A Dance to the Music of Time 1: A Question of Upbringing

Dancing Powell

A Question of Upbringing 

Looking out of his window at some workmen around a brazier, Nicholas Jenkins is reminded of the four seasons on Poussin’s celebrated painting (detail above), and the passing of time in his life.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving had in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the stesp of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, or days at school, where so many forces, hiterto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.

Powell 1Immediately we are introduced to one of the key characters in the series – Kenneth Widmerpool, going for a run on a foggy winter’s day. Widmerpool is a bit of an enigma, he ‘himself had proved indigestible to the community.’ Outsider he may be, but even later in this first volume, we will come to see his strength of character, and sense that he will endure.

Our narrator Jenkins, now enters the school boarding house and we meet his slightly older roommates – Stringham and Templer. On first glance, Stringham seems a good sort and Templer more mischievous, but after Jenkins’s Uncle Giles comes to visit and nearly gets them expelled by lighting a cigarette, it is Stringham that plays a particularly evil practical joke on housemaster Le Bas after noticing his resemblance to a wanted criminal. Stringham gets away with it too.

It is the boys’ last year at school; Stringham leaves early to stay in Kenya for a while. Jenkins spends some time with Templer’s family in London, falling madly in love with his sister Jean and experiencing the Templer brand of practical joke on a poor chap residing with them called Sunny Farebrother. Then in the summer he goes off to an educational establishment in France where he falls in love with someone else – and encounters Widmerpool again before going up to university where he begins to see how the old boys network really works when he is adopted by one of the professors, (think Slughorn ‘collecting’ Harry Potter for an analogy).

These four sections of school, London, France and university form the four long chapters of the novel – its own seasons if you will.

We find out very little about Jenkins himself – he doesn’t give much away, just observes and absorbs rather than doing much himself. Is he just a hanger on? I guess we’ll see, but he certainly seemed like that in this first volume. In a way he reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, another accepted outsider narrator.

Stringham and Templer and their well-heeled families were straight out of the bright young things of the 1920s. Uncle Giles however, who crops up several times, is a sort of failed Army officer who’s slightly on his uppers and needing a new opportunity in life – I hope we’ll hear more of him. The one character I long for more of though is Widmerpool – he is so intriguing, and seems bound to make something of himself despite what others may think.

Powell’s language is rich and dense and took some getting used to. I’m glad he started us off with Jenkins’s schooldays, as the scenario is familiar enough to give one time to get into the habit of reading his typically long sentences, which meant I was able to cope with this 70 word one by page 149!

The curious thing was that, although quite aware that a sentiment of attraction towards Suzette was merely part of an instinct that had occasioned Peter’s ‘unfortunate incident’ – towards which I was conscious of no sense of disapproval – my absorption in the emotional disturbance caused by Jean and Suzette seemed hardly at all connected with the taking of what had been, even in Templer’s case, a fairly violent decision.

So to summarise, volume one is really a scene-setting introduction – enjoyable in its way, but promising many more riches to come. I shall definitely proceed onto number two – A Buyer’s Market. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01) by Anthony Powell, Arrow paperback 240 pages. Other editions available.

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My Les Mis-full day – not glum at all

Les Misérables – On Film and Stage

Over the years, the one musical that didn’t appeal to me was Les Misérables. In fact, I turned down free tickets back in the early 1990s, such was my lack of enthusiasm for it – the very thought of having to sit through it made me feel glum.

But, dear readers, I am cured!  Vivent Les Misérables!

My daughter, for reasons I’ll come to later, was desperate to see it.  I said I’ll book for the summer. ‘No, can’t it be Easter?’ she asked.  ‘I’ll see what’s available.’ I replied, and found us tickets for yesterday evening – good seats at a price, but as an irregular theatre-goer these days, I’m willing to pay out a bit for a good view, (I chose the 2nd priced stalls at £67.50 each!!!).

les mis movie posterHowever, as my daughter likes to understand what’s going on before seeing shows, (something that spoiled seeing War Horse for her with her old school – she hadn’t read the book, and they didn’t explain the play at all) we watched the DVD at the weekend as Les Mis is a complicated story, (I benefitted from that too).

