Today is the funeral of my lovely mum and so I will not be blogging for a bit and will be spending time with my sister, daughters and granddaughter over the next week or so. I will try and drop in but reviewing books is not my priority at the moment as I am sure you will understand. I am most grateful for all your kind thoughts and messages which I have received over the last ten days - over 70 comments left on my blog and so many sent to me privately as well, overwhelming and wonderful and you have no idea how much you have helped.
Worth saying right at the start of this post that the full title of this book by Juliet Gardiner is The Thirties: an Intimate History. If you are looking for a political polemic, though it lurks in the background, you will not find it here. It slots into the category of social and personal history, the kind I like, the kind I enjoyed in Demobbed by Alan Allport which I reviewed a few months ago. The history of daily life, events and those involved.
First thing to say is that this book is huge. It is nearly 1,000 pages so it is very long and far too much to take in all at once, hence the time it has been on my Current Reading list. I kept dipping into it a chapter at a time - read it straight through and you risk historical indigestion, a nibble here and there is much more enjoyable. The quality of writing and the staggering amount of research which has gone into this takes
one's breath away - I am full of admiration for anybody who can write a book, any book, but my mind boggles at the hard graft that has gone into The Thirties and which has produced such an outstanding work. One review says "From architecture to the
abdication, from zeppelins to zoos, it is comfortably the definitive
of a decade that has been much maligned, but which now looks like the
crucible in which modern Britain was born" which sums it up beautifully and much more succinctly than I am able to do.
It would be impossible for this reviewer to cover everything that I have read so I have picked out one plum, one section which I hunted out almost immediately and this was the fact that in 1936 England had three kings, George V, Edward VII and George VI.
I have always found the Abdication Crisis totally fascinating and since I was a teenager I have read just about every book or diary I could lay my hand on covering this period so wanted to see Juliet Gardiner's take on Edward and Mrs Simpson. I found nothing in this book which in any way made me change my opinion of this venal, lazy, selfish little man and his ghastly wife. The Duke of Windsor left his country without a backward look after managing to secure highly advantageous financial arrangements for his future, thought he could go into exile for a few years and then come back, thought he could 'manage Bertie' now the King, and seemed to have no idea of how his behaviour and actions appeared to the rest of the world. "We loved him. We would have drawn swords for him and then God, didn't he let us down" this from an officer in the Royal Fusiliers of which Edward had been Colonel in Chief. Another quote "the more one hears what really took place behind the scenes, the more thankful is that he decided to go - he was a dual personality, a mixture of much that was good and charming with much that was so rotten and unstable". Whilst the author presents the facts and tries hard not to let her opinions hold sway throughout this book, this reader feels that she was not exactly one of the Duke of Windsor's fans.
Juliet Gardiner's marvellous book covers the rise of fascism and communism, chapters on football pools, cricket and greyhound racing, nightclubs, unemployment and the shadow of war. It is immensely readable, reminded me in its accessibility and style of The Victorians by A N Wilson, another eminently absorbing book. These are not academic scholarly histories, but there is no lack of scholarship involved in their writing and they are engaging without talking down to a reader who may have no historical background at all.
A few years ago I heard Juliet Gardiner speak about her then book, Life in Britain during the Second World War, and her enthusiasm and zest for her subject made me purchase a copy - I found the same enjoyment in her writing now as I did then. Don't let the length of this book deter you from obtaining a copy, you have pages and pages of delight and interest to look forward to.
"In a book replete with treasures, everyone will find a special jewel" says the Times Literary Supplement.
I love opera. To me it is the perfect art form, it has everything - drama, passion, glorious singing, acting, death, murder, vengeance, love, sacrifice - each opera usually has an amalgam of these properties and if you add to that singers on top form then the entire experience is simply sensational. Doesn't always happen but the chance of a glorious performance is always lurking and when it happens, then there is nothing better.
