Few Eggs and No Oranges

I’ve been looking forward to Persephone Reading Week for a while, especially having recently heard a friend describe, in great animation, a talk that Nicola Beauman gave at Newnham College. Her description of the talk gave a new bite to Persephone Reading Week. I blithely started Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45 before I realized that I had been oblivious to the details, and it was in fact Persephone Reading Weekend. A 600 page book was perhaps not the most sensible choice, then.

On first starting the book, I remarked to a friend that it seemed all the author ever did was wander about various bombed out streets inspecting the damage. But I’m glad I stuck with it, because I ended by finding the diaries absorbing, and Hodgson’s attempts to keep track of the changing face of London to be extremely moving.

Vere Hodgson wrote the diaries to send to her cousin Lucy, who spent the war in British Rhodesia. I was initially surprised by her reporting, almost clinical tone, expecting something more personal. It felt a bit like reading bulletins. To flesh it out a bit, I tried to match Hodgson’s entries with news events of the day, so I could see to what she was referring. I used Google Maps to see her route to and from the Sanctuary, especially considering how often she had to make that journey during the middle of the night, and sometimes at a run; and I was delighted to discover that the police station that was opposite her little flat is still there. I heard Princess Elizabeth’s first radio address to the nation (“such a sweet voice”) and listened to Churchill’s ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat‘ speech along with her. But as the war went on and Hodgson’s voice became more assured, I felt drawn into the sweep of her days and no longer needed to look outside her diaries.

I so wish I had known of these diaries when studying the war in school and college. These, and other diaries collected, should be required reading alongside textbooks. While they do present only one version of the home front, and one of fairly comfortable circumstances at that, what they show is the daily challenges and delights, something textbooks can’t do. It never occurred to me how difficult it must have been to sit exams at the time, in unheated and dimly lit rooms, constantly wondering if there would be an air raid interruption. Or, in addition to the dwindling clothing/fabric/wool, how hard it must have been to try to replace crockery, rain boots, and other daily essentials. And they point out how aware people were of failures: of the efforts at the front and battles lost, of what was actually happening in concentration camps, and of the failures of the government and safety efforts. Hodgson quietly reports shelters that were hit throughout her diaries, but she’s not able to conceal her emotion when recounting the bombing of a school, almost as if she’s trying to write her way to some kind of understanding of the horror:

Wednesday, we had a daylight raid. Loud round here, but we did not realize the devils had done such awful damage until later in the day, when rumours trickled through that a school had been hit, with great loss of life. A bad business. Six raiders snooped into London. Not realized where they were making for, so no alarm given. Thus the School had no chance to get the children to the Shelters. Seems to have been at Grove Park, where 150 little girls were assembled for lunch – and the centre of the building caved in. Other bombs outside killing people. A dreadful scene. Every kind of help raced to the spot – great cranes to lift masonry. They say 40 little girls were killed outright, and six of the staff. All to be buried together on Monday. Rescuers worked all through the night, though Warning went – frantic parents joined in the search. The school was a tall building, and the bomb went straight through. For those who died they never knew what struck them…It is difficult to see the reason for these things.

The diaries are remarkable for the fact that Hodgson, while clearly aware about the very real danger she faced every day, managed to create a full  and interesting life for herself in wartime, and one brimming with adventure and friendship. She was constantly on the go, volunteering for first-aid courses or anything where she could help out. She took in friends, befriended pets, helped out family members, braved nighttime raids to go to the theatre, read the latest books, stood in line for rapidly diminishing rations, and generally faced the constantly shifting landscape of her life with extraordinary cheerfulness. She found happiness in cups of tea after a cold walk, a Pepys reading on the radio, and the occasional treat of a longed-for food gift. From June of 1944, after years of rationing…

Lucy’s butter is excellent. We are almost afraid to eat it. Auntie Nell puts hers out on a special plate. She urged me on – but we both gaze at it with awe, and dig in our knives gingerly in case it turns out to be a mirage on the table.

I felt especially lucky this weekend as I read, enjoying my fresh orange juice and buttery toast. Not just for my safety and  unrationed food/books, but that there were people like Vere Hodgson who made it possible for me to get a glimpse of a remarkable time.

