Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Year in Books: April

Finally I am up to date - just about!  This month's book is another I have listened to while knitting, Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope, superbly read by Timothy West.  Set in the fictional West of England county of Barsetshire, it evokes a different world, where the values and social rules were quite different to those of today.  Principally the book concerns the question of whether it is right to marry for money or whether it is better for an upper class young man to take up a profession to support himself.  Over the course of the novel it does become clear what Trollope's own views are through the language he uses, writing of the young hero, Frank Gresham, "selling himself" to save the family estate.

Anthony Trollope
As with many Victorian novels it is a slow affair and gently meanders through the story, which becomes part of its charm.  Despite this I did become utterly caught up in the story and ended up spending most of a whole day listening towards the end.  Trollope's characters are very real people, unlike the caricatures who people Dickens' novels (at least in my view) and he is keen to explain their motivations and that no one is entirely bad and no one entirely good.  In particular this novel (and others of his I have read) are peopled with strong female characters who are often the ones taking action while their menfolk vacillate.  I am particularly fond of the wealthy heiress Miss Dunstable, who cares little what people think and is as far as she can be her own woman, lively, funny and caring.  Without getting too Freudian it seems that Trollope's mother, a strong, lively woman who wrote novels and supported her family, had a big impact on his view of women.

Map of Barsetshire
I would heartily recommend the Barchester Chronicles - Doctor Thorne is the third in the series - to anyone interested in human life and wanting to escape to a different world while reading something well written.  However, should you be put off by the thought of audio books more than 20 hours long, or books of 544 pages (and I do not blame you in the least) the BBC made a superb dramatisation of all the Barchester Chronicles which is well worth a listen.  Audio books from Audible are, incidentally, far cheaper if bought using their credits system.  In the meantime I am making a start on the fourth novel in the series, Framley Parsonage.

You can see the other posts in this month's Year in Books here.

The Year in Books: March catch up

As I have not yet decided on April's book yet I thought I would write about March's book (well, books) first, maybe something someone else has written about will inspire me?  My March choice is Nella Last's diaries, published (so far) as Nella Last's War, Nella Last's Peace and Nella Last in the 1950s, which I have been listening to as audio books.  Nella Last was a housewife from Barrow in Furness, married to Will who ran a joinery and shop fitting business, who wrote for Mass Observation from 1939 until a year or two before her death in 1968.  Her diary is the longest and most complete record in Mass Observation at around 12 million words and covers every aspect of her life - her marriage, her sons, Arthur and Cliff, her neighbours, friends, relations, voluntary work, housework, politics, news, her love of the Lakes and many other subjects.

Nella Last
The first volume, dealing with the war, was of great historical interest and provided a clear picture of day to day life in wartime, the hardships, losses, absences and bombs (Barrow suffered as badly in the Blitz as London) but above all the emotional state of ordinary men and women through the war.  Nella's diaries allow us to see behind the positive images of wartime propaganda to the petty arguments between tired, emotionally strained women, the fear that was so pervasive and to the huge efforts people went to in order to persevere and overcome.  In many ways the war was a better time for Nella than the years beforehand, when she had had mental breakdowns in part caused by her husband, who wanted her to be at home alone with him all the time and whose own mental health was none too good.  During the war she had definite reasons for being out of the house and meeting people, volunteering with the Red Cross, the WVS and for the local hospital.  Notable among her war work was running a very successful Red Cross charity shop to raise money to send Red Cross parcels to POWs.  In the post war years she and other women she knew desperately missed these activities and she frequently comments on how she could feel the four walls of her house closing in on her and wonders how she is going to occupy herself.

As I have already mentioned, Nella's husband was not an easy man and she is frank about her marriage, her fears and frustrations.  Neither enjoyed particularly good health, from Nella's descriptions of her physical health I began to suspect that today she would probably have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but while Nella's response was to try to keep going and be involved in the world, her husband's was quite the opposite.  This created an enormous tension between them, however, Nella does not indulge in self pity and there is nothing maudlin about the diaries.  She was a woman of a great many interests, quite apart from her writing, and I particularly enjoyed hearing about the dolls and toys she made to sell for charity; her skill at sewing must have been quite something.  The diaries are also punctuated with details of her housekeeping, shopping for food and the meals she was cooking.  Since rationing was in force for much of the period of the diaries published so far Nella writes about the troubles of supply, fairness, quality and the need for ingenuity with meals.

