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.

…and on we go

I am completely moved, lock stock and two fat kitties. I have been moved for over a month now, so there’s really no excuse for my shameful lack of posting except that I was enjoying myself reading books instead. The local library here is lovely, although more for the view of beautiful water and trails outside than for the content of their catalog. I also renewed my university alumni library card, with strict instructions to myself to return the books on time (eh, it’s worth a try). So, with library books and the 80 or so titles I managed to smuggle over to my mother’s house, I’m set for awhile.

I meant to start out with Jane Duncan’s Reachfar series, of which I am more than a little obsessed, but first comes At Boarding School with the Tucker Twins, because a friend is itching to borrow it.

This is the first of the Tucker Twins series by Nell Speed, who also wrote the Molly Brown books which I am so fond of. While interesting, this book is not of the same caliber. It follows Page Allison who, like Molly Brown, is also from the south. She and her physician father live alone, looked after by black servants including Mammy Susan, who is the archetypal mammy figure. Page’s older cousin Sue, who was a belle in her day but spurned marriage to work as a librarian for the Congressional Library (lovely detail), decides that 15 year old Page needs more education and to be among girls her own age. So Page writes away for a prospectus and heads off to boarding school.

Sadly, like most American boarding school or school books of the time, there’s very little about the school itself. The book is mostly concerned with the friendship between Page and the twins, Dee and Dum Tucker, known collectively as the Tweedles. Page meets the Tweedles on the train as they are being escorted by their youthful father, known as Zebedee. The Tweedles explain that he’s so nicknamed because, “You know the old gag: ‘Who is the father of Zebedee’s children?’ No one ever believes he really is a parent.” I hope that’s more useful to you than it was to me, because I don’t know the old gag and I’m still as clueless as ever. No matter, Zebedee he is and he is as odd as his name. Much is made of how young he is, how fun, how handsome, how he raised the twins when his child-bride died. This is all very important because it’s clear from early in the book that they’re setting the story up for Page to marry Zebedee in a later book. Moving swiftly past the ickiness of this, because it’s hard not to like the Tweedles or Zebedee. When Zebedee spots a childhood friend who is now teaching at the school, he breaks out into song and they all join hands, teacher included, dancing and singing the words to the Lobster Quadrille from Alice in Wonderland. It is just this kind of daftness that makes the book work, because otherwise it’s a disconnected series of events involving the obligatory mean girl, the equally obligatory poor girl who is secretly the granddaughter of an English baron, a kitten smuggled into school, and various other bonkers plots. I wouldn’t necessarily go looking for the rest of this series, but like Nell Speed’s other books, it has just enough humor and interesting female characters of all ages to pull the plodding narrative along.

I can’t end this post without a link to Franz Ferdinand’s deliciously creepy rendering of the Lobster Quadrille.

Moving Madness

I’m in the midst of moving back home with my mother. This process is going a lot faster now that I have all the books packed up, both in my study and in the living room.

It’s a strange feeling putting books away, knowing I won’t see them for some time. I’m lucky to have a very lovely friend who did some kind of magical computery goobledygo that turned my LibraryThing catalog into an Excel spreadsheet. Now I know exactly where each book is, and should I feel the urge to read it, I can go straight to that box in the storage unit. I’m also lucky that my mother is as book-obsessed as I am, and indulgently turned away when the “tiny” selection of books to go to her house turned out to be more like 80 titles. So I probably won’t be around much until August, but I’ll be back with lots to say about the incredible books of Jane Duncan.

And for Darlene, who loves Agas as much as I do, here’s the picture I told you about. It was a surprise from a friend (the same computer genius mentioned above) who knows my love of Agas is matched only by my domination by cats. It’s named Aga Louts, and it makes me smile whenever I see it.

Molly Brown Series

I try not to cross my knitting and book blogs too much, but this was just one of those weekends when the two worlds collided. I’ve been madly busy lately, and have also had a lovely friend from the UK visiting, so I spent most of the 4th of July weekend sprawled out on the sofa, alternating knitting with reading. I’ve worked out a very effective technique, one which requires very little sacrifice on my part yet still makes me feel virtuous. For every two rows I knit, I get to read a chapter. It’s kind of embarrassing how much wool I can get through when there’s a book at stake.

I’ve read the Molly Brown books at least a dozen times since discovering them in my dorm library during my freshman year of college. In some ways, it’s hard to explain why I find them so appealing, because they’re formulaic, sentimental, dated, and occasionally uncomfortable to read. But they’re also completely wonderful, so I’ll try. Written between 1912-1921, they follow Molly Brown of Kentucky through her first four years of university, on to her post-graduate year, another year spent traipsing through Europe, and then back to Kentucky to be wooed and wed. There’s a final book, about Molly’s friends from college and what they get up to, but since I’ve never been able to find a copy I wouldn’t have to sell a kidney to afford, I’ve just made up endings for all of them in my head.

It doesn’t matter anyway, because as delightful as those last three books are, the best are Molly’s four years as an undergraduate at Wellington (closely modeled on Wellesley perhaps?). Molly arrives at this prestigious eastern university from Kentucky, poor, tired from travel, and unfamiliar with the reserve and rules of New England. Her gentle disposition and friendliness, combined with her penchant for feeding her friends southern smoked ham and Kentucky cloudbursts (from the sound of it, a brown sugar meringue), overcome her poverty and inexperience, and make her universally loved. Along the way she has adventures, conquers personal adversity, quells her enemies, and falls in love. All jolly good fun, but the books are also quite interesting for a few other reasons.