So when I was asked if I would like a copy of The Maestro's Voice I said Oh yes please and when I started reading it in the middle of the night after one of my recently restless attempts at sleeping, it kept me awake until the sun rose. I then finally fell asleep but grabbed it again as soon as I could and did not put it down until finished.
Wow, what a simply terrific read. I knew nothing about the author but see from the press release that Roland Vernon was the winner of the inaugural Daily Mail First Novel Award (mem: must get hold of his first book now) and he himself used to be a professional musician so he knows what he is talking about when it comes to opera.
"New York 1926: Rocco Campobello, the great tenor, one of the most revered entertainers in the world, collapses on stage. He emerges from this brush a changed man: a fallen but enlightened colossus. Casting off the mantle of celebrity, he embarks on ajounrey into his dark and sinister past which takes him back to his impoverished early life and to the city that made him: Naples"
Rocco remembers his father who he abandoned when he became an opera star, he remembers his childhood friend and fellow singer, who he betrayed and also abandoned, a woman he had an affair with who he left and ignored when she told him she was expecting his child - he returns to Naples to make reparation for all his mistakes in his life and in so doing, finds himself at odds with his wife Molly whose life is totally wrapped up in his and whose identity and self esteem depends on her position as the consort of the most famous tenor in the world.
There are also darker forces at work - Mussolini is rising to power, Rocco's old friend and sponsor Don Graziana, in reality a high ranking member of the Family, moves against him when he learns that the
tenor has decided that his career is ended. This coincides with the return of his son Bruno, who hates Rocco for being favoured by his father and who is eager to take over his position.
Rocco meets the widow of his childhood friend who has a young,handsome and talented son with a tenor voice who he, in turn, takes under his wing and becomes his mentor. Rocco then finds himself falling in love with the widow......
My goodness me, I thought, this is a true operatic drama with dark forces and jealousy, love and hate all intertwined. The book's narrative moves at a positive operatic pace, each scene seemingly aching for an aria, a duet, a trio, a tenor singing an impassioned love song, an orchestra in full flow. On comes the evil enemy, a bass, has to be and dark cello chords in the orchestra. It is wonderfully done and the writing is also like a piece of music, it enthralls and grips and urges you on to the final conclusion.
The musical background and the life of an opera singer is fascinating.
All opera audiences, whether they will admit to it or not, are waiting
for a singer to fail - will the tenor reach his top C? Will he be as
good as he was in Trovatore in Rome last year? How much longer can his
career last? His voice is not as good as it used to be, his vibrato is
getting worse and so on and so forth. We are also pretty merciless
about all this - opera lovers are pretty unsympathetic on the whole - we
also tend to contrast a current singer with someone in the past,
someone much better (Oh you should have heard Callas do it my
dear....). The terror and hard work which all opera singers feel
and do is well hidden from the audience and the life they lead, which
appears glamorous to outsiders, is not so wonderful all the time. There
is hard, hard work and the knowledge that somebody is going to come
along and take your place as soon as you show signs of failure. So, It is in this context that we, the reader, feel the shock and horror of
Campobello's serious collapse with which the books opens and the panic
when it seems it may all be over.
I have said that this book moves forward like a four act opera and the final act is drama of the highest with the denouement taking place in the opera house itself with Campobello having to be the most cunning of them all to fool his enemies and to achieve his desire. (Thoughts of the ending of Godfather III came to mind when reading this section - that appalling ending is also in an opera house with the tension building up with the glorious music). By the time the reader reaches these final pages we are all with Campobello and we are willing him to defeat his enemies and emerge victorious.
And at the end, he realises what his talent has done to him:
"I tried to copy him but my father and I were different. He was master of his own soul. But me? My master was something else. I gave my life to the Voice, every ounce of me and so my soul withered away, a hollow little hell inside. With its own rats, eating away, spreading poison.......there's nothing left of me.....I have become an empty man"
Have a couple of posts half done and am trying to get them finished for posting on Random but my mind is a bit fuzzy at the moment. I am attaching a link to a really interesting article in the Telegraph a few days ago. Good to see that there are still these fascinating shops around. I am sure many did not make the list so if anybody has any favourites please post them here and I will write about them as well.