Christmas 1940

Reading Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges last night for Persephone Reading Weekend, I was struck by a comment she made in one of her entries:

Sunday 22nd…Guns are working away outside. Observer is very emphatic for us to watch for invasion this Christmas.

My inner-geek squeed. Someone at the Observer had a friend in Torchwood.

Ahem. Back with something more substantial to say about the book shortly.


Thank you for all your good wishes on my new job. It’s no longer new, but rather newish. There are still days where I feel boggled, but I’m slowly settling in. I’m definitely enjoying the perks of the job. I keep spotting books I want to read and, with my new powers of librarianship, can magically and instantaneously check them out to myself. Dangerous!

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is a perfect example of this. I spotted it from my desk in the children’s library and, after casting interested glances, I ended up taking it back to my desk and checking it out. A graphic novel about an Orthodox Jewish girl who wants to be a dragon-slayer. Who could pass that up?

And it’s a wonderful book. Mirka is 11 and not remotely interested in finding a husband or pursuing any of the feminine accomplishments her stepmother tries to teach her, such as knitting. She doesn’t want to knit, but to slay dragons and have adventures. One day, having stolen an enormous grape from the house of a witch, Mirka finds herself confronting a talking pig, one full of wrath and vengeance. The pig eats her homework, pursues her on her way home from school, and generally gets her into trouble whenever it can. When Mirka has finally had enough, she lassoes the pig and tries to get it to leave her alone. He refuses, and they engage in an epic battle of wills. Mirka wins, leaving the pig behind, but finds the next day that he’s been captured by a group of hateful boys. When she runs them off and saves the pig, the witch who owned the magical house, appears and offers Mirka instructions to find a dragon-slaying sword. To win the sword, Mirka must not fight off a dragon but a troll. And what’s more, the battle is not with swords, but with knitting needles. It’s a knit-off for her life or the sword!

The plot line alone would guarantee that I’d like this book, but I loved it because of the perfectly drawn characters. And I do use that word in both its meanings, because Mirka is delightfully real both in terms of character and in the way she’s presented in the drawings. She is cross and argumentative, brave and dim, and alternates between being full of love and irritation with her family. There’s usually a moment in reading when a character I’m enjoying in a book becomes a character I love. In this book, it’s when Mirka is struggling with fractions and, trying to understand them in terms of cake to feed a certain number of people, her daydreamed solution is to whack the head off one of the people, leaving a tidy answer and perfect quantity of cake.

The other wonderful character to emerge is Mirka’s stepmother Fruma. She is an equally beguiling mix of odd and delightful, teaching knitting and argumentation at the same time, preparing Mirka for every situation that might come her way.

It’s a wonderful book – funny and genuine and full of Yiddish phrases and loving family members. And knitting trolls. Seriously…what’s not to like?

Chalet School and a New Year

I was going to be very efficient this Christmas holiday and finish my library books. I ended up indulging in a massive Chalet School reread instead. Bliss!

I’m a latecomer to the Chalet stories, only starting to collect them last January. They’re not well-known on this side of the Atlantic, but between Alibris and lovely friends who’ve sent me copies from the UK and the Bahamas, I’ve managed to amass just enough to fuel a steady obsession. I think a break from the Tiernsee is in order, however, as I spent far too long last night drafting my own Chalet book, one in which murder played a very large part.

I started this blog about 18 months ago, when I’d been laid off and found myself going a bit bonkers. Today I received an email from WordPress, showing a brief statistical breakdown for the year and where most of my readers come from (Simon and Rachel’s blogs mostly, so thanks you two). One of the things that really stuck out was how infrequently I actually posted in 2010. I read a lot, and I follow a fair number of book blogs, but don’t seem to pay much attention to my own. I’m averaging roughly one post for every 10-15 books I read. It made me pause and think about why I have this blog. I’m still not sure exactly what I’m doing here (in blogland, I mean…although the larger Here is also a bit fuzzy at times), but I like this spot and plan to muddle along for a bit longer. The content may change a bit – I tend not to post about books I read for my own research, and since I’m fundamentally lazy, I’ve even considered merging my knitting blog with this one so I only have one log-in.