First, it’s one of the few American girls’ series that’s primarily set in a same-sex school or university. In fact, I’d say this series is the closest we get to a proper boarding school series, the older American cousin of Angela Brazil’s British schoolgirls. While Molly goes home for vacation and the girls entertain men at dances and dinners, the majority of the action centers around the studies, ambitions, competition, and friendships of the college set. There’s discussion about the classes they’re taking, the books they’re reading, and their many individual pursuits. While there’s occasional discussion of women’s rights, with one of Molly’s beloved set being an active and majestic suffragette, there’s also an undercurrent of feminist thought running subtly through the books:

Queen’s Cottage seemed destined to shelter girls of interesting and unusual types.

“They always do flock together, you know,” Miss Pomeroy had remarked to the President, as the two women sat talking in the President’s office one day. The question had come up with the subject of the new Japanese student, the first of her nation ever to seek learning in the halls of Wellington.

“They do,” said the President, “but whether it’s the first comers actively persuading the next ones or whether it’s a matter of unconscious attraction is hard to tell.”

“In this case I understand it’s a matter of very conscious attraction on one side and no persuasion on the other,” replied Miss Pomeroy. “That charming overgrown girl from Kentucky, Miss Brown, although she’s as poor as a church mouse and last year even blacked boots to earn a little money, is one of the chief attractions, I think. But some of the other girls are quite remarkable. Margaret Wakefield lives there, you know. She makes as good a speech as her politician father. It will be interesting to watch her career if she only doesn’t spoil everything by marrying.”

The two spinsters looked at each other and laughed.

“She won’t,” answered the President. “She’s much too ambitious.”

No bitter virgins, these. The girls are there to learn, to either teach or write or become artists or politicians, or to become useful and knowledgeable wives and mothers. It’s only the antagonists who play their way through college, wasting their opportunities, and like any good school story, they get their come-uppance.

This series would be a gold mine for scholars, there’s so much to play with. Issues of race are the most obvious, as Molly is from Kentucky and frequently refers to her family’s loyal old servants in a way that is definitely outdated and occasionally deeply uncomfortable. And then there’s Otoyo, the diminutive Japanese student who becomes one of Molly’s closest friends. But there’s an interesting force at work, where the antagonists of the stories are the ones who are overtly racist and hurtful, whereas the racism of Molly and her friends is more a product of the time. I cringe even writing that, but it’s the distinction between dated stereotypes (such as thinking of Otoyo as adorable in her foreignness, like something out of the Mikado) and racial dislike. In fact, Nell Speed even brings up this issue in one of the books, when Otoyo’s father visits and the girls’ amusement at his pidgin English gets back to her and her friends have to realize what they’ve done. Then there’s the close friendship that grows between two girls (hello, queer theorists), the issues of class that were so frequently ignored in American children’s literature, and some really surprising regional distinctions.

For those of you who fell asleep during the last paragraph, believe me when I say that these books are mostly good fun. There are a few available on Project Gutenberg, but the first four are also fairly easy to find on second-hand book sites. They’re really worth a look. And now I’ve earned at least 3 chapters before I have to get back to my knitting.

Ahem. Silly title, but so is the title Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. But the book is anything but silly. The number of post-it tabs I went through while reading attests to that (note to self: remove before returning or risk cross librarians!).

I indulge in a lot of metaphorical (okay, and actual) eye-rolling at the plethora of authors jumping on the Austen bandwagon. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a granddaughters of Pemberly series by now, but I can’t resist picking up biographies and criticism of Jane Austen and her work.

This book is slightly harder to define. In some ways, it is a biography of the author. But, still more, it’s the biography of the Austen industry, the history of how Austen and her novels were received, revisited, canonized, mythologized, and ultimately merchandised. And it’s chock-full of fascinating items. Did you know Jane Austen was part of a reading society? As in all her letters, she is humility herself:

Later in her life, Austen was proud of the book club she helped run in Chawton, and on hearing that the Miss Sibleys of West Meon wanted to establish one “like ours” wrote to her sister, “What can be a stronger proof of that superiority in ours over the Steventon & Manydown Society, which I have always foreseen & felt? — No emulation of the kind was ever inspired by their proceedings.”

Much of what makes this book so interesting is the reaction of her family, particularly her siblings, to her success. Her deep love and respect for Cassandra has been well documented, and vice versa, but it’s the relationship with her brothers that stands out. As her first biographers, they’re responsible for painting her as domestic and quiet, unordinary and undemanding. But Harman probes a bit deeper, looking closely at the text of these brotherly documents to see profound rivalries between the siblings. Harman notes that James, who for many years had been considered the author of the family, writes of his sister:

…not a word she ever pen’d

Which hurt the feelings of a friend

And not a line she ever wrote

“Which dying she would wish to blot”…

The poet suggests that this was all the more remarkable given the subject’s natural inclinations:

Though quick and keen her mental eye

Poor nature’s foibles to descry

And seemed for ever on the watch

Some traits of ridicule to catch

The evocation of Jane’s vigilance over other people’s “traits of ridicule” is very much in keeping with what Miss Mitford had said privately about Austen turning into “a poker of whom everyone is afraid” in the years after her books began to be published. James makes his sister sound like a cat watching over a mouse hole, recreationally malign. Subsequent family reminiscences steered well clear of anything as unflattering as this, but its appearance here, in the first of all of them, is revealing. Coming from a brother, it could seem almost too coldly objective and “watchful” itself.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop and suggest you go find a copy for yourself. My one complaint would be that the author spent pages and pages detailing masculine reactions to her work, from her own family to famous scholars, admirers, and critics, but with a few exceptions, gave very little about female reaction to her work, and only devoted two pages to the feminist and queer theory that has exploded in Austen studies. But the very touching section on how soldiers turned to Austen’s work during the first world war is alone worth the price of the book.