Content from the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph newspapers and
video from Telegraph TV.
Oh and for future reference and preparing for my Oz trip next year - do any Australian visitors know of any good second hand browsing bookshops in Sydney?? I am pretty certain that Random Readers will know...
The eagle eyed among you will have noticed that I have had The Thirties by Juliet Gardiner on my Current Reading list for some time. It is a huge book, door stopper size and impossible to take in at once. Indeed, I would be doing the author a disservice if I tried to, so have been reading chapters over a period of at least three months. Now, I am finally going to post about it and that will be up soon.
Must mention another terrific book which I have just started. Work up at 4 am last night, wide awake, mind churning around and knew it was useless trying to get back to sleep. So, light on, cup of tea made and started to read The Maestro's Voice by Roland Vernon. Story of an Italian tenor in the 1920s from Naples, shades of Caruso methinks, and it is simply terrific and am loving it. So hope to get that up soon as well. Just published and even before posting I can recommend it.
OK that is it for today folks. Off to do various melancholy jobs today and your thoughts and kind comments are really helping me to keep going, so once again - thank you all.
Have totally lost track of the days this week as everything seems topsy turvy. In the throes of all the paperwork and organisation that a loss entails which is keeping me busy but my head seems to have gone woolly and am finding it hard to concentrate.
Ok first of all - last week I reviewed Tarzan of the Apes, here and I have a spare copy to give away. I have rather lost track of this, for obvious reasons, but would just like to remind you that if you are interested please leave your name in the comments column on that post, or on this one, as I would love somebody to read and enjoy this as much as I did.
I went up to London yesterday to see my daughter and my granddaughter Florence and we had a lovely day and I came home feeling a bit better. We went out for lunch and sat in the park and the sun was shining and the skies were blue. The sunshine certainly lifts one spirit and sitting cuddling Florence and watching her have her bath also helped.
Then when I came home, a parcel from Bloomsbury with some great books in, so all in all, a better day. Next week will be difficult and so Random is definitely going to be Random for a while but will get back in the regular mode as soon as I can....not least because the books are piling up something chronic!
Well what can I say to you all save a huge THANK YOU for all the lovely messages left on Random and also many offblog which have been received. I am totally overwhelmed by such kindness and thoughtfulness and it has certainly helped me get through the last week. In the throes of organising everything at the moment and there is just so much to do and it is all totally exhausting. My sister has been here a week and has just gone home today, totally shattered, so I am now going to be quiet this evening and then tomorrow I am going to London to see my darling Florence and give her a cuddle. This visit had already been arranged and I was going to take my mother up to see her great granddaughter again but it was not to be. I am just so grateful that we had that lovely day together and have the pictures of the four generations which will be cherished forever.
Have been totally unable to concentrate on any reading as I am sure you can imagine and this has coincided with a burst of deliveries with parcels being delivered daily. If any publishers who have sent me books drop by and see Random then I hope you will understand and forgive me for a while. But, I need to read and have turned to old and familiar books to find something to make me forget all the upset and what have I alighted on? I pulled down the first Penguin omnibus of Mapp and Lucia by EF Benson and have just finished Queen Lucia, the first in the series, set in Riseholme before Lucia moves to Tilling and comes up against Mapp. Oh they are such gorgeous books and giggling at Georgino and his bibelots, Lucia and her husband, her Caro Sposo, her sighs as she finishes playing the Moonlight Sonata, the gossip, the backbiting etc etc. It is all quite wonderful and is just what I need at the moment.
Does anybody else have any favourite books they turn to in times of stress or sorrow? I would love to know.
She had a fall and was taken to hospital and really never got over the shock. Cannot imagine that I will never see her again or have her tell me off or boss me around and as the next few days are going to be busy and fraught, I am taking a break from posting for a while.