I loved it – especially Hugh Jackman of course, who has a great pedigree in musicals (my late mum saw him in Oklahoma and fell for him). Even Russell Crowe wasn’t so bad, and was suitably brooding, and Hathaway we know can sing and was so brave getting her real hair cut off – and her collarbones made her look skeletal as the dying Fantine. The naturalistic singing, which was live rather than dubbed as I understand, made it seem so much more … miserable.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter (SBC and HBC!) were great comic relief as the money-grabbing Thénardiers. I cried like a baby at the end.  I went through the story with my daughter and we were prepared for our trip down to London.

20140415_192219_resizedWe had a good afternoon shopping in Covent Garden, then a burger and shake at Ed’s Diner in Soho before the theatre.  Our seats were great (no need to pay £20 more for that prime central block).  Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue was smaller than I expected, but very plush.

On time, the orchestra struck up and we were transported to 19thC France. The staging was wonderful – using a surprisingly quiet revolving stage and clever lighting which allowed both props and actors to keep the action always moving.  Originally staged by the RSC at the Barbican, you expect the slickness and clever use of backdrops and props. An American party sitting behind me, although they loved the traditional theatre, had been expecting something on a bigger scale ‘like back in Boston’ (yawn!).

My daughter (left) gets Carrie's (middle) autograph

My daughter (left) gets Carrie’s (middle) autograph

None of the cast (except one) were familiar to me, but they were touts merveilleux! I  did have a sniffle when Eponine died, and could see lots of hankies being dabbed to eyes then and at the end.

Eponine was the reason for going at Easter, she was played by Carrie Hope Fletcher (sister of McFly’s Tom) and my daughter follows her on the web. So afterwards, we quickly went round to the stage door and found ourselves in a small cluster of waiting fans and she kindly signed our programme which made my daughter’s day.

Les Mis has now trumped both Oliver! and Matilda as her favourite musical and film. My favourite will always be the original Jesus Christ Superstar, but Les Mis will now vie with Oliver! for my second spot.

Victor Hugo’s story is epic in its scope, I started reading it around two years ago, and ought to resume – I got as far as Jean Valjean being given the silver, i.e. not very far, and paused. Seeing the musical twice has renewed my enthusiasm for it.

Musically, Les Mis is sung-through; there is no dialogue at all, and the score relies on recitative to link the main scenes. I was fascinated by the way there are really only about eight (guessing here) musical themes which get mixed up and reappear throughout the show, most obviously the Thénardiers’ comic song, and Javert’s brooding one, but they all blend together and never appear repetitive at all. This made it feel less of a musical, more an opera.  I loved it.

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Here’s links to Les Mis at Amazon UK, in case you’re interested:
Les Misérables [DVD] [2012] starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway etc
Les Miserables 25th Anniversary [DVD] the concert at the RAH with Alfie Boe etc.

A novel of love, war, betrayal and stiff upper lip

Some Day I’ll Find You by Richard Madeley

Richard Madeley slightly surprised everyone in 2008 when he published his successful memoir Fathers and Sons which explored male familial relationships through the mirror of his own. Despite journalistic roots, it was somewhat unexpected that one of the most successful daytime TV hosts and champion of the Richard & Judy Bookclub could write. Now, matching his wife Judy Finnegan, he has written his first novel – would it pass muster?

runway_1988b

Madeley hosting ‘Runway’ another 1988 quiz show.

I was intrigued to be offered a copy by his publisher – as many moons ago I met him when I was a contestant on the Granada TV quiz show Connections. That was back in 1988; he was on his way up, having made a name for himself on local shows, now breaking into national TV programmes. We had to rehearse our little introductions with him, and I remember having difficulty describing the branch of high-tech electronic materials I worked with in those days. He came up with a (so him) flippant response that neatly sidestepped the issue.  Recording loads of the shows each day – it was a daily tea-time quiz show – so there was no time to bond further, although Granada treated us contestants really well.  I got to stay overnight in the same Manchester hotel as many Coronation Street actors, and Jonathan Miller breakfasted at an adjacent table!  I lost my match on the buzzer on the final question but felt I acquitted myself reasonably, which was a relief as it seemed that all my UK customers had seen it and recognised me. But enough of all this reminiscing – what was his book like?

some day

Some Day I’ll Find You is a story of wartime romance and betrayal. The prologue starts in Nice a few years after the war, where Diana, sitting outside her favourite café, is stunned to hear a voice from her past as a taxi passes.