I may not be around quite as much the next few weeks, though, as I got the best Christmas present ever and start my new job tomorrow. I’ll be working at a library, however, so I won’t be hurting for new blog material. I may even be let in on the secret of “librarian review”, that black hole where all the new fiction disappears.

Anyway, thank you for visiting my blog this past year. It’s been lovely, and I’m wishing all of you a very happy 2011.

Try Anything Twice

The other day I found myself missing a few books I’d boxed up, so I drove over to my storage unit and dug happily amongst my books until I found them. Two of the books I brought home are Mrs. Miniver, which I like to reread every year around this time, and Jan Struther’s collection of sketches, Try Anything Twice. Both books are delightful and, more than that, shareable. I can’t read either without wanting to share selections with friends. And so here is a snippet from a school visit to her son. If you can’t find a copy locally, you can read the whole book online here.

After lunch you drive out to the school. In the distance you catch sight of a small figure in grey shorts and a grey felt hat sitting on one of the gate-posts.

“There he is!” you exclaim, and begin waving wildly. The figure on the gate-post takes no notice at all, and as you draw near you perceive that he has sandy hair, pale blue eyes and rabbity teeth. Disconcerted, but hoping that your gestures may have been mistaken for road signals, you sweep past him up the drive. Round the front door there clusters excitedly a shoal of grey sardines. At this point, by all the rules of art and literature, a magical current of mother-love should flash instantaneously between you and your child, enabling you to pick him out in a moment. But instinct, as so often happens, lets you down, and it is really quite a long time before you can discover under which particular dome of grey felt your son’s face is concealed. Even when you have done so you are in a quandary. Your inclination is to kiss it, but you have heard dark rumours that this is not done. Like a parvenu confronted with asparagus you glance furtively around you. Other parents are now arriving thick and fast; with a swift gull-like movement each of them swoops down upon its appropriate sardine, and in nearly every case there is an unmistakable kiss. Times must have changed, you reflect gratefully, surrendering to inclination and hugging your own sardine.

Throughout the afternoon he sits wedged between you on a garden seat, watching the match with unflagging seriousness. You yourself are more occupied with watching him; he is close beside you, yet a thousand miles away; he is still living in an alien world. “Played!” he says at intervals; and “Oh bad luck!” dutifully, when somebody misses a catch; and once he calls his father “Sir” by mistake, and does not notice it. Only twice during the afternoon does he make any remark unconnected with the game. The first time is when an immensely fat boy of about twelve walks past.

“I bet you don’t know what his nickname is.”






“My gosh!” he exclaims respectfully, “However did you guess?”

He is still a little remote to begin with, a little inclined to answer ever inquiry with an automatic “Yes, thank you, Mummy”; but he soon becomes perfectly at his ease. Leaning back against a sand-dune, you try to look at him dispassionately. He is certainly much plumper and browner than he was six weeks ago; his manners have improved and he is more independent; he is, in fact, a very nice little boy of nine: and if his chief interest in life seems to be food and his small-talk consists entirely of age-old riddles and verbal catches–well, little boys of nine are like that, and you may as well accept the fact. And if you once thought that he was something a little out of the ordinary, that he had imagination, that you could talk to him as though he was a contemporary, then you were deceived, the victim of a wish-fulfilment; and a good thing too, you reflect, or he would be having a bad time of it at school.

At this point you notice that he has stopped chewing and is gazing curiously at the half-eaten jam-puff in his hand.

“What’s wrong?” you ask. “Isn’t it a good one?”

“Mm,” he replied, “But I was just wondering, Do you ever think things aren’t really there at all–only inside your mind?”

“Good Lord! Have they been teaching you about Bishop Berkeley already?”

“No. But I asked Rupert Smith-Twissington that once, and he said he’d often thought of it too.”

Baffled again. Inscrutable, delightful sardine.