I am sure you will understand - all Random readers are lovely Readers after all - and will be back soon.
"On a steamer
passage from France to England in 1852, nineteen-year-old Theresa
Longworth met William Charles Yelverton, a soldier destined to
the Viscount Avonmore. A flirtation began that soon blossomed into
clandestine, epistolary affair, ranging from the shores of England
the battlefields of the Crimean War. Five years after their first
meeting they married secretly in Edinburgh, and then, at Theresa’s
urging, they married again that summer in Dublin—or did they?"
The first part of Wild Romance tracks the course of the romance using the letters between Theresa and Yelverton and it soons become clear that He is a Cad and a Bounder, but my modern reaction of silently yelling to Theresa 'Don't do it' is a waste of time - securing a husband and becoming a married woman in 1852 was every woman's goal. It also becomes clear that Yelverton is both unnerved by the progression of Theresa's passion for him, backing off when she pursues him and keeping his distance. When they do meet, however, and he finds a strong physical attraction for her, then the romance is on again, trailing off as soon as they are apart. This advancing and retreating goes on for some time and then finally they 'marry' in Edinburgh and then again, in a Catholic church, in Dublin. Yelverton then leaves her behind once more and Theresa then learns that he has married another woman.
See what I mean about a cad and a bounder? The trials that follow are sensational and eagerly followed in the press, at one stage ladies being asked to leave the courtroom when Yelverton gives his evidence as they deem it unfit for their ears. The men were allowed to stay.....
Much though I enjoyed reading the details and results of all the legal battles that followed, what is most interesting about Wild Romance is the attitude to women displayed during the cross examination and attitude of the barristers who regarded the fact that Theresa had had a 'French' upbringing and wrote assertive letters as evidence of her lack of femininity and womanly virtues. She also found that due to the muddled and ambiguous marriage laws, she had to take Yelverton to law on the strength of being an abandoned wife in order to force financial support from him.
"She decided instead to relinquish her position as the righteous wife and assume the mantle of the deserted wife. Women in this position were considered married but had slightly more legal recourse than the average married woman, particularly with respect to property disputes....abandoned wives often filed suits for restitution of conjugal rights that, if successful, mandated cohabitation and an allowance for the wife. Since the wife was entitled to interim alimony as soon as the petition was filed, financial security was often a primary motivation" Theresa's plan was that "she would re-enter respectable society not by demonstrating that Yelverton was her husband but by proving that, as her husband, he was responsible for her"
It is pretty clear that no matter what the outcome of this suit Theresa will never re-enter respectable society, her reputation will go before her and though the Irish courts found in her favour, the Scottish court did not. At this stage Yelverton vanishes from the scene, he remains married to his other wife for the rest of his life and they have children. Though Theresa was regarded as a heroine by the Irish and Yelverton the villain of the piece, Yelverton had a seemingly settled and happy life which was denied to Theresa. Shades here of Eliot's Daniel Deronda when Grandcourt abandoned his mistress Mrs Glasher and the children she had had by him in order to marry Gwendolen Harleth. While she suffered and was rejected by society "Mr Grandcourt, however, had no restrictions placed upon him and was free to seek and contract a suitable marriage. That he should have disentangled himself from that connection seemed only natural and desirable and no blame attached to him for this part in the seduction of Mrs Glasher"
It was ever thus....
Another novel which came to my mind when reading Wild Romance was Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope which tells the story of a deserted wife, left by a bigamous husband and the years spent pursuing her case in the courts and I wondered if Trollope had known of this case. It seems that Lady Anna was first published in serial form in 1874 so it would seem likely.