As it passed her, she saw the silhouette of a man sitting in the back. He was leaning forward and speaking, in English, to the driver.
‘No, not here. I told you – it’s much further up. Keep going all the way to the Hotel Negresco. And get a move on – I’m late enough as it is.’
Diana swayed and gripped the back of her chair. Impossible.
‘Stop!’ she called at last as the taxi reached the top of the square and began to turn on to the Promenade des Anglais. ‘Oh please, stop!’
But the Citroen entered the flow of traffic and disappeared down the long curving road that bordered the sparkling Mediterranean.
‘Madame!’ It was Armand, the patron, solicitous. ‘Do you have a problem?’
‘No, no …’ She sat down again. ‘Everything’s fine, really.’
But she was lying.
Everything was wrong.
Completely wrong.

Then we flashback to 1938 and war is not yet a certainty.  Diana Arnold is on holiday from studying at Girton, Cambridge.  Her brother John is at RAF officer training school, and has made friends with James Blackwell, an East-ender and chancer who shouldn’t really be there, but has wangled his way in. James is penniless, so when they get leave, John invites him to join the Arnold family at home in Kent.

The Arnolds are well off, Mr Arnold being a successful libel lawyer. Diana is a confident and beautiful young woman, and James immediately sees an opportunity to become set-up for life and he starts to woo her and her family.  We get a hint of how callous James is underneath when he drops the hairdresser he’d been seeing with no explanation.

The Arnolds fall for him, and he spins Diana sob-stories about his past, and she falls for him too and they get engaged.  War intervenes and the boys are called into action. James and Diana decide to get married as soon as they can, and test out their conjugal bliss.  Diana’s father is wary of their marriage, but her mother Gwen reminds him that they did exactly the same during WWI, and Oliver survived the trenches.  Two days of leave give them the window to get married, but after the ceremony with Diana still in her wedding dress, John and James are immediately recalled to take to the skies in their spitfires – neither will return. Diana is widowed, and left pregnant with their child.

She remarries to a rich, older man, who is happy to bring up her daughter, and they relocate to the Côte d’Azur, which is where her troubles begin again, when she hears that voice …

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was undemanding, but the plot had enough drama and the main characters were strong enough to keep me entertained.  Diana, a strong-willed Daddy’s girl, could be rather petulant, and you did wonder whether she’d be able to change James, well for a short while anyway, but she has reserves of stiff upper lip that take over from the wild romance. You hope that she will be the making of James, but that would be rather boring, and when his true character starts to show it adds to the drama considerably – we need him to be a cad and bounder.

Madeley’s text is unflashy, and flows smoothly. I couldn’t help but imagine him narrating the book in my head, as the writing did feel like him reading a book out loud, if you get what I mean.  He definitely has a voice in his writing; it will be interesting to see how his style develops in any future novels as it felt a little too like him in parts in this one.

This was an excellent, light holiday read, and with the twin settings of wartime Kent, and 1950s Nice, I can easily imagine a two-part drama on the tellybox. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Some Day I’ll Find You by Richard Madeley, Simon & Schuster paperback (2013)
Fathers and Sonsby Richard Madeley

A quiet novel with emotional depth

The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers

cleaner of chartresThe seventh novel by Salley Vickers, The Cleaner of Chartres is the story of orphan foundling Agnès Morel, and the people who come into her life.

Before introducing us to Agnès, the novel begins by telling us about the great cathedral, how it burned and was rebuilt by an army of unknown craftsmen …

Nor was anything known of Agnès Morel when she arrived in Chartres nearly eight hundred years after the building of the present cathedral commenced. Few, if asked, could have recalled when she first appeared. She must have seemed vaguely always to have been about. A tall, dark, slender woman – ‘a touch of the tar brush there’,  Madame Beck, who had more than a passing sympathy for the Front National, chose to comment – with eyes that the local artist, Robert Clément, likened to washed topaz, though, as the same Madame Beck remarked to her friend Madame Picot, being an artist he was give to these fanciful notions.

Right from the start, we are entranced by the mystery of Agnès with her topaz eyes.  She was found in a basket by a farmer, who left her with the nuns at Rouen to bring up. When she was a teenager, things happened, and she ended up in psychiatric care under the kind Dr Deman.  It will take most of the book for Agnès’ backstory to be teased out gently, only then reaching a climax when the past threatens to eclipse the present.

It is in the present, twenty years later, that we learn about Agnès’ nurturing nature as she cleans and babysits for the residents of Chartres, taking on the job of cleaning the cathedral itself when the old cleaner became too infirm.  It was Abbé Paul that had found her when she arrived in the city homeless those years ago, helping her to find lodgings and work.

