"The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street"

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

I'd been intending to read this for months but didn't get around to buying a copy, then a friend at book club handed me one with both Duchess and it's predecessor 84, Charing Cross Road in it. 84 is one of my all time favourite books. It's epistolary, which I find romantic and endearing probably because I never receive a letter from one year to the next - why are we letting technology rob us of this simple pleasure?

I love these books because they are beautifully, perfectly written. The author has a light touch with sufficient wit to pull it off, and writes with such clarity and descriptive ability that you are transported to the time and place of writing. 84 is a series of letters between the author and the London bookshop where she orders her reading material; Duchess is a journal of her long-awaited trip to London to meet her correspondents and promote her first book.

I hear the word "delightful" used a lot in book reviews but, being a person whose reading material tends to be a bit more on the serious (others might call it morbid, but what do they know?) side, it didn't really mean much to me until I read 84, Charing Cross Road. That was 90 pages of sheer happiness, which led me to seriously question if any sequel could be as wonderful. I'm happy to say The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is. The writing, the setting and the author's personality all add up to 120 pages of even more happiness. I feel very much as if I'd spent a month in London with Miss Hanff myself. She positively jumps off every page.

I'm told there is one more book in this series; now I have to make the difficult decision of when to read it. Once I do, I'll be done and there will be no more. I haven't felt this indecisive since I finished The Two Towers and sat staring at The Return of the King wondering how long I could hold out. I gave in within the hour and probably won't do any better with this one. Some things are just too wonderful to wait for.

"Lady Audley's Secret"

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

This has to be one of the more sensational of the sensation novels, or maybe I just haven't read enough of them yet to get used to the Gasp! Drama! It's full of drama/angst all of which went on much longer than I wanted it to. I didn't realize quite how long the novel was when I started it, but I guess I'd have read it anyway since it's on a lot of  those "must read" lists you find all over the internet. I did consider not finishing it, but by that point in the story I really wanted to see the villain get her comeuppance.

Said villain is Lady Audley, aka Lucy Graham, aka Helen Talboys. As Lucy Graham she marries the rich Lord Michael Audley without bothering to tell him about George Talboys, the husband she already has. George left his wife and child in England to seek his fortune and returns unexpectedly causing a big problem for Lady Audley. He meets up with her, confronts her with her lies and is - cue the creepy music - never heard from again.

George's friend, Robert - also coincidentally an Audley, and even more coincidentally the nephew of the same Lord Michael Audley - decides he won't stop till he learns the truth about what happened to his friend. He starts by talking to George's father and sister and poking around in the area where his missing friend disappeared. He has his suspicions about Lady Audley but he needs proof before confronting her. Motivated considerably in his quest by his attraction to George's sister, he talks to servants and assorted other people until he finally can't hold back anymore and he demands Lady Audley confess to killing her first husband.

The investigating went on and on with various stories and histories being drawn out at great length to inform the reader how the characters and their doings are all connected. I found it a bit tedious, but I won't go so far as to say I didn't like it. I enjoy the old-fashioned writing, if not so much all the drama, and it was a pretty good story. I think more editing would have helped but all in all, it wasn't too bad.    

"The Hobbit"

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

It's been many years since I read this for the first time and what struck me is that I had completely forgotten it was written for children. Tolkien addresses the young reader directly several times, reminding them of something he's told them in an earlier chapter and that sort of thing. He never forgets the child reading the book. There are trolls and massive spiders and other scary creatures but they aren't dwelt upon and they are always quickly defeated. It's very much a child's story in which bad things happen but good wins in the end. The films are a different thing completely.

I love the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies, though even I think it was a stretch making three of them out of one little book. In true movie fashion, the scary parts are scarier, the spiders bigger and uglier and the trolls more disgusting. The battle of the five armies took about 20 minutes to read in the book and three hours to watch on screen. The movies exaggerate everything, (what else would one expect?) bringing in characters that Tolkien didn't put in the story and even adding a romance. It seems every film must have a romance.

Fili and Kili are made more of in the movies than the book, and along with their uncle Thorin are turned into handsome Hollywood swashbucklers, which Tolkien probably never intended. (That's not a complaint - I appreciated Thorin Oakenshield's majestic swagger as much as anyone.) The book overall has a light touch appropriate for children that the movies discarded completely. There is lots of comic relief in the films, but they are weighty stories dealt with in a much more serious tone than that taken by the book. I have read that Tolkien's family dislikes the movies because they stray too far from the intent of the books. I can understand their point of view, but whether it's even true or not, who knows?

All I can say is I love the book for certain reasons and I love the movies for other reasons. I can't choose which I like better because I really don't see them as things that can be compared. They are different stories in many ways, different characters and types of characters, different tones and different target audiences. Both are wonderful and I love them all.