Some of the finest writing comes when she is writing about her trips to the nearby Lake District, where she had grown up on her grandmother's farm.  She writes lyrically of the beauty of the Lakes and of how their peace helped her and her husband.  Throughout Nella's record of her relations, neighbours and friends is a delight; she has an ear for the interesting snippet of conversation.  As I listened I grew genuinely fond of Nella and was very sad when the diaries ended; I am hoping there will be further books published, fingers crossed!

You can see the other books in the Year in Books here.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Impatient Rester

The exertion of moving house and all the work it has entailed has knocked me for six; it is the worst ME crash in years and my word how impatient I am to be back on my feet!  I am so bored of resting, of aching with tiredness and having to say "no" to things I really want to do.  Days seem to float past, each one much alike and it is hard to keep from getting depressed by the situation.  Now I do know that compared to many people I am incredibly lucky to be able to so much, but somehow that is never enough is it?  I want to be getting stuck into church things, helping out, inviting people over, going places, exploring, making, gardening.  The gap between what I can do and what I want to do is vast, a canyon, so if I say, "yes" to something or suggest doing something, then have to pull out, that is why.  In terms of energy my eyes are bigger than my energy reserves.

I am trying to stay positive, to take each day as it comes, be grateful for what I have, for the peace and chance to recover, but I am human and do not find it easy.  Maybe my calling right now is just to be?

A new arrival is helping make this time of resting bearable, I have adopted a small black cat named Willow from a local shelter.  She is about six, affectionate, determined, funny, sweet and loving.  There is nothing she likes more than a lap for the afternoon, cuddles by the hour and will sit on me in such a way that I cannot do anything else except sit, which for someone who struggles to rest, is invaluable.  I wish I had had a cat years ago, they offer great companionship.  I look forward to getting up now so I can go downstairs to see her.


Perhaps I should write soon about what I have been knitting while I have been resting?  For now it is time to head back to the sofa.

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Year in Books - the first two months

Alas moving house has absorbed all the energy (and some) of the first three months of the year, so I am catching up on the first two months' books in one post, then I will do another post for March and April.  First off is January's book, which was The Country Life Cookery Book by Ambrose Heath, originally published in 1937 and republished last year by Persephone Books.  It is arranged seasonally around the months of the year, each month starting with a wonderful illustration by Eric Ravilious and a short guide to what to do that month in the kitchen garden.  Heath's intended audience seems to be the relatively affluent country-dweller, who relies on what is available in local village shops and in the kitchen garden; and it is assumed that both are well stocked.  With an increasing connection now being made between growing and cooking vegetables, for example in some of the books published by Nigel Slater and programmes such as Kew on a Plate, it is interesting to see a writer ahead of his time in his insistence that there should be a greater link between kitchen and garden.  In arguing for this he draws on the work Vegetable Cookery by a Mrs Elizabeth Lucas, who "offers the revolutionary theory that the gardener should be under the direction of the cook".  While most of us today lack both servants, but his remarks on the vegetables to grow (or buy) and eat are still relevant and useful.  Unlike many gardeners of his day he argues against going for size and large quantities of a few crops, in all things he is driven by taste.  This comes across in his recipes, he writes with almost greedy interest and definite conviction: one of my favourite lines comes at the end of a recipe for an apple pudding, "Bake until the top crust is brown and crisp, and eat it with gratitude."

The second book, for February, is a novel, A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Brae.  At risk of straying into cliché, I found this hard to put down and was utterly absorbed in its world.  However, it is one of those books that it is hard to review without giving too much away.  In short it deals with the effects of a tragedy on a Mormon family living in the North West of England and observes the events through the eyes of different members of the family in turn.  Throughout the family's faith both helps and hinders their grief and the novel explores the tensions of being a family living by different rules and beliefs to that of the community around them.  I rarely read modern fiction, generally having too much of the back catalogue to get through, but heard the short story the novel started off life as on the radio and needed to read the rest of the story.  It is beautifully written, cathartic (I did a fair amount of weeping), but not mawkish or depressing, do read it.

As ever you can see the other entries in The Year in Books here