She is a quiet woman, having a few good friends and she is trusted by those who use her services, yet her exotic appearance does attract the attention of the town busybody Madame Beck.  Meanwhile Agnès attracts some rather more welcome attention in Alain, a craftsman working on a restoration project – there is a mutual attraction there, which doesn’t get past Madame Beck’s eagle eyes.  Beck decides to employ Agnès, always looking for a way to disparage her, and when one of her antique dolls goes missing – she starts her campaign against Agnès in earnest.

As the author said herself when I saw her speak the other evening Agnès is very much a catalyst for action in those she meets, bringing out their latent qualities. From being painter Robert’s muse, or a shoulder to lean on for the increasingly bewildered Father Bernard, to becoming the focus of the bigoted Madame Beck’s attentions.  She inspires love though too: in Dr Deman, in a kind of reverse transference when a patient falls for their doctor; unrequited love in Professor Jones whom she works for; and fatherly love in Jean, the farmer who found her whom she looks after in his declining years.

There are moments of humour too, one notable segment concerns two of the nuns who brought her up, (one nice, one nasty) when they come on a visit to Chartres.

Sister Laurence had taken the opportunity to escape to the north aisle of the nave. When Mother Véronique tracked her down, Sister Laurence declared that she had decided that her favourite window was Noah and the flood. She particularly liked, she said, the pink elephants and striped pigs.
‘Boars,’ corrected Mother Véronique.
‘Oh yes, of course, “boars”,’ repeated Sister Laurence with seeming meekness but with enough of a treasonous glint in her voice for Mother Véronique to embark on a lengthy account of the life of St Lubin.

This is sensitive storytelling at its best with a cracking character-driven plot that gradually increases in tension as Agnès’ story is revealed.  We are all smitten by her, but also by the cathedral itself. Who wouldn’t want to visit it after reading this wonderful novel and maybe find themselves as Agnès does in its labyrinth. (10/10)

To find out more and see other views about this book, why not take a look at Salley’s own website, or Jane’s review at Fleur Fisher in her World.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers, Penguin paperback.

An evening with Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers, the best-selling author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, and her latest novel The Cleaner of Chartres is an absolutely fascinating person. We were lucky enough to have her visit Abingdon yesterday evening where she talked about her books in interview with Mark Thornton from Mostly Books

Salley Vickers 001

Salley, (named we found out from the WB Yeats poem Down by the Salley Gardens, salley being Irish for willow), had an unconventional upbringing being the child of strict atheists who were members of the British Communist party. She won a scholarship to St Paul’s school – and came top in RE!  She has done many things before becoming a novelist, most notably being a Jungian psychoanalyst which flavours much of her writing.

Mark started off by asking about her relationship with bookshops as an author. Salley said she felt it was a privilege to have her books in shops, and especially independent bookshops – who helped her on her way.  She couldn’t get her first novel Miss Garnet’s Angel into any chains, but indie bookshops did take it, and helped to spread how good it was by word of mouth.  She said she loves readers’ responses to her novels, and how books can bring people together – book groups are a sort of democracy at work – well sometimes.

Salley told an anecdote of how books can occasionally physically change lives: the real café in Venice that featured in Miss G was going to close, but suddenly people started coming to it after reading the book, and it was able to stay open. She was delighted to hear from the owner.

… which led on nicely to talk about places and character. Salley told us how she had been sniffy about going to Venice the first time, but as she walked through from the station towards San Marco, she felt ‘all my adolescent prejudices melting away.‘  She found the church that inspired her by getting lost.  It took getting lost on another visit to find it again.

labychartresfloorAlthough from a strict atheist family they did visit cathedrals, and Salley had visited Chartres when younger.  Later, she took her own family there, telling her sons that the labyrinth was the path to heaven.  But it was on another visit, when she snuck into the cathedral early one morning before it was officially open, and saw a cleaner working on the labyrinth that The Cleaner of Chartres was inspired.

For Salley, place has to ‘coincide with something happening in the present’ which leads to the dual timelines present in all her novels. Mark admitted that he was more than a little smitten with Agnès in The Cleaner of Chartres, and terribly worried when past collided with the present.  Salley explained how some people may say that Agnès was a little passive, but that she didn’t see her that way. Instead, she sees her as a catalyst, who brings out the latent qualities in other people – often beneficial, but not always.

Salley also told us that she always has one character in her novels through whom she expresses her own views and opinions – the Monsignor in Miss G, and Dr Demas in Chartres for instance – both characters that are interesting and, from the nods of acknowledgement, were well-liked in the room.

