Minaret – Leila Aboulela (2005)

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When I was scanning a few book blogs the other day, I came across Minaret (Leila Aboulela) and picked it up from the library a few days later. I was intrigued by the topic, it was fairly short (matches my current summer levels of concentration), and it fit in well with my current focus on reading more POC authors. So, I picked it up last weekend, and then finished it on Sunday evening. (Quick read indeed.)

Aboulela is a Sudanese author, and this fictional narrative traces the spiritual (and literal) journey of Najwa, a Sudanese woman whose family is caught up in a big corruption government scandal, leading to them living in forced exile in London.

It’s an interesting story, but for some reason, I wasn’t too taken with it. Was it the writing? (It’s written in a very simplistic manner, but I’m not sure why that was the case. The protagonist was not a simple person, and her life was not straight-forward. Perhaps the simple style is used as a foil to reflect the complexity of her life? Not sure.)

Anyway, few contractions, few complex sentence structures, and pretty bare-bones descriptions… Not usually a big fan of that style, but I kept reading… (The reviews were so awesome, I thought that I was missing something, and perhaps this would all clear up by the end of the book…)

As the reader follows Najwa’s journey, both geographical and otherwise, we learn that she is a middle-aged woman whose rather coddled lifestyle is changed overnight when she is forced to move to England in exile, and live a life of servanthood for the other Sudanese ex-pats who are more wealthy.

This come-down is hard to take at first (naturally), but as the book progresses, Najwa learns how to live this new life. It’s helped by her attraction to the Islamic faith, although she was secular whilst she was in Sudan.

As the book progresses, readers follow her as she becomes a more religious and more devout Muslim woman. Interestingly, she ends up by the close of the story as being much more religiously conservative than she was at the start of the book. I think other reviewers have loved this title as it shows a woman becoming more focused on becoming a strict Muslim, and perhaps this is more typically depicted as a male journey? Not sure, but a lot of great reviews were blurbed on the cover. However, I was not quite as taken for a number of reasons, really.

First, there were some obvious proofreading errors which someone should have caught before it went to print (e.g. repeated or missing words etc.). With so much electronic editing help that is available now, there are few excuses to let this go to print without revisions. It became annoying after a while and was a distraction from the plot. (The author also goes on and on and on about how much the protagonist loves Boney M’s music. OK. We get it. Sigh.)

Second, the protagonist has some strange relationships with people. At first, I put this down to her forced relocation and the new culture and general life disruption, but then, as the story progresses, she ends up falling in love (sort of) with a nineteen year old son of her boss’ family, a young man who is decades younger than she is and who is a lot more radicalized than she is. Of course, problems arise…

I don’t know. It all got a bit confusing with regard to who is who and how they fit into the structure, so that, at times, I just gave an impatient sigh and then checked with a heavy heart how many more pages until the end…

Add to that the fact that the novel plays with time, and you’ve got one lost reader.

So – it wasn’t that great a read for me in the end (in case you haven’t picked that up yet!). I think that some of the reviewers were tripping over themselves to like this book for politically correct reasons, because I ended up with quite a different opinion at the end.

So, just an OK read for me in the end. Meh.

Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One)

Summer-Reading-Guide-HEROAs a public service to you (and a rather fun thing for me to do at the same time), I thought I’d gather some of the titles that I’ve read over the years and that seem to have a summer kind of feel…

Just seeing these titles brings up memories of outside fun in the sun and reading inside in the cool, so perhaps you may like some of them for your reading choices this season. (The list is in completely random order, btw…)

I’m not sure that some of these would qualify for the traditional “Beach Read” definition, but they’re enjoyable all the same. (I’d read them on the beach, but perhaps I’m weird!)

And, naturally, I’d love to hear your suggestions (even if your summer isn’t here yet).

Books with a child’s perspective (and sometimes coming-of-age narratives) would also make up quite a few of my recommendations. (Who can forget those days of summer when you’re a kid [if you’re a lucky kid])?