"The Prophet's Camel Bell"

The Prophet's Camel Bell by Margaret Laurence

Margaret Laurence and her then husband Jack lived in Africa from 1950 to 1952 where Jack was working as a civil engineer. The first two of those years, in Somalia, are the subject of this book.

I haven't read much of Laurence's work, just one novel, The Stone Angel, which I liked very much. This book is as different as fiction can be from memoir and yet much the same tone of writing. She's a serious writer, not lacking a sense of humour, but not indulging it very often either. There's a satisfying solidity to her writing that makes you feel you're reading something of significance. I'll have to try another of her novels to see if that carries through. I'm thinking about The Diviners - any other suggestions?

Laurence does a good job of describing life in the African desert with all it's challenges. And such challenges there were. Drought, dangerous wildlife, tribal conflict, monsoons and the ongoing shortages of what we'd call necessities were all a part of her daily life. She didn't like the way the British and other foreigners treated the Somalis and she tried to walk a fine line between the two very different groups of people, never really fitting into either one but always trying to make the best of a frequently uncomfortable situation.

What I was more impressed with, though, was her insight into human nature and her acceptance of the African people as people and not just Somalis, as some saw them. She seems to have been very open to learning about a culture vastly different than her own and adjusting her behaviour accordingly. She made mistakes and sometimes it took a long time to realize them but she wasn't afraid to admit them and make things right. I loved her honesty in those situations, and I respect the way she tried to fit into Somali culture rather than trying to force them into hers.

I probably wouldn't have picked this up if our book club hadn't decided to read it, but I'm glad now that they did. It was interesting as a memoir and also very good as travel literature. A good travel book will make you feel like you've been there; by that standard, this one is a success.  


"The Mayor of Casterbridge"

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

What can I say about this book? It's quintessentially Hardy, with characters not being what or who they are thought to be and hoped-for meetings just missed because someone has arrived a week, or a day or an hour too late. Hardy is nothing if not predictable, but still, I love his books.

The Mayor is a man called Henchard, who in a state of temporary drunkenness and rage sells his wife, Lucy, and child to a sailor called Newson. The next day in a fit of regret, he is unable to find them and he swears an oath to not touch alcohol for 21 years, the age he was when he did the despicable deed. Eighteen years later, the child has died, Newson has died and Lucy and her daughter Elizabeth have returned to seek out Henchard, who has risen in circumstances and is now mayor of the town. Henchard thinks Elizabeth is his daughter, but she thinks Newson is her father so Henchard, in order to keep her from ever knowing that he had, as he believes, sold his own daughter, agrees with Lucy to pretend they're just getting to know one another now and that they'll marry after the appropriate amount of time has passed. Henchard grows fond of Elizabeth as does Henchard's foreman, a young Scot named Donald Farfrae.

Spoiler alert - I will be talking about the book's ending, not that it's much of a surprise as it was written in 1886. However, if you'd rather not know, it's best not to read any further.

Now things begin to get complicated. Henchard isn't really Elizabeth's father, Newson is. Newson isn't really dead, and he comes looking for his family. Henchard's old girlfriend, who has been waiting all these years for Lucy to die so she could become Mrs. Henchard, ends up through a series of oh-so-Hardian circumstances becoming Mrs. Farfrae - for a time. Farfrae surpasses Henchard in just about every area of life, robbing him (in Henchard's mind) of his woman, his home and even his position as mayor. He doesn't care about Elizabeth anymore once he learns she's not his daughter. Henchard, bitter, mean and disappointed in the human race, leaves the town and all its bad memories behind him.

Things do eventually sort themselves out, everybody finds out who they are and who they love, and Farfrae ends up with Elizabeth. They go looking for Henchard, ready to forgive and love him again, but of course they are, inevitably, too late. Henchard has died, alone and unloved, leaving this one request - that he be forgotten.

Everything about this book and the rest of Hardy's books can be easily found online. They've been reviewed and analyzed countless times, but reading about the book is not the same as reading the book. Yes, his books are sad and, in my opinion, closer to real life than some other authors ever take you, but his writing is what keeps me coming back. I love the way he tells a story. The guy knows disappointment and pain, and he isn't shy about writing what he knows into his stories. His characters are lonely, hurt, angry and real, and I appreciate that they suffer without slobbering all over you. Sure there is some Victorian drama, but generally the sufferers contain it within themselves rather than pouring it out all over the other characters and the reader. I still like the strong, silent type, out of date or not.  

I downloaded The Woodlanders onto my Kobo the other day so that will be my next Hardy, though not my next book. I have Margaret Laurence's The Prophet's Camel Bell to read for book club, and I'm part way through The Hobbit and Lady Audley's Secret, both of which I'm thoroughly enjoying. After that I'm dying to get to The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead, a book that was recommended to me on another book blog, the name of which escapes me at the moment, but whose recommendations have led me to other books I might never have chosen on my own.

"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.