means the woman who strayed or turned away from the path. But in La Trav – the most performed opera of them all – she is called Violetta, and her lover is Alfredo. 

And, Alexandre Dumas Fils is not the man who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers:  he is is his rather unsatisfactory son. A much lesser writer, though it is possible this one story is better-known, and more resonant, than anything his father wrote.

The book is very melodramatic and over the top, with a feverish atmosphere. It is based on a true story: Marie Duplessis was a famously beautiful courtesan in Paris in the 1840s, and had an affair with Dumas fils. She died of consumption in 1847, and this book was published just over a year later, and turned into the first of many plays in 1849. (The opera was launched in 1853.) It has been an eternal bestseller in all its different forms ever since. The courtesan with the heart of gold has an unchanging appeal.

The book itself is quite refreshing – Marguerite is no yearning innocent forced into a life of sin. Armand does not come over well – as his father says: ‘What sort of man are you, sir, that you will allow Mlle Marguerite Gautier to make sacrifices for you?’ When he writes a dramatic letter to his lover, she says ‘People compose letters like this in their heads, but no-one actually writes them down.’ When he goes to visit her, he looks to see if the bed is smooth so as to check on what she’s been up to. There are endless discussions of money and Marguerite is quite forthright about being a courtesan, and the economics of that, and the inconvenience of falling in love.

After she is dead, Armand arranges to have her coffin moved so he can have a  look at her corpse – a very gruesome scene, as she has been buried for some time, and one that is described in horrible detail. He needs to do this because – unlike in other versions of the story – there is no final pre-death reunion.

The book is strange and enjoyable, with a very modern feeling.

There are similarities with Edward Sheldon’s Romance – a highly successful play of the early 20th century, and one we tracked down in a number of entries.

Marguerite is fond of her shawls – as was Mrs Gaskell, some discussion in this entry, with links to others.

The pictures are of Marie Duplessis herself (top) and of the great actress Eleanor Duse playing Marguerite.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Murder at Sissingham Hall by Clara Benson

published 2012

[Narrator Charles, who has been travelling, has been met at Southampton by old friends]

It dawned upon me suddenly who she was and I started in surprise. ‘Sylvia!’ I exclaimed. ‘I hardly recognized you. Good heavens! I had no idea you had grown up. Have I really been away that long?’

When I had last seen Bobs’s sister, she had been an ungainly schoolgirl with a grubby face and a reckless disregard for the state of her clothes; quite different from the smart, fashionable young woman standing in front of me now. I could not help staring at her, 

astonished at how much she had changed. She flushed slightly and pulled a face, which immediately brought to memory the tom-boy she had once been and I laughed. We all stood there for a few moments, grinning foolishly at each other as the crowd flowed around us.

observations: I picked up this book after reading about the series on a Golden Age Detection discussion page. There’s a Clara Benson website which says this:

Clara Benson was born in 1890 and as a young woman wrote several novels featuring Angela Marchmont. She was unpublished in her lifetime, preferring to describe her writing as a hobby, and it was not until many years after her death in 1965 that her family rediscovered her work and decided to introduce it to a wider audience.
The conversation amongst the Golden Age fans was on whether this could possibly be true. So naturally I decided to try one of the books, and form my own opinion. (I got mine free, and the books are available at very reasonable prices on Kindle.)

I enjoyed the book, although I didn’t have any trouble solving the murder, and the amateur sleuth – Angela Marchmont – was quite appealing. It was nicely written, and the atmosphere was rather Agatha-Christie-like: mistrust, overheard conversations, the use of a story from the past to unnerve someone.

However I would not think for a moment that it was written in the 1920s (when it is set): the dialogue was not convincing for that era, nor were the manners of the main participants. And most of all there was this: 

‘…Do you remember Lili Le Sueur?... She wanted to star in pictures…. I suppose she has got fat and lost her looks by now.’ 
Lucille LeSueur is the birth name of a very famous Hollywood star, and it is asking too much to believe that this fictional young man’s fancy shared the name.

But Benson gets points for having a hero who says this about shell shock:

I had never been much of a believer in it myself but it seemed useless to argue…
Modern protagonists in historical books are usually firmly on the side of feminism and socialism, are very anti-war, and tend to have advanced (and frankly unlikely views) on a range of issues such as mental health and sexual freedom. But I think this particular case is a credit to the writer, avoiding the trap, not a sign of authentic age. [To be clear, not because I don't believe in shell shock, but because the author resisted the temptation to give her hero modern views.]

So – my verdict is that the cover story is exactly that, a story, but as a pastiche it wasn’t bad.

