Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Jane Howard’

Emilybooks of the year

December 23, 2015

As 2015 comes to a close, it’s time to look back at the books I’ve read over the year. And, of course, as I look back over the books, so I remember the circumstances in which they were read: grabbing half an hour on a park bench while Vita snoozed in her pushchair, snatching a few pages in the bath before falling asleep from exhaustion, sitting in a cafe round the corner from the nursery trying to distract myself from thinking about her ‘settling in’ a.k.a. screaming her head off. I suppose these are all rather fraught circumstances for reading, and so it’s to be expected that I’ve read and posted far less than I would have liked. But when I think that the lack of books has been due to an abundance of Vita, I don’t feel quite so sorry about it as I might do otherwise. Besides, at least I’ve got to read such delights as Peepo, The Tiger who Came to Tea, Meg and Mog and Lost and Found again, and again, and again.

The Fishermen by ObiomaWhile I may not have written about books on Emilybooks quite so much, I have at least been writing about them elsewhere. I adored Melissa Harrison’s nature-novel At Hawthorn Time, which I reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement, and I also enjoyed Lucy Beresford’s compelling novel about India, Invisible Threads, which I wrote about for The Spectator. I also read two books by Thomas Harding – Hanns and Rudolf, which I wrote about here, and his recent history of a house outside Berlin, The House by the Lake which I reviewed in the Christmas edition of The TLS here. (Quite a big piece!) I hope to have a review of Helen Simpson’s beautifully observed, funny and life-affirming new collection of short stories, Cockfosters, in The TLS early next year too. The best newly published book I read of the year was Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen – an extraordinary debut novel, with such a powerful mythic voice. I wrote about it when it first came out, and then was pleased as punch when it went on to be first longlisted and then shortlisted for The Booker Prize, hurrah!

The Good DoctorEmily’s Walking Book Club has become something of a reading lifeline to me. Knowing that I will read one good book a month and then talk about it with such clever, kind and interesting people while stomping across Hampstead Heath – while all thoughts of nappies and bottles etc. are blown away for an hour or so – has been invaluable. Particular highlights have been Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – a beautiful Persephone Book about a father searching for his missing son after the Second World War in France; Iris Murdoch’s The Bell about a load of endearing oddballs living beside an Abbey; The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – about life in a defunct hospital in the wilds of South Africa, and optimism versus cynicism, lies, race and gosh SO MUCH; and All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld –  a horrible book about a very damaged young woman and what she’s running away from, which is also horribly good.

A Christmas Party by Georgette HeyerFor our last walking book club of the year, we discussed Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party (originally published with the title Envious Casca), and it seemed at first to split people into two camps – those who loved it for all its silliness, and those who found it too silly to love. Within about ten minutes, we were comparing it to Downton Abbey, but our discussion then moved on to encompass Shakespeare, acting, family and much more and by the end of the walk we had all grown rather fond of the book and its cast of eccentric characters. It’s a vintage Christmas murder mystery, one of many which have been republished this year – I wrote about this publishing phenomenon and what it tells us about our reading habits (and ourselves!) for Intelligent Life here.

There have been other excellent older books that I discovered this year. Fred Uhlman’s Reunion – which takes about five minutes to read, only that five minutes will be one of the most intense five minutes of your life; Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years – sheer bliss for when you need something a little indulgent; Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown – ballsy and loud and inspiring; and The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, which was funny and brilliant and clever and actually made me hold my breath for an entire page and a The Uncommon Readerhalf. I also jumped on the Elena Ferrante bandwagon – is there actually anyone who reads, who hasn’t read her? – and read the first book in the Neapolitan quartet, My Brilliant Friend. It was brilliant, of course it was. I can’t quite place why though – Was it that the town was so well described, and the characters so recognisable? Was it that we all relate to the pain and the joy of that kind of intense unequal female friendship? I don’t know, I hope to read the rest of them in 2016, then think hard and then write about them altogether, but in the meantime the LRB bookshop has a podcast of a ‘Ferrante fever’ event which looks potentially illuminating – you can download it here. Also, I must urge everyone to read The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett over Christmas – it is a true delight, short, funny, life-affirming: all about The Queen discovering a love for reading. It will make you chortle while you sit there on the sofa groaning after too many mince pies, and apparently laughing is basically the same as exercise, so there you go, it’s a certain win.

