"The Clothes They Stood Up In"

The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

Readable in an evening or so, this little book is a smart, darkly funny story of an indifferently married couple who are robbed of every single item in their apartment, even the casserole in the oven. How the Ransomes - and you have to love that name - deal with their losses and each other in the following weeks is an insightful, and somewhat sad, study of human nature and marriage in particular.

What I find so fascinating in this story is how ordinary everything is. The people and situations feel so true-to-life that you just know Alan Bennett has looked into our weird little lives and seen all the things - the dumb things, the unsavoury things - we try to hide from the world. Maybe it should be disconcerting, but in fact it's reassuring to read about other people who also live lives that aren't picture perfect. Bennett doesn't shy away from reality, but he does face it with compassion. You get the feeling that no matter how peculiar you are, Mr. Bennett would accept you and like you, and you'd like him.

I enjoyed this story, but my favourite book by Bennett is still The Uncommon Reader. If you haven't read that one, you really are missing out on a very entertaining reading experience. Actually, read anything of Bennett's you can get your hands on. They are always a pleasure and they often leave you pondering the meanings of things you may not have considered before.  

Tea at Four

Tea at Four

Tea at Four, a perfect time
To sit and think on thoughts of mine,
To ponder as the water heats,
To look out at the quiet streets,
Then ease the bag into the brew
And steep it to a flavour true.
Pour the cup that warms the hands,
And breathe the steam of other lands;
I do so love my tea at four,
Just, please, not a.m. anymore.

"The Lady In The Van"

The Lady In The Van by Alan Bennett

The film made from this short story/novella/essay, starring Maggie Smith, was nominated for something on the last Golden Globes broadcast so I figured now would be a good time to read it. It's not fiction; this woman actually lived in her van in the author's driveway for 15 years. I don't quite know what that looked like and wish I could find a picture. I'll have to see the film. If we parked an old, garbage filled, vehicle in our own driveway here for 15 years, the town would have something to say about it and the neighbours would be up in arms. If someone actually lived in it people would be having fits. Maybe a driveway in North America isn't quite the same thing as a driveway in England? Hopefully the movie will give me a clearer picture.

In any event, the story is just wonderful. I've been a great admirer of Alan Bennett's writing since reading "The Uncommon Reader" a couple of years ago. There's a humility, an honesty, about his writing that is very appealing. He has a light touch, yet deals with the less savoury parts of real life without shrinking. We learn a lot about Alan Bennett, the human being, in the this book. Really, how many people would do what he did? How many would put up with it as he did and lean into the situation instead of fighting it tooth and nail? I suspect there are very few indeed.

I don't think anyone could have told this story any better, not just because the situation happened to him, but because of Bennett's truly wonderful ability to bring a story to life. It seems almost serendipitous that this lady settled in that particular driveway at that particular point in time, though that's just my opinion as a reader and it's quite possible Mr. Bennett holds an entirely different view.

"Mirthful Haven"

"Mirthful Haven" by Booth Tarkington

This is my first Tarkington book. I've been looking for a copy of The Magnificent Ambersons, a title I found on a list of Pulitzer Prize winners (1918), but haven't yet located one. I found this at a sale for a couple of dollars and couldn't pass up the chance to try out a new (to me) author.

It's the story of a young girl, Edna Pelter, growing up in a seaside town with a father who is suspected of making a living under less than legal circumstances. The family is considered a nuisance by the town's well-to-do summer cottagers who would like to see them and their rundown habitation gone from their lovely little vacation town. Edna is getting a bad reputation hanging around with the wrong boys so her aunt steps in and takes her off to live with her.

Edna is known by her aunt's name, Shellpool, in her new life, where she becomes acquainted with some of the same people who spend summers in her hometown. As Edna Shellpool she is invited into their social circles, attending their dinners and parties, and being accepted by people who would have nothing to do with her if they knew her real identity.

Then her aunt dies and she moves back home to live with her father. When her new friends arrive for the summer she tries to clandestinely live both lives and stay friends with everyone, but that, of course, gets more and more complicated until it inevitably all blows up.