My point, which I know I am taking a long time to make, is that Theresa could never live the life of respectability she craved, no marriage for her and as she was a strong, interesting and brave woman she set off on a life of travel. She lead the independent life that the Suffragettes at the time were demanding, though she was never in sympathy with their cause, she lived her own life as she found it necessary without the realisation that perhaps she was setting an example as a independent ideal. I was full of admiration for her peregrinations: she went to America, Asia, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka writing about her travels, turning out two, not very well received, novels based on her marriage, and to my utter surprise I discovered that she tried to attach herself to the entourage of Empress Eugenie when she visited Africa to see the place where her son Louis had been attacked and speared to death by tribesman. By then a journalist, based in South Africa, she knew a good story when she saw one.
Ultimately, whether she admitted it or not, Theresa was a feminist, living and
working by her own endeavours and pursuits and I admired her enormously
even though she "would have settled for a world defined by her
However, I do think the title Wild Romance could be a trifle misleading, though it is a quote from one of Theresa's letters to Yelverton, and lead the browsing reader in a bookshop to think it is merely a romantic story when in fact it is so much more.
This is Chloe Schama's first book and pretty sure it will not be the last. Her writing is flowing and engaging and kept me totally engrossed. It is the kind of history I love best, the discovery of an event of which we know nothing and bringing it out into the light of day. I have said it before and will, no doubt, continue to do so - the reason that history is a surce of never ending fascination is the human stories that capture our imagination and enthrall.
This book surely must have given rise to the expression Pulp Fiction. It is wonderfully gloriously appallingly badly written, over the top, and cliche ridden and I have just sat and devoured it and loved every single word. I remember reading this in a tatty old paperback with a lurid cover when I was about 12 and thrilled to the idea of an Ape Man swinging through the trees and letting out THAT yell, but even then realised it was pretty dire. I will say, however, that the first part of the novel which is mainly narrative and which tells the story of Tarzan's upbringing is much better than the second when extra characters and dialogue are necessary.
No matter. Oxford University Press have just reprinted Tarzan of the Apes and reissued the first in the series, complete with pop art type cover and I have just finished reading it, giggling all the way through and yet somehow feeling a primeval thrill when Tarzan slings Jane across his shoulders and strides into the jungle with her after rescuing her from a fate worse than death...with an ape.
"Jane Porter - her lithe young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her eyes tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear and admiration - watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman - for her"
"He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned panting lips with kisses....and then Tarzan of the Apes did just what his first ancestor would have done. He took his woman in his arms and carried her into the jungle"
"As she watched him from beneath half closed lids, Tarzan crossed the little circular clearing towards the trees...she noted the graceful majesty of his carriage, the perfect symmetry of his magnificent figure and the poise of his well shaped head upon his broad shoulders. What a perfect creature! There could be naught of cruelty or baseness beneath that god like exterior"
Oh be still my beating heart!
Well this kind of story was meat and drink to the movie industry and for about thirty years we had Tarzan after Tarzan, the one thing they all had in common was that they couldn't act but they could grunt well, and they all looked wonderful, though looking at a selection of some of the pictures available, I detect the odd love handle here and there. Disney had a crack at it too though I gather his version was not particularly successful.
The one who seems to stick in my mind most is Johnny Weissmuller. He was an Olympic swimmer and cast for his physique rather than his acting skills which were minimal to say the least. Tarzan's cry which was Weissmuller's voice, obviously amplified, was used in all subsequent Tarzan films. Click on this link to see and hear this cry:
Of course everyone knows the story of Me Tarzan, You Jane, though it is seems this immortal phrase was made up by Hollywood, but this edition has a most interesting introduction and background discussion which engages in discussions of colonialism and 'manliness', class and upbringing. Tarzan could never be depicted as a total savage because we know he is really Lord Greystoke, a member of the aristocracy, and good breeding will out. The descriptions of the black natives portrays them as cannibals and savages with no redeeming features whatsoever, and the other black character, Esmeralda, Jane's servant is, to our modern eyes, cringe makingly serviant with the usual 'Lawd above and hates dat jungle' type of speech which really jars though at the time of writing it was deemed perfectly acceptable. When reading a book written at a certain period it is essential that we try to abandon our modern attitudes and immerse ourselves into the story in order to appreciate how it must have struck the reader when first published. And, despite the turgid prose and colonial attitudes, Tarzan of the Apes is still a lush, gorgeous, plain THRILLING story that sweeps you along. I had forgotten all about it and I have totally wallowed in it this morning.