the secrets of the wild wood by tonke dragtI shall skip through the two real disappointments of the year. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – the first and worst book of the year, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Booker Prize in 2014, which certainly wasn’t terrible, but it just wasn’t as good as all that, certainly not as good as Ali Smith’s How to be Both which was on the shortlist, and I suppose maybe I feel childishly cross about that. (Incidentally, Ali Smith has a fantastic new collection of short stories out this year too – Public Library.) Anyway, plenty of people disagree about both of these, so no doubt they are good books, just not good Emilybooks. Should you get stuck on a similar big long boring book, and find your reading slowing down as you begin to dread picking it up – JUST GIVE IT UP! Life’s too short. There are so many other better books you could be reading, rather than essentially not reading. To get back on track, I would suggest picking up a very addictive and exciting children’s book, such as one by Tonke Dragt: Pushkin published The Secrets of the Wild Wood this year and it is terrific – the husband adored it too.

Peking Picnic by Ann BridgeSo, fanfare please, what is my Emilybook of the Year, if I had to pick just one? A difficult choice, but I think I would have to opt for Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge, recently republished by Daunt Books. It is wonderful escapism, but has bite too – a dark edge that stops it being too airy and daft. Set in 1930s Peking, our heroine, the marvellous Laura Leroy suffers from acute ‘inhalfness’ – torn between the glamour of her life in China as a diplomat’s wife, while thinking about her children growing up without her in England. Though she seems wistful at first, she is in fact a dab hand at using a brick as a hammer, surprisingly realistic about love, and expert a cool head in a crisis, even a life-threatening one. Top heroine; top book!

 I wish you all a very happy Christmas and New Year. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these books, or indeed your own books of 2015, if you feel like commenting below. So, what will I be reading over Christmas? Alas I won’t be curling up by the fire with a Christmas murder mystery (though to be fair, I have just read half a dozen of them for the Intelligent Life article) … but I will be seeking help in civilising the ahem ‘spirited’ little one from Pamela Druckerman’s life-changing (let’s hope) parenting book French Children Don’t Throw Food. Wish me luck!

French Children Don't Throw Food

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The Light Years

February 9, 2015

I have become quite fervent in my pursuit of the ‘feed-read’; now I will not give in to Vita’s wails or body-twisting hints until I have my book, specs and a glass of water at the ready, and my telephone with its distracting flash of emails is well out-of-reach. As so much of my time is spent feeding, I decided that I might as well enjoy it, and while of course there are some feeds that must be discounted as too impractical for reading, eg. in the pitch black small hours, or on the bus, I can get nearly an hour of feed-read time a day, which is not bad at all.

So why so slow on the blog? Well, I have been busy organising this year’s Daunt Books Festival. There’s been a bit of a push in recent weeks to get the programmes out and line-up announced, but ta da here it is!

Daunt Festival 2015 pic

It goes without saying that I would adore to see you at the festival. Talks include such treats as Choosing Your Heroines with Samantha Ellis, Anne Sebba and Alex Clark; and Spies in Fact and Fiction with Charles Cumming, Christopher Andrew and James Naughtie; with speakers including Michael Palin, Antonia Fraser and Owen Jones; plus some jolly children’s talks, music recitals, and a special walking book club around Regent’s Park discussing Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. So come along, and come and say hello if you do!

The other reason for the delay is that it takes so much longer (well, twice as long) to type things one-handed. And, these days, everything is done one-handed.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardSo I am sorry to have delayed telling you all about the blissfully enjoyable book in which I’ve been ensconced: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Those of you of my age and older may well remember when the ‘Cazalet Chronicles’ were first published in the 1990s. I distinctly remember being on holiday in Devon in the late-nineties with my cousins. All the grown-ups were talking about how wonderful these books were, so I decided I would read them too. I was only about fourteen, so felt terribly precocious. And I was relieved to find that I too loved them. I remember particularly loving the way the children are so well imagined. Polly, Clary and Louise are all at that difficult age of eleven to fourteen and they all felt like different aspects of myself. These girls are given so much space in the book that I almost didn’t believe it was a book for adults.

It’s a series that has stuck with me, and when Elizabeth Jane Howard published a fifth volume towards the end of 2013, sadly not long before she died, I thought it might be the perfect excuse to revisit the originals. They are such thick chunky books though that it felt like too much of a treat. It would have been too much like only eating ice cream and meringues for a whole month. So I watched enviously as people, clearly addicted, came into the bookshop and bought up the various volumes over successive days.