Mark and Salley then talked about her being a psychoanalyst and how this influences her writing.  Salley had wanted to be one, Jungian, from a fairly young age after reading a book by Jung about dreams and consciousness.  She uses this directly, by writing fast in her nightclothes when she gets up – preserving the vestigial traces of her unconscious dream state.  She also confessed ‘I don’t plot‘, like a psychoanalyst going with the flow in a session, she lets the characters guide the plot – however, she said ‘I like plot, and I like story.’ which is just as well, as her novels are known for a strong storyline.

She was fascinating company, obviously enjoying the interview style of the evening, and signed books for all with a violet pen.

I enjoyed The Cleaner of Chartres very much – review to follow.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Miss Garnet’s Angel, The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers, paperbacks.

Travelling Man

Lost Luggageby Jordi Punti, translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark.

lost luggage

This is the story of Gabriel Delacruz, orphan, international furniture remover and father to four sons. Four boys – born in four different countries to four different mothers; one German, one English, one French and one Spanish, and all christened the local equivalent of the name Christopher. They are not aware of each other’s existence, and none of them have seen their father for a couple of decades.

The ‘Four Christophers’ finally meet when the youngest, Cristòfol is contacted by the police when his father goes missing. He finds a piece of paper with the details of his brothers on.  The Christophers meet to learn each others stories, and also to research their father – they don’t believe he’s dead.

In fact, disappeared isn’t the correct verb, and if we’ve decided to find him, it’s to make sense of the word.  Give it a body. Only somebody who’s previously appeared can disappear and that’s not the case with our father. We haven’t seen him for more than thirty years and the sum of our memories presents us with only a blurry image of him. It’s not as if he was a timid man, or naturally reserved, but he always seemed to have an escape route. He wasn’t edgy, anxious or mistrustful either. Sigrun says she fell in love with both his presence and his absence. Mireille recalls that as soon as he arrived it was as if he was leaving again. The brevity of his visits helped, of course. …
This vanishing act can even be seen in the letters he used to send us. He wrote them from all over Europe, wherever he was moving furniture, telling us stories about the trip. Sometimes they were postcards, scribbled by the roadside. … In the letters he wrote us he sometimes enclosed photos of himself, alone or posing with his trucker friends. The words accompanying these images revealed real tenderness and longing, which made our mothers cry if they were feeling fragile, but they never went beyond two sides of a single sheet of paper. Just when it seemed he was getting into his stride, the writing would abruptly end. See you soon, kisses, and so on and so forth, his name, and that was that. As if he was afraid to give all of himself.

The brothers take their turns to tell their stories. How their mothers met Gabriel, their births, and those rare visits throughout their childhood.  Although they are very different, they all get on well, making up for lost time.  Their mothers were all independent women and despite the lack of a permanent father figure in their lives, they have made the most of things. They start meeting regularly to talk, and search out Gabriel’s friends and acquaintances to help fill in the gaps.

Alongside Gabriel’s unfolding story was that of his fellow orphan and colleague Bundo. Together since their days in the ophanage, their undying friendship was the most touching part of this story. Whereas Gabriel had a woman in each port so to speak, there was only ever one girl for Bundo but he had to share her, for Carolina was a prostitute in a roadhouse outside Lyon.

One of the naughty but interesting things that Gabriel and Bundo did together along with fellow removers was to always remove one random box from the contents of each move. They’d share out the contents, and Gabriel catalogued them – over 200 boxes in total over their career. One of those boxes had contained a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Gabriel passed on to his German son, Christof, who called it Christofini. The dummy kept butting into Christof’s part of the narrative, which did give a slightly surreal edge to things.

I particularly loved reading about Gabriel and Bundo and their exploits through the years, lovable rogues both, always up for a chance to make a bit on the side or a game of cards. The sons’ stories weren’t as exciting in comparison, and as I read on, I did hope that they’d make progress on finding Gabriel, for at 473 pages, this is rather a long book. I won’t let on what finally happens, for this was a charming story told with humour, and you may want to find it out for yourself.  Despite its length, Punti has created some memorable characters in this debut novel and I enjoyed the travels and travails of Gabriel, his friends and extended family a great deal. (8.5/10)

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I received a copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti, pub 25th April by Short Books, Trade paperback, 473 pages.