It's an interesting story, one that draws you in and keeps you interested, with believable characters and well described settings. It's the kind of book you can enjoy reading without feeling driven to get to the end to find out what happens. I didn't mind putting it down when I had to, but I was always glad to pick it up again, too. I'm looking forward to finding The Magnificent Ambersons and to checking out his backlist which I think has over thirty other titles.    

"The House I Loved"

The House I Loved by Tatiana De Rosnay

Ah, this is a great story. Having read Sarah's Key, I expected a good read and saved it for a time when I'd be able to enjoy a leisurely few days getting lost in a solid story, but once I began I couldn't even come up for air. I went through it too fast, and now it's over. I want more so I have to read it again.

The book is set in Paris in the 1860's, a period of colossal upheaval caused by the Emperor Napoleon's renovations to the city. Houses and businesses are being torn down and streets ripped up to make way for broader boulevards and more modern buildings. Neighbourhoods are wiped out and people are forced to relocate without regard for their family livings or histories.

One woman, Madame Rose Bazelet, is determined to stand her ground and not leave the home in which she'd lived her entire married life, and in which her husband and his father before him had been born and died. She is meant to move in with her daughter's family, but after she has all of her belongings shipped  and stored, she stays in the house. Aided by a rather inscrutable friend who provides heat and food, she waits, hidden in a corner of the basement as the demolition crews get closer. She passes the hours reminiscing about her past and writing letters to her deceased husband, Armand, telling him all that has happened in her life and the lives of their neighbours in the ten years he's been gone. Eventually she brings herself to confess the awful secret she's carried for years and never shared with anyone, not even her beloved Armand.

Everything about this book appealed to me: the period, the location, and especially the characters. I've always been interested in Paris, but I had no idea about this part of the city's history. I was simply mesmerized by the grand plans Napoleon not only made, but actually carried out, wiping out generations of history in the name of modernization. All the time I was reading I kept thinking it couldn't be real and wondering what kind of crazy person would do this. Well, apparently Napoleon is that crazy person. I felt heartsick right along with Madame Rose.

Almost from the outset the author makes you aware of how this is going to end, but there is one twist that will take you by surprise - a nice surprise. I loved the beginning, the ending and everything in between. I usually take more time to consider the things I like and don't like about the actual writing, but honestly I got so lost in this story that I didn't even notice. Not noticing the writing is almost always a good thing, so I'll leave it at that and just recommend that you Read. This. Book.  


"Heartbreak Hotel"

Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach

I came to this book in a round-about way. I was looking for something with a Christmas theme to read in December and came across one called Twin Beds - Christmas at the Heartbreak Hotel. The review said it was a sequel to this one but,  not sure I wanted to commit to two of them, I did a bit more checking to see if they were worth the time/cash investment. What I discovered is that Deborah Moggach also wrote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! I haven't read that book but the movie made from it is one of my favourites, mainly because of it's wonderful mix of unique and unforgettable characters. I figured I couldn't go too far wrong with such an author so I took the plunge. I have yet to read the Christmas one, but Heartbreak Hotel was worth it.

It's about a retired actor who inherits an aging B&B and decides to keep it, beginning a new career as inn-keeper in these later years of his life. Between his large family of ex-wives and children, and the guests who come either to escape their real lives or to take advantage of the various courses he offers, there is quite a lengthy list of characters that I managed to keep sorted by writing their names and relationships on an index card.

I loved the setting, a quiet little town in Wales described so becomingly by the author that you'll want to move there immediately you've finished the book. But it's the characters that bring life to this book. They are all so very real with flaws and quirks that make them lovable and irritating and completely believable. The story line is a bit similar to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but only in that both are about run down hotels full of interesting people. The differences are vast and never let you to feel as if you've read this story before.

The language is a bit grittier than I like but it was only now and then, so not too terribly bad. I liked it and am quite looking forward to the Christmas one, which I will try not to read till the end of the year.