Jill’s Gymkhana

Despite being a book-obsessed child, I was never very interested in animal stories.  My mother was horse-mad as a child, and although she passed down her horsey books, I just couldn’t muster any kind of enthusiasm. Even after moving to Texas and learning to ride horses, I still ignored any series that included ponies on the cover.

This may be about to change, though. Earlier in the summer, two friends sent me a box of wonderful books, including Jill’s Gymkhana. I knew of Ruby Ferguson from the Persephone catalog, but I’d never read any of her books. I’m delighted that this was my introduction to her works.

Jill Crewe is the only child of a widowed mother, who has recently moved to a new village. She falls in love with a neglected pony, Black Boy, who belongs to a neighboring farmer, and decides to buy him. But because money is scarce, Jill has to figure out how to ride him and take care of him on her own. Fortunately, Jill is surrounded by kind neighbors and, with a bit of work and perseverance, she learns to ride and care for Black Boy. She also makes friends and eventually realizes her dream of competing in a gymkhana.

Jill is a delightful creature – very natural and frequently funny. She has no time for her mother’s fanciful books, and has some scathing opinions on her cousin Cecila’s love of school stories (Angela Brazil’s books come in for a bit of a beating, here). When she does read, she prefers books about ponies, but she’s an outdoor creature, happiest when out riding or camping with other horsey friends. In real life, I’d probably be tempted to string her up by her jodhpurs, but she’s a wonderful character.

Fidra Books has published the first two Jill books, and hopefully will publish the others. Now I just have to hunt down a copy of A Stable for Jill on this side of the Atlantic!

More Deep Valley

I know I’ve waxed on before about how much I love the Betsy-Tacy books, and how excited I was that Harper Perennial has reissuing the series, but I’m even more excited that they’ve recently republished the three stand-alone books that accompany the series. All three books – Winona’s Pony Cart/Carney’s House Party (bound together) and Emily of Deep Valley – can be read without having any familiarity with the Betsy-Tacy canon, but for those who are familiar with the world of Deep Valley, the books are teeming with beloved characters and places from the original series.

Winona’s Pony Cart is the only title among the recently reissued that features one of the characters as a child. (This one really should be read with the first four books: Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown). It features Winona Root, Betsy’s irrepressibly messy and boisterous classmate. The book centers around Winona’s birthday, her desire both for a pony and to please her delicate mother, who wants her to be more like her ladylike sisters. In the end, Winona gets a pony (of sorts) and Winona’s mother learns a bit about her generous daughter.

Carney’s House Party, set roughly between Betsy and Joe and Betsy and the Great World, features Caroline Sibley back from Vassar College for the summer. She has returned for the vacation with her glamorous and wealthy Eastern roommate, Isobel, and a house party forms when Carney’s best friend, Bonnie, returns from Paris. There’s an extra surprise when former members of the Crowd show up, and Carney finally has to make the decision between her past and the future.

Rereading this for the first time in a few years, I was struck by how Lovelace placed so much importance on Carney’s opportunities at Vassar. Unlike Betsy, who always wanted to be an author and to work for a living, Carney was always very upfront about wanting to be married and a housewife. In spite of this, Lovelace shows that Carney’s college experience is a rare gift, and one many other girls might want to emulate.

But I have to admit, Emily of Deep Valley has always been my favorite book. Unlike all the other books, Emily is not one of the Crowd, and although Cab, Betsy, Alice, and Winona make a brief appearance, Emily spends most of the book on her own. Unlike the fun-loving and sociable Ray household, Emily is an orphan who lives with her grandfather, a Civil War veteran, at the edge of the slough. Separated physically from the town of Deep Valley, she’s also excluded in other ways, unable to go to college so she can stay home and take care of her family.

After her friends all go away, Emily finds herself slipping into a depression, living vicariously through letters from friends and visiting her old high school haunts. When she realizes what she’s doing, and how other people pity her, she finds the inspiration to “muster her wits and stand in her own defense”.  Determined to create a life for herself, even if it’s not the one she had wanted, Emily fills her days with books, music lessons, reading to her grandfather, and befriending the Syrian boys who play near the slough. She ends up discovering not just a better life for herself, but that she doesn’t have to go to college to educate herself. Although she can’t study sociology, like Jane Addams, her work and friendship with the Syrian children results in a better understanding in the community, and the formation of English language classes.