Him pretty good funny sometimes

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

ME-TALK-PRETTY-ONE-DAY-David-Sedaris
The American humorist David Sedaris is famed for his self-deprecating wit and his good-natured take on life.  He has written nine books compiling his essays and stories now, plus loads of journalism, plays and more.  I first encountered him on radio – he’s recorded many of his essays for BBC Radio 4, (sadly none are available on listen again at the moment).

We chose Sedaris’ breakthrough volume Me Talk Pretty One Day for our book group this month.  We like to throw an occasional non-fiction book into the mix, and having read James Thurber’s autobiographical stories My life and hard times last summer, and some Garrison Keillor previously also, it was good to compare and contrast their styles.

MTPOD is split into two parts.  The first half ‘One’ comprises tales from Sedaris’ childhood growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. The second half, ‘Deux’, chronicles episodes from the time he spent living in France with his partner Hugh.

I loved the first story Go Carolina which told of Sedaris’ battle with the school speech therapist who tried to get rid of his lisp – his ‘lazy tongue‘. In an aside he tells about his lazy family …

My sisters Amy and Gretchen were, at the time, undergoing therapy for lazy eyes, while my older sister, Lisa, had been born with a lazy leg that had refused to grow at the same rate as its twin. She’d worn a corrective brace for the first two years of her life, and wherever she roamed she left a trail of scratch marks in the soft pine floor. I liked the idea that part of one’s body might be thought of as lazy – not thoughtless or hostile, just unwilling to extend itself for the betterment of the team.  My father often accused my mother of having a lazy mind, while she in turn accused him of having a lazy finger, unable to dial the phone when he knew damn well he was going to be late.

In Genetic Engineering I had to giggle along with his observations about his father when they were on holiday.

As youngsters, we participated in all the usual seaside activities – which were fun, until my father got involved and systematically chipped away at our pleasure. Miniature golf was ruined with a lengthy dissertation on impact, trajectory, and wind velocity, and our sand castles were critiqued with stifling lectures on the dynamics of the vaulted ceiling. We enjoyed swimming, until the mystery of tides was explained in such a way that the ocean seemed nothing more than an enormous saltwater toilet, flushing itself on a sad and predictable basis.

Most of our group found his essays on childhood and his family were more fun than his time in France, although his exasperation over his attempts to learn the language were fun…

Of all the stumbling blocks inherent in learning this language, the greatest for me is the principle that each noun has a corresponding sex that affects both its articles and its adjectives. Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way of the other, hermaphrodite is male and indecisiveness female.
I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it.

Having a French/German language teacher in our group, the latter chapters about his attempts to learn French sparked off some good conversation about learning languages in general, but not so much about the book. Incidentally, the book’s title was about him mistranslating a phrase into French.

I enjoyed a lot of Sedaris’ writing in this volume, but did find that, as in his radio programmes which just feature a couple of articles, they were more fun in small doses.  Similarly, those of our group who hadn’t heard him on the radio, weren’t so taken, preferring the gently rambling tales of Garrison Keillor, another author who broadcasts his work; we managed to forget about Thurber comparisons.

I would happily read some more small doses of Sedaris, but will definitely listen out for him on the radio. (6.5/10 as a book).

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Abacus paperback, 272 pages.

A tale of motherhood across generations…

The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson

The Confidant by Helen Gremillon

I got a letter one day, a long letter that wasn’t signed. This was quite an event, because I’ve never received much mail in my life. My letter box had never done anything more than inform me that the-sea-was-warm or that the-snow-was-good, so I didn’t open it very often. Once a week, maybe twice in a gloomy week, when I hoped that a letter would change my life completely and utterly, like a telephone call can, or a trip on the métro, or closing my eyes and counting to ten before opening them again.
And then my mother died. And that was plenty, as far as changing my life went: your mother’s death, you can’t get much better than that.

It is Paris, 1975 and Camille is sad; at the loss of her mother, and the fact that the baby growing inside her will not know its grandmother. She is doubly so at the demise of her relationship with Nicholas, who we’ll find out doesn’t want anything to do with the baby.

When this letter arrives in amongst all the condolence cards, she starts reading…  It tells how teenager Louis met Annie back in 1933, and fell in love with her from afar. It doesn’t give many clues to who they are and where it happened. Camille is confused – why has this letter been sent to her?

In the following days and weeks, more letters arrive. Camille, who works in publishing, half wonders if it is a bizarre pitch being made to her, but something about the letters makes it seem that they are intended for her, and that the story therein is true.