The pictures are from a schoolgirl annual of 1927.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

published 1951


[Lucy, narrating, is working in the drama department at an arts institute: Lady Frances is the patron. Her new friend is Ianthe.]

Since then she has rather attached herself to me, and I can’t help liking it, for she is amusing in a breathless, scatty sort of way. She is rather like something out of a Marx Bros, picture. She is a very good mimic; she can imitate anybody’s voice. I was on a ladder on the stage, fixing some lights, when the voice of Lady Frances rose up from the dark stalls.

Carmichael! I can see right up your legs! Go home and put on sensible knickers.” I was furious. I quite thought it was Lady Frances and was just about to hand in my notice.

observations: As I said before, there are all kinds of incidental joys in this book, and this fairly irrelevant but hilarious story is one of them.

And then later on, one of Lady Frances’s daughters sits on a sofa in a hotel, and our heroine girls can see she is wearing woollen knickers. The sofas may be low, but:
“You and I can sit on them without making poppy-shows of ourselves, and we’re only poor middle-class girls. Think of all the advantages she’s had!”
Poppy-shows, apparently, are puppetshows or peepshows, and the phrase means to make a spectacle of oneself. According to Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang, it specifically means women accidentally showing their underwear. But it is used in simpler circumstances - DH Lawrence uses it about a bouquet.

More language news: ‘to give someone a set down’ is a phrase used in Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances and not much anywhere else – it means to make a crushing retort. In this book we find that the plural of set down is sets down.

I also like Lucy’s forthright answer to a miserable young man, something I’ve often longed to say:
“I’ve lost my religious faith,” he declared. “That’s a simply frightful thing to happen to me just now.”

“But you always knew He allowed other people to be unhappy,” Lucy pointed out. “And that never worried you.”
And about committee meetings:
But if every Treasurer’s report which Garstang had heard read out in that Council room had been superimposed and photographed, he did not believe it would be blurred, and nobody seemed to be taking it much to heart.
And there is also excellent, non-medical, advice if you are trying to get pregnant: don’t bother with doctors:
If I was a girl I’d remember that the watched pot never boils, and put myself down to ride in a gymkhana at Easter — sort of thing it’s going to be a nuisance to have to cancel.
The incidentals in the book make it well worth reading, and the descriptions of clothes are splendid - see earlier entry. And thanks again to @skiorouphile for telling me about the book.

The woman up a ladder is from the Library of Congress.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Complaints about Characters' Names

Poor child, has the worst character name ever

Today’s entry appears on the Guardian Books Blog, and is a complaint (rant) that sometimes authors make really bad choices when they are naming their characters. Sometimes they are unfortunate or unlucky (Titty and Dick Diver), and sometimes they are ugly (Phlox), and sometimes they are misleading. The subject gets a good going over here, but more examples always welcome in the comments.

This is part of the Guardian piece:

It might seem unreasonable to complain about the names authors choose for their characters – it's their choice after all. But some writers could clearly do with a little help. 
Take Swiss author Joël Dicker's international bestseller The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. His policeman is called Sergeant Perry Gahalowood – plainly a name made up by a non-native who thinks it sounds American. As this thriller has literary pretensions, perhaps it is a tip of the hat to Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who made up the totally-wrong name O'Collogham for a British character in his London Bridge.

Daytime TV watchers who have just finished catching up on the 1974 series of The Pallisers are left with the same burning question which has confronted readers of the books. Why on earth did Anthony Trollope give a serious, formal and pompous man the wholly suitable name of Plantaganet Palliser, but then tell us his friends call him Planty Pall? 

It's obviously a really terrible idea to give your characters names that are normal words in their own right, tripping up the reader time after time. We might be able to live with Will or Mark, but in Gillian Flynn's 2012 bestseller Gone Girl, there is a character called Go (short for Margo) and that leads to such infelicities as these: 

Sharon turned to Go. They will go after Go. Go stayed. Go, an expert panel of one. Go said "Go home." 

I have tried really hard to believe there is some metaphysical plot reason for calling her that – at one point board games are mentioned, and I hoped they were going to Advance to Go – but no. There is no excuse.

Guillermo Martinez is guilty of something similar in The Oxford Murders, where one of the major characters is called Arthur Seldom. So: "Seldom smiled", "he asked Seldom", "Seldom opened one of the doors" …

Even she doesn't deserve the name Phlox

The piece also features blog favourite Michael Chabon and his Mysteries of Pittsburghon the blog here, and E Nesbit and the important Five Children and It, featuring the young woman called Panty. Anyone got a better one than that?