Needless to say, when buying books to take on maternity leave, this was top of the list. At last, the perfect time to read it had come. Some other excellent times to read this rather indulgent series, or at least the first novel in the series, include: on holiday, on a very long journey, when feeling broke – you won’t want to go out if the alternative is reading this in the bath, and when waiting for the new series of Downton Abbey… For although in various interviews Elizabeth Jane Howard said her Cazalet characters are middle- not upper-class, they are a middle-class of the late thirties, which is rather different to that of today. They have staff; they have a family business which earns them plenty of money even though all they have to do is go out for lunch; the men belong to clubs; the boys all go to boarding school and the girls are educated at home; they say things like ‘gracious’ and ‘blast’ and everyone calls everyone else ‘darling’.

Briefly, this is a great family saga which follows the Cazalet family with all its domestic dramas during the Second World War. The Light Years is set during the summer holidays of 1937 and 1938, which are spent down at Home Place – the family pad in Sussex. The Brig and The Duchy rule the roost (though they are not paid that much authorial attention) then come their four children: the sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert – all of whom have married and have children of their own, and Rachel, the unmarried daughter who is in love with a woman.

I suppose reading it now – as opposed to when I was fourteen – I ought to be more fascinated by Howard’s portrayal of the various marriages. Philandering Edward and Villy, who gave up her career as a ballet dancer; Hugh and Sybil, who have a baby in the opening chunk of the book; and failing artist Rupert and Zoe – gosh Zoe, what a character! She has been bred solely for her beauty, is jealous of Rupert’s relationship with his children from his first marriage, and dreads having a baby:

Even if she didn’t die, her figure would be ruined: she would have flabby breasts with the nipples too large, like Villy and Sybil whom she had seen in their bathing suits, her waist would be thick and she would have those fearful stripes on her stomach and thighs – Sybil again; Villy seemed to have escaped that – and varicose veins – Villy, but not Sybil – and, of course, Rupert would no longer love her. He’d pretend to for a bit, she supposed, but she would know. Because the one thing she knew for certain was that her appearance was what people were interested in or cared about: she hadn’t anything else, really, to attract or keep anyone with.

See how clever and nuanced Howard is in her depiction of her characters! Zoe’s is a revealingly shallow and childish view of having a baby – we are encouraged to think how silly and pathetic she is, but Howard doesn’t let us get away with this. Instead, she sets up this interpretation only to undermine it by then encouraging our empathy. Poor Zoe, she reveals, cares so much about her appearance because she is aware that this is all she has. ‘The one thing she knew for certain was that her appearance was what people were interested in or cared about’. How terribly sad this is. How awful to have reached the age of twenty-two and feel that your appearance is the only thing you have, the only reason people like you. Zoe is an unsympathetic character, and yet Howard allows us to sympathise. It’s quite a feat, and one she pulls off with all of them.

So yes, the marriages are interesting, but for me – still – the real joy of this novel is in Howard’s conjuring of the children. It is unusual for children to be so well portrayed in adult novels – Penelope Fitzgerald does it brilliantly as does Ali Smith, but I can’t think of many authors who succeed. Howard delights in her children. We have Louise, Polly and Clary approaching adolescence, arguing fervently about books, wondering about what they want to be when they grow up, grumbling about parents, and indulging in the petty meannesses of ganging up and leaving each other out. And there is Simon, who is just surviving boarding school, and Teddy who dreads having to go; sensitive Christopher whose father is so horrid to him that he wants to run away; Angela who is becoming a young woman and has an all-encompassing crush on oblivious Rupert and silly but kind little Lydia and Neville.

Howard writes about each of them with the respect and understanding of their worries which adults so rarely give children. She captures perfectly the jumble of things, the lack of proportion in a child’s topsy turvy world. Polly, for instance, is shown to adore her cat, spends all her pocket money on bric-a-brac ‘for my house when I’m grown-up’, makes pots of ‘wonder cream’ out of egg white to sell to the unsuspecting servants, but has a real fear of the terribly adult prospect of war.

I loved every minute of reading The Light Years, but I think I’ll hold off the other Cazalet chronicles for now. It seems silly not just to give in to the heaven of all of them at once, but I feel the need to exercise some restraint. As I said, it would be like only eating ice cream and meringues for a month. The characters are well drawn, the world is perfectly created, it is, as the great Penelope Fitzgerald said, ‘a dazzling historical reconstruction’, but it is all SO delicious that I feel it can’t be good for me. Like ice cream and meringues. Heaven every now and then, but it is important to eat some vegetables too.