They tell of how a bourgeois couple Mr & Madame M move into the village, about how Madam M notices Annie’s painting and encourages her, and how Annie later found out about Madame M’s inability to have a baby and offered to be a surrogate for her.  War intervenes, and it all gets very complicated. Louis loses touch with Annie for several years, but is able to pick up the story later.

I hadn’t seen her for three years. For three years I’d had no news of her at all. At no time did I suspect she might be living in Paris like me. I looked at her fingernails, her peeling red varnish; in the village she never used to wear any. Seeing her again like this: It seemed too good to be true. Outside it was pitch black. I was suddenly overwhelmed by desire for her. She handed me a steaming hot cup.
‘So do you remember Monsieur and Madame M.?’
How could she ask me such a thing.

The story of Louis, Annie, Mr & Madam M is teased out over the course of the novel. It is complex, full of tragedy in many ways and multi-layered, with little revelations that keep Camille desperate to know what happened and full of questions still, not to mention her feeling an increasing bond of motherhood with Annie.

This novel uses two literary devices to tell its story – when most use just one.  The dual narrative combined with the epistolary approach may feel somewhat contrived, but actually serves the story well.  We have the same questions that Camille has about Annie’s life, we feel for Camille’s loss and Annie’s situation,  and end up caring for both women, whereas often in dual narratives, one will dominate. I will say that I didn’t get much of a feel for 1970s Paris in Camille’s timeline though. However, the clever reveal made this a rewarding read, and I’ve yet to read a novel from Gallic books, who specialise in English translations of the best contemporary French books that I didn’t enjoy.  (8/10)

For some other reviews see:  Fleur Fisher and Winstonsdad.

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My copy came via the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson, Gallic Books 2012, paperback 267 pages.

“Summer fling, don’t mean a thing, But, oh, oh, the summer nights”

August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien

When I came across this short novel published in 1965, in a bag of books from my late Mum’s, I had to read it straight away for two reasons.  The obvious one is the title – it’s August – when better to read it.  The more compelling one however, was the cover photo on my edition which is of O’Brien herself.  Apart from ‘Read me’, her direct look seems to imply a book that will be chaste and wanton, and definitely hints at darkness. Of course she does know what fate has in store for Ellen, whose story this is.

Ellen, a young Irishwoman, is separated from her husband. As the book opens, he has arrived to take their young son off on a long camping trip. Ellen waves them goodbye, and a few days later she’s no longer missing them, for she has company, and foreplay soon starts…

He was doing what he could. Her arms were singing and her hips wild with little threads of joy running through her like little madnesses. After a year’s solitary confinement.
‘I’m out of practice,’ she said.
‘A girl like you.’ He didn’t believe it. Who would? She was twenty-eight and had skin like a peach and was a free woman with long rangy legs and thick, wild hair, the colour of autumn.

Ellen in appearance sounds rather like Edna herself, doesn’t she?

Her lover is a married man with kids, and another mistress called Miranda. Ellen is under no illusions, but after a night of passion, she does believe they will see each other again…

‘I suppose we’ll ring each other up,’ he said when she got out and stood on the kerb holding the door.
‘I suppose we will,’ she said. Wise now with the soft lustre of love upon her. Her eyes shining. They would meet soon and she would open again. The river of his being flowering into the pasture of her body. She was thinking of that when she got to the restaurant.

O’Brien is brilliant at using the world of nature for describing the joys of sex – while it’s all going well that is!

It’s a slack time at work, Ellen has some leave saved up, and feeling lonely after her encounter, decides to go to the south of France on the spur of the moment, with sun and sex on her mind. Every man she encounters gets the once over as a potential holiday romance. Her instincts aren’t always right though – the handsome Frenchman sitting next to her on the plane was looking forward to getting back to his wife and family in the mountains; the young hotel bell-boy gets the wrong end of the stick and makes a pass. With slightly less of a language barrier, will the Austrian violinist from the hotel orchestra be more the right thing?

‘And this,’ he asked, pointing to where her nipple lay, flat, under the flowered dress.
‘Nipple.’
‘Hot word,’ he said. It took her a minute to understand that he wanted not ordinary words, but erotic ones for wooing Englishwomen.

Soon though, she falls in with the entourage of an actor, and is courted by his manager Sidney, an older man. Hoping that the actor Bobby will eventually notice her, Ellen joins the party and is whirled into another world full of drama.