Now, Oxford University Press are very generous people and keep me well supplied with a wide variety of books for which I am eternally grateful. And I have a copy of Tarzan of the Apes as a giveaway - have not had one for a while so if anybody would like this brand new edition then please leave your name in the comments section.
OK off to swing through the trees and put the kettle on....
First of all I have Simon of Stuck in a Book to thank for the very clever title for this post. The subject of this particular bit of blogging arose from a discussion I had with Simon and other members of my on line reading group and I decided to expand on Random. I asked him if I could pinch his subject line to use for this post and he said Of Course. Thank you Simon....
So what were we discussing? Books written in the present tense.
Now I don't know about you but I find this a real turn off. My reaction to finding a book is written in this way is to groan and cast to one side. I am aware that this is a very shortsighted reaction and I could be missing out on a masterwork but I just find it hard to read a book in the present tense. A former member of my reading group, a writer, said that publishers leaned heavily on authors to put their prose into the present tense. Why? My theory is that I think
publishers labour under the misapprehension that present tense is 'cool'
or 'fashionable' and also I feel (and do shoot me down on this if you think I am totally wrong) that you are more likely to find the present tense employed in contemporary fiction, or fiction
which is aiming at a Booker/Orange/Costa lists. Or am I being
cynical? I feel the use of the present tense is to try and make the writing and the sentences more elliptical and 'meaningful', edgy and hard hitting.
I am currently reading Wolf Hall by HIlary Mantel which, as we all know, was the last winner of the Booker Prize and having overcome my Booker prejudice and bought a copy, found to my utter dismay that it was in the present tense. My reaction was to put it to one side, but then having heard not only from the critics but friends and fellow readers and bloggers what a terrific book it was, I told myself to have another crack at it. Glad I did because I am now totally absorbed and am loving it. I am into the rhythm of the writing and it flows beautifully.
A novel I read a couple of years ago and about which I raved for weeks was Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower (see one of my reviews here), a novel all about the Bayeux Tapestry which I find riveting from beginning to end and that, too, was written in the present tense. Both of these books are historical and I don't think that is a coincidence - obviously they are character driven but because there is so much background and historical description the rhythm of the present tense seemed to fit. Don't ask me to explain why, I can't.
The other day I received a book from a publisher, opened it and found, yes it was in the present tense. This book, in my humble opinion, proves the point I made earlier in this post - trying very hard to be edgy and cool. Here is an example of the writing:
"The garden waits.. the trees wait. The seagull waits. And then just as
if this is a stage play and there is an audience watching from the dark,
there are voices. Noises off. The back door is slammed and someone
She is twenty one soon to be twenty two. She is wearing a blue cotton
dress with red buttons....she is marching across the patio....she
stamps across the lawn. She doesn't notice the seagull, she doesn't
notice the trees blah blah blah blah
Now put this in the past tense:
"The garden waited....the trees waited. The seagull waited.......she was twenty one soon to be twenty two. She was wearing a blue cotton dress with red buttons. She marched across the patio. She stamped across the lawn and so on and so on.
Explain to me why the first one is preferable to the second version. Not that it matters as I found this prose to be tortuous and no matter what tense it is in, poor writing. I stress once more that this is my own opinion only and feel free to disagree with me.
So I found this particular title to be unreadable and yet the books by Sarah Bower and Wolf Hall totally readable even though they are in the present tense. The difference? Well, the difference between good and bad writing. No matter how you write if the standard and quality of authorship is good then the tense does not matter. Poor quality writing and you could write in the present, past and future and it would make no difference at all - it would still be bad.
OK so I look forward to comments from you all on the above. Whether you agree or violently disagree with me, how you feel about the tense a novel is written in or if you think I am being reactionary.