As with all her other books, Emily Webster is based on a real friend, in this case, Marguerite Marsh. It was a wonderful thing to read the afterword and discover that Emily/Marguerite not only managed to get out of Deep Valley, but she served in France as a volunteer during WWI.

Sand in My Shoes

I’ve always been fascinated by history. As a child, it was one of my favorite subjects in school, and eventually became one of my majors at university. What intrigued me then, and still pulls me in today, is the social history of a time. It’s hard to get enthused about facts and battles, winners and losers, especially knowing how much of what is recorded is frequently the most enormous twaddle. But there’s something very moving about reading a first-hand account of someone who lived through an interesting moment in time, who recorded something of history as they lived it, with all their own weaknesses, victories, and personal stories mixed in.

Sand in My Shoes, the wartime diaries of Joan Rice, is a good example of that. There’s very little about battles and almost nothing of the political whirlpool that was the second world war, but instead, it offers a fascinating, and frequently funny, glimpse into how an ordinary middle-class girl became a WAAF and ended the war in the Middle East.

Joan Rice was 19 when war was declared, and already bored of her comfortable and routine life as a shorthand typist for Shell Oil. When the call went out for women, she was more than ready to sign up. She opened her wartime journal with the following statement: “I’ll explain my reasons for joining. Firstly, doing one’s bit. I suppose that’s there, though it doesn’t seem particularly in evidence at the moment. Secondly, this life will get me away from home, make me adult and independent. Thirdly, it’s a change and adventure. Fourthly and at the present most strongly, I want to swank around in a uniform.”

…and that statement pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the journal. Above all, Joan Rice was a young woman, and her journal reflects that. She works towards helping the war, she deals (pragmatically and patiently) with the unpleasant aspects of multiple moves, difficult billetings, and frequent air raids and nights spent in bomb shelters.

But while her world was shaped by the war, she managed to create for herself temporary homes, friendships with both men and women, and a sense of fun and adventure. Not content with just watching the planes leave the ground, she managed to get herself in a plane, loving the adventure and thrill of the Spitfires. She worked all day, studied for advancement within the WAAFs, and then spent a good part of the night partying with friends and various young men. It felt, at times, as though she were whirling through a bewildering number of relationships, something that became even more poignant when one thinks how little time she had to get to know people before they disappeared from her life.

After a miserable day with an aching head, Molly said to me, ‘Joan, isn’t it dreadful, one of the men in Accounts told me today that seven of 504’s officers have been killed since they left here.’ Seven of them: that’s nearly all of the officers. It made me sick with shock.

I went to play hockey after but I could only look up at the red beauty of the sky and remember the fortnight they were here. It’s the wicked, pointless dreadfulness of their deaths; they haven’t had any life at all. Old people dying isn’t so dreadful, but they had a right to years of living, to homes and wives and families and peaceful, lasting, solid days. How can any of them be blamed for their ruthless living, their desperate cramming of every sensation into hours when, instead of the gentle years, they have only the rushing days?

Joan advances through the ranks, ending up at Danesfield House, where she was trained in photographic surveying intelligence before willing accepting a transfer to the Middle East.

The last third of the book didn’t interest me quite as much, because Joan’s diaries became far more about her romances, and by that time I’d given up trying to figure out which man would eventually succeed. It also felt like nobody actually did anything other than go sight-seeing, get sick in the unfamiliar climate, and woo and be wooed. But it’s still interesting, especially in how war-weary they’d all become, not fazed in the slightest by the bombing of Cairo and their steadfast refusal to let the war get in the way of picnics and, later, trips to the beach when they could get off work.

It was a pleasant surprise at the end of the diaries to find an afterward by Joan’s granddaughter, the author Eva Rice, who penned one of my favorite modern hot water bottle books, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. She was the one who found a publisher for the diaries, and she understood that readers would respond to the ordinary as well as the extraordinary in this one woman’s life.