From this point on the book took on a distinct aura of Hemingway’s rich young things from The Sun also Rises – life is just drink, party, drink, get bored, drink, drive, drink, fight, drink, party, drink – you know the sort of thing; but also the failing relationships of Dick and Nicole Diver from Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.  There’s a timeless quality to this group’s exploits that echoes those earlier novels, and of course the Mediterranean setting reinforces it too – the sun and blue water acting as a reflecting and magnifying lens. I can’t tell you what happens after that. You’ll need to find that out for yourself – but it’s shocking on several levels.

Having become a mother while very young, Ellen’s release from the confines of single parenthood allow her to revert to her younger self and become a flirt. This, she enjoys at first, but as her holiday continues, it becomes something much darker, even an drug. O’Brien takes us into the mind of Ellen, from the frivolity of her lusty passions to the clarity of maturity that comes from having experienced the cycles of real life, and tinged with Catholic guilt. I really felt for Ellen.

This novel has so much light and shade – being racy and earthy, and full of the joys of love and nature, with some robust language, and then coming down to earth with a bump – becoming matter of fact and direct. I think I’ve found another author from the second half of the twentieth century to add to my list of greats.  Like Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark, O’Brien doesn’t waste words, or pad things out with long descriptive passages.  This novel may not have Beryl’s wicked humour, but it’s packed with romance and darkness and didn’t disappoint. Thanks to my mother too, I’ve got several more O’Briens to read. (9/10)

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I inherited this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brien. Pub 1965. Paperback, 169 pages.
Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises (Vintage Classics) by Ernest Hemingway
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald.

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones…

Pure by Andrew Miller
Initially I approached this book with some caution.  The only other Andrew Miller novel I’d read many years before was Ingenious Pain, and although I could see that it was a great novel, I did find it hard going at the time.  The premise of his latest though was so attractive, and by the second chapter I was hooked on this rather original historical novel.

Pure is set in 1785, shortly before the French Revolution.  Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young Norman engineer, hired by the King’s offices to oversee the cleansing of an overfilled Parisian cemetery, that is poisoning the earth and air all around it. The Minister, safely esconced at Versailles, outlines the job …

‘It stinks.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Some days I believe I can smell it from here.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers, but the king himself. The king and his ministers.
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is to be removed.’
‘Removed?’
‘Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Decent, habitable. Pure.’ ‘Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.’
‘And the … occupants, my lord?’
‘What occupants?’
‘The dead.’
‘Disposed of. Every last bone. It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness. …’

Nice job eh?  Jean-Baptiste heads off into Paris, where lodgings have been set up with a local family overlooking the cemetery. He soon makes friends with Armand, the church organist, and finds that everything smells better after a brandy or two. He contacts his colleague from his last job at the mines at Valenciennes – Lecoeur will bring a team of miners to Paris to dig out the cemetery.  Jeanne, the teenaged grand-daughter of the sexton will look after the men – indeed most of them grow to love her as their own daughter.

All is set and the excavation is underway.  Some doctors arrive, including one Dr Guillotin – yes!  He is there to examine the bones, but his presence will prove necessary on many occasions over the following months – injury, illness, attempted murder, rape, suicide – everything will happen to those involved on this job. But it’s not all bad, for Jean-Baptiste will also find love in an unexpected place.

The story is entirely that of Jean Baptiste – he is present on every page.  He’s conscientious, and good to his men, but can be persuaded to let his hair down occasionally.  The young engineer is a very likeable hero and an interesting young man. In between the gruelling work to reclaim the ground from the cemetery, we do get glimpses of the bustling markets and streets around the Les Halles area of Paris where the novel is set, and even radical murmurings. The historical detail is both rich and absolutely spot on.

The major business of the novel is the job in hand though.  In this respect, (with my tongue in my cheek slightly), it is the opposite of Ken Follett’s enjoyable blockbuster novel The Pillars of the Earth, in which a cathedral is built over generations rather, than removed in a year.  In both, however, the work is the star – and it was actually fascinating to read. 

I will have to re-read Ingenious Pain and catch up on others of Miller’s backlist – I do have most of them in the TBR, as I enjoyed Pure very much indeed.  This was a brilliant historical novel with literary nous, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it as a Booker longlist contender. (9/10)

For another view, see what Jackie at Farm Lane Books thought of it.

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My copy was provided by Amazon Vine.  
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Pureby Andrew Miller. Pub Sceptre, June 2011, Hardback 352 pages.
Ingenious Painby Andrew Miller
The Pillars of the Earthby Ken Follett