Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures

Friday, October 29, 2010

A spot of autumn colour

So autumn is well under way, and getting rather chilly. We do still have some colour in garden though, and here it is.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dabbling; Foxing; Foxing; Dabbling

Some readers may recall my delight in July at discovering the wonderful Slightly Foxed and also writing for the 1p book review which is a feature of The Dabbler (a culture blog no less wonderful)... So imagine my pleasure when I discovered that the two have now teamed up for a competition in which a lucky person stands to win an annual subscription to the Slightly Foxed Quarterly. All you have to do is answer a simple(ish) literary question.

Although I do not have a good record with competitions I think I will try my luck here.... The contest closes on Monday 1 November so if you would like to join me you had better get started. Click here to read all about it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Weekly Portrait: Anne Boleyn

Because I am so enjoying Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, for more on which, watch this space...

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hi – Ho! Hever Castle (with Wolf Hall in tow)

Saturday was a sharp clear coldish day and what better circumstances for going around the wonderful Hever Castle with my half read copy of Wolf Hall under my arm? For those of you who are not regular Hever-beavors – Hever Castle is a 14th century moated castle in Kent, in the south of England and it was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the second queen of Henry VIII who, as we all know, met a sticky end in the tower of London. I went there for the first time when I was a little girl and as a grown up I have visited in all moods and weathers. The thing which struck me on my last visit also struck me on my first, when I myself was quite small: it is tiny. It feels like a toy castle. That is not to say that there is no menace in its dingy doorways and narrow passages. Actually, the whole place reminds me slightly of this eerie line from Wolf Hall: “Every journey ends; terminates, at some pier, some mist-shrouded wharf, where torches are waiting”.

Here is a bit of a taster

Friday, October 22, 2010

For those who prefer a vintage table....

and because we all know that "the old ones are the best", I thought that readers of my blog might enjoy browsing the website of The Vintage Table - a new crockery supplier which a friend told me about recently. If I was planning a wedding or something like that I would be looking to have crockery like this. Lovely.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION: and the winner is....

Sasha. My copy of Daphne du Maurier's classic novel Rebecca is now yours.

Thank you to all who entered. As you can see, I plumped for a small chamber pot - not - as far as I am aware ever used for the purpose for which it was designed.

Sasha - if you send me an email with your name and address, I package the book off to you. My email address is hannah [at] hannahstoneham [dot] [com].

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Guernsey Spud Book

I cannot claim credit for the title of this post, which I first heard from the lips of dovegreyreader at the recent Everyone’s a Critic event in London, but you all know what I am talking about. It is the book that is everywhere; the international best seller; the enticingly titled: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This is the story of how a sophisticated London journalist – the disarming Juliet Ashton - fell in love with and became irreparably entangled with the natives of Guernsey in the period immediately after the Second World War.

It is told entirely through the medium of letters to and from Juliet proves to be a simple and effective way of telling a tale. The characters bubble through the text of their correspondence wonderfully and there is a lot of humour, a lot of lovely touches. That is not to say that it is all froth. The book deals with ideas of occupation and empire, with obedience and rebellion. The Channel Islands were effectively not defended and were occupied by Germany for almost the whole war. They were tiny little rocks in the ocean which most Britons did not give much of a thought to and yet they were uncomfortable little symbols of defeat; stages for brutality and theatres for quiet subversion.

By a strange coincidence a book previously belonging to Juliet rocks up on Guernsey and an enthusiastic native into whose hands it falls writes to her, using the recently restored postal service to the mainland. At first she is attracted to the quirkiness of what his letters contain and before too long she realises that there is a profound comment on occupation underpinning them. Behind this still there are the universal human concerns of love and friendship and loyalty. Unable to resist, soon there are letters flying about across the channel between all sorts of people and a hidden story of the conflict emerges; a story of defiance and forbidden associations. What on earth was the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and what crimes against convention did it conceal?

My two favourite things about this book are firstly that it is about the power of books themselves and secondly that it celebrates what in my view is the original human virtue: disobedience. Hurrah for that!

The characters of the island and those who touch Juliet’s life in London are, as has been widely commented upon, most charming. Sometimes I found them a little too charming – and their quirkiness strayed into twee-ness. They looked a little bit too much like rural folk as seen by urban sophisticates. In the same way, I found that the story was rather saccharine and almost laughably predictable. The wonderful thing about the book is that it is a fabulous idea, not that it is a fabulous novel. It is about a neglected cranny of history and it is a neatly written, good book. Personally, I would rather plump for an authentic voice from the same period such as Mollie Panter Downes. But then, Mollie Panter Downes never, as far as I know, made it to Guernsey. Maybe this is sort of what she would have made of it had she done so.