When I spoke to my grandmother about what she had written, she said that she couldn’t believe how much time she had spent talking about boys and parties, considering what was going on in the world around her. I said that those were the bits I liked the most. It was comforting, and hilarious and important, I felt, to know that even during the war, girls were worrying about how they looked when boys – or, rather, airmen – talked to them or where the next dance would be. This was the startling thing about the diaries – how like mine they were! For my generation, it is difficult to imagine what living through the war was like, yet somehow I feel that I learned more about it through these diaries than I could have done through any number of documentaries, or museums, or artefacts, or biographies. I had always pictured women during the war ‘getting on with it back home’, living a sober existence in black and white. When I finished the diaries, the young girls she wrote of seemed to dance of the pages, in all colours.

Not for me

Last Thursday my sister called to say that my baby nephew was ill and asked if I would watch him while she ran to the store for medicine and groceries. I held the cranky little guy while she ran errands and, as a thank you, he sent a few germs home to play with me. I never bother to get a flu shot because I never get the flu. Guess what…felled by a 16 pound gigglewart.  I’ve spent the past few days feeling like death on a stick. I pushed it a bit by trying to go out today (followed by a rapid retreat home), but I’m feeling better and have even paid off my sister by trouncing her at a few games of Scrabble online.

I also reread Alan Bradley’s The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. I should admit up-front that I was not overly impressed with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I’d heard such high praise of the book that I’d used the last of my book tokens to order it, only to end up disappointed. It wasn’t a bad book, and Flavia and her chemistry lab have their own kind of charm, but I felt it was massively overhyped. In fact, the only part of the book that really seemed promising was the relationship between Flavia and her two sisters. I really want to like these books – I don’t want to be Charlie Brown standing alone in the corner at the party – and if nothing else, I’d love to have a new series to look forward to reading. But having read the sequel twice now, I have to say that the sisters’ relationship is still the only truly appealing aspect of the books. There were yet more eccentric relations and characters, and at one point I fully expected Aunt Ada Doom to drop in; Flavia is still only mildly interesting as a narrator; but mostly, I’d just stopped caring whodunit by the end of the book. I like Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne), and feel their acidic wit deserves more. I kind of want them to bump Flavia on the noggin, steal her bike, and ride off into a better story.

Penguins and pipes

I’ve been a fan of Penguin paperbacks since my grandfather first handed me his slightly battered copy of Three Men in a Boat, which still has the faintest whiff of his pipe tobacco lingering about the pages. I scour used bookstores for that distinctive orange, eschewing more recent editions for the crumbly pages and pocket-slippability of the older ones. I’ve been wistfully eying Penguin’s beautiful box of postcards for awhile now, so when they showed up at one of my favorite stores, my birthday tokens didn’t stand a chance. Now I have to decide which to keep and which to send to friends!

I definitely owe one to the good friend who recommended I read Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution. I hadn’t heard of it before, but was intrigued by the premise: a once-famous pipe-smoking detective, now retired, encounters a mute German orphan who has escaped from Nazi Germany with only a rare African parrot that speaks in puzzles. It proved both impossible to resist or to put down, and the only complaint I have is that it’s only about 130 pages. The famous detective has retired, with his pipe and his tweedy coat, to raise bees in relative peace. It’s a delightful detail, both unexpected and somehow beautifully fitting.

The bees did speak to him, after a fashion. The featureless drone, the sonic blank that others heard was to him a shifting narrative, rich, inflected, variable, and distinct as the separate stones of a featureless gray shingle, and he moved along the sound, tending to his hives like a beachcomber, stooped and marveling…No stabbing, garrotings, beatings, shootings; almost no violence at all, apart from the occasional regicide. All of the death in the city of bees had been schedules, provided for, tens of millions of years ago; each death as it occurred was translated, efficiently and immediately, into more life for the hive.

What stands out is not the fate of the stolen parrot or even the mysterious numbers it keeps spitting out, but rather Chabon’s crabby, exhausted, and still astute detective. It’s an affectionate, unsentimental portrayal of a brilliant mind slowly dimming.