Other opinions can be found at Harriet Devine’s Blog, Vulpes Libris, Bianca’s Book Blog and the lovely Stuck in a Book.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The (bookish) pleasures of home

So there are some good things about coming back to England, and many of them are books. Here in particular are what has recently floated to the top of my TBR…

The Booker prize winning best seller Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, Iain Pears’ latest offering Stone’s Fall (I couldn’t help it, I loved An Instance of the Fingerpost) and the absurdly titled Fanny by Gaslight by Michael Sadleir. At the less well known end of the spectrum, I have Clare Cameron’s Rustle of Spring, Snakes and Ladders by Marjory Todd and the wonderfully titled Surplus Women by G. C. Pain….

Monday, October 11, 2010

More Du Maurier: this time My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel commences with the mouldering corpse of a murderer swinging from a gibbet and although, I don’t think I would call it cheerful, I would certainly call it brilliant. I am weighing up whether it may even be better than Du Maurier’s acknowledged masterpiece Rebecca. Who can say? I certainly reckon that it is as good, and you don’t need a PhD to see that they are of the same pen.

The novel is narrated by Philip Ashley, a young old man, a reclusive Cornish landowner with a past, and a distruster of women and society. His tale is retrospectively told, and of course, the story of his life explains his rather sour demeanour at the beginning of the book. He is an orphan who has been brought up by his wealthy cousin Ambrose. There are no women in their world and they seem quite pleased about it. Philip is a capable man and I took away the impression that he is good looking in a beefy English sort of way. For all of this, he is not really interested in the world beyond his gates. As he grows older, his cousin-father-friend Ambrose becomes unable to cope with the bitter Cornish winter and like so many people in literature begins “wintering” in warmer climes. One such winter takes him to Florence and there he does the unthinkable – meets his cousin Rachel for the first time, and marries her.

Poor Ambrose goes from Bridegroom to dead man with staggering speed and before the distraught Philip knows where he is, his cousin Rachel is knocking on the door of his remote Cornish home. It is the strange clash of loyalties and the nature of the bond between Philip and Rachel that invigorates this book: they are what it is about. I suspect that I have stated this too confidently, because, My Cousin Rachel is mysterious in every way. It is dark and atmospheric and what it is really about seems to shift and change shape throughout. It is love story, feminist fable and morality tale, all in one and Du Maurier manages all of this through the ingenious voice of Philip Ashley.

Some people find Philip annoying. I have to say that I rather loved him and wanted him to be happy, although I suspected that that was not possible. Maybe I am drawn to cranks, or even worse, misogynists. He is a hopelessly flawed narrator of his own story. He fears Rachel and hates her, he loves her unreservedly, he lusts for her and is utterly beguiled. He ricochets between being uncritical and being paranoid. Is she an angel who has had a hard life? Is she a loyal widow or a scheming money grabbing manipulator? Is she an ordinary woman with a little charm and a weakness for wealth? Is she worse than any of these things and even if she is, does she deserve the fate that awaits her?

Thinking about it long and hard, I have decided that the two main things I love about Daphne Du Maurier are her treatment of names and sex.

Firstly, I have always been fascinated by names. I look up what they mean, I ask people what their middle initials stand for when they give me cheques; I will be a nightmare if I ever have a child. There is something of the same going on in the novels of Daphne Du Maurier. Her most famous book takes a woman’s name as its title, but of course that woman is an off stage character, whilst the narrator herself is left nameless. Here the opposite is almost true. The eponymous Rachel is named but never explained. Her character is shrouded in mystery and we can only see her through Philip’s eyes. Readers may well put down the finished book and think that they never really knew Rachel at all.

And then of course there is the thorny issue of sex. Du Maurier writes about sex with power and subtlety and considerable beauty. By way of contrast, I almost died of embarrassment reading the sex scenes in The Children’s Book recently. The problem with bad sex is that it seems to capture so little of what it describes and I can’t be doing with that. Of course, I would not wish to bring back the censorship laws and cultural mores which meant that in 1951 authors like Du Maurier had to be “subtle” if they did not want their books to be banned. As my mother would say, I guess that it is a case of swings and roundabouts

There are other lovely reviews of this book at Coffee Stained Pages, She Reads Novels and the wonderful Harriet Devine’s Blog. I cannot recommend them or it enough. Here you see a picture of the Virago edition that I read, a photograph of the author and the poster of the 1952 film.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The (return of the) Weekly Portrait: Adam and Eve

A slightly perculiar image, courtesy of a house in Moret sur Loing, Ile de France.

Bon weekend!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Au revoir la France: 10 things I miss about you

This post is a bit of a eulogy, mainly in picture form, to our time, now over, in France. So, without further ado - things which I am missing already ...

Signs that we don't understand, even when they appear to be in English

The view from my study

Carrying a shopping basket in a nonchalant fashion

Book club feasting

A nice potter around the market

No shortage of flowers

Preparing huge dinner parties in a tiny kitchen

That post dinner party feeling

Always being close to a Paris-fix

Our local car park horses

Monday, October 4, 2010

The World That Was Hers: Hilda Bernstein, my teacher in South African history

When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years of incarceration in 1990, I was 7 years old and on the other side of the world. I do remember it though. It was one of those events that was covered in every country and talked of in every place. People of my generation recall the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa, but only in its twilight days – when most of the argument had been won internationally. As a child, political ideas seemed to come to me through a glass darkly, and were formed slightly skew-whiff. Often I had an idea about how I felt about things, but there was a bit of a knowledge gap, particularly in relation to distant lands and afar away cultures.

So, the Persephone Classic, The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein has been a powerful read both emotionally and intellectually – I finally know something about Apartheid South Africa. Hilda Bernstein was a communist and a passionate campaigner against racial segregation. She was born in Britain but her heart seems to have been in Africa. She was white but she rejected her privileged status. She and her husband, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein were active political dissidents in Johannesburg at a point in its history when dissent was decidedly not allowed.

The World That Was Ours is her memoir of the early 1960s, a period when the Nationalist government in South Africa was at its most Orwellian and rapacious. The Bernstein home is watched day and night, invaded frequently but policemen with seemingly endless arbitrary powers. The Bernsteins are firmly and surely marginalised by legislation; it becomes illegal for them to speak to their closest friends and even at times, each other. Rusty is kept in solitary confinement and put on trial alongside other ANC men, including Nelson Mandela in the kangaroo court of the Rivonia Trial. Miraculously, when the other defendants are sent down for life, Rusty is acquitted and the final act of this memoir is played out. Husband and wife escape South Africa, where they are both hunted people, in a nail biting chase across a barren landscape. They walk across the wilderness until they can hardly move for exhaustion; they are nearly attacked by dogs; they have no idea whom to trust and whom to fear.

The memoir of Hilda Bernstein is far from impartial, but it is a living breathing and extremely chilling window onto her world. I would not call this a political memoir but a personal memoir with a powerful political dimension. Bernstein self defines as a communist and her main reason is that in South Africa the communist party were the only party who were not racist. Bernstein’s communism seems to have been a rather different fish from that considered by another recent read, The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch. For Bernstein, being a communist was about being a humanitarian and her memoir testifies to how easily ideas can mutate across borders and continents. The woman who emerges from these pages is a true idealist. She never, until very near the end, does what is practical. Instead, she does what she thinks is right. Readers may find themselves with mixed feelings at times, because of course; her political life restricted her family life dreadfully. They could not take holidays, they could not go out with their children of an evening, school friends invited for supper would arrive with the police on their tails. Ultimately however, the power of the narrative voice both justifies and fully explains Bernstein. What emerges is a picture of a deeply admirable woman. I fear that I would have strapped on my sandals and run for my life a long time before she did.

The political is knitted together with the domestic and the public, and provides a personal close up on persecution. In this history, coping with challenges strengthens people but also makes them hard and puts them beyond the reach of readjustment. Bernstein deals with this implicitly throughout the book and with remarkable candour in her “afterword”. Her writing is good. She has the confidence of a woman who knows that she can write and is not afraid to break a few rules. The prose is lyrical and almost cinematic. The final sequence in particular, in which Hilda and Rusty fly to safety after a perilous journey is so vivid, that I could almost imagine myself there.

I have peppered this review with pictures of the Persephone edition of the book, the Persephone end paper, and a photograph of the author. Interested readers may also enjoy this excellent review at Books and Chocolate.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Homecoming celebration: international giveaway of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Some of you may recall that the Business School Wives Book Club enjoyed a Rebecca-fest some time ago. For newer visitors to this blog suffice to say, that I think it is a super book. For my ruminations on the subject in full, please click here.

The Business School Wives Book Club has now sadly dispersed and is no more. For reasons which I am not clear on and which no doubt have something to do with “high mobility living”, I find that I have rocked up back in the UK with two copies of Rebecca... which is one more than anyone needs.

So, there is a lovely, almost new edition of this classic novel up for grabs. All you need to do is leave a comment. I will then draw a name from a hat (or cup or bowl or other receptacle) at random. The party is open to everyone, so do not worry about where you live.

Bon weekend!