So, to start off, I thought I would begin the list with some more traditional summer-focused (perhaps “summer-feel”) books.

Since I’m in America, I’ll start off with Twain’s two great summer books, Tom Sawyer  (1876) and Huckleberry Finn  (1884). Sure, there are “teachable” moments in each of them, but these just remind me of childhood in some ways. (Admittedly, my childhood was nothing like them as I grew up in Bedford, England, but they’re still good to read. Our town did have a lovely river though… )

Oh, and don’t forget the adorable Anne of Green Gables who will charm your socks off.

A more English-y summer selection could be, let’s say, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) (which I adore) but which has no blog post (pre-blog). Hmm. May have to reread this little gem again over the next few hot months….  It’s as close to perfect a gentle summer read as anything you’ll find.

For a more caper-ish approach to English summer, try Just William – Richmal Compton (1922), which has some really funny scenes  in it regarding its titular character, William, and some of his adventures… (Plus there is a series of books about him… Lots of summer reading ahead!) Compton also wrote some more adult fiction which others have raved about, so you could check that back-list… Good caper novels are also some of those by John Buchan (who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps et al.)

If you’re more interested in the gently humorous adventures of a particular young bear, then you can’t go wrong with the the Paddington Bear Series as they are set in mostly sunny summers (despite being in England ). Yes, they’re children’s lit, but they are so sweet, and sometimes when it’s 114 degrees outside (as it was the other day), you just want gentle and sweet…

If you’d rather have an arachnid as the star, don’t forget about E. B. White’s delightful (and rather poignant) Charlotte’s Web  (1952).  Sidenote: E.B. White also has several books of well-mannered and pretty gentle essays that are perfect to read on a lovely summer day in a hammock, for example. Try this one for starters: Essays of E. B. White (1977). Reading it is like having a great cup of tea (or glass of iced tea) with an interesting and funny conversationalist.

Ray Bradbury has a couple of strong contenders in this category,  Dandelion Wine (1957) being my favorite. (He also has a sequel of sorts, Farewell Summer  (2006), and it’s almost as good as that first one, but then it gets all weird in the last chapter without explanation, so perhaps a more muted endorsement there.) If you’d like something more challenging, check out Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for a good spec fiction type of read. (Haven’t read his other sci fi titles, but I expect that they are pretty good.)

From English soil, I’d suggest Winifred Foley’s trilogy that starts off with A Child in the Forest (1974), an autobiographical book of Foley’s childhood  of living in a loving but poor family in the forest in Gloucestershire. Marvelous commentary on her life, with some really good and very witty pieces in there as well.

Along those same lines (but with a very different British childhood experience), check out this title, From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties by Philip Oakes (1980) which is another very witty childhood recollection, this time of growing up in an English boarding school.

(Other boarding school stories which are not very demanding reading but would still be fun include Mallory Towers series from Enid Blyton…)

Oh, almost forgot this one: The Railway Children – Edith Nesbitt (1906). (Lots of jolly hockey sticks, how dashingold thing, perhaps a midnight feast or two, and lashings of ginger beer…)

For a great summer read, you certainly can’t go wrong with Laurie Lee’s classic, Cider with Rosie (1959) (pre-blog) followed up with its sequel of sorts, As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning (1969).

For an American perspective of growing up, perhaps you’d like the play, Brighton Beach Memoirs  (Neil Simon (1984), which details the childhood of a funny young man as he navigates those teenaged years on the East Coast during the 40’s…  🙂

(That reminds me: if your community has any local plays, serious or otherwise, they can be really fun to attend and it’s great to see (probably) local volunteers acting their hearts out. Just go with a generous spirit… 🙂 )

Moving into a slightly older age group with the characters’ lives, I’d suggest Seventeen – Booth Tarkington (1914) which covers a gently humorous approach to the tragedies and fragile joys of having your first love. (This is a U.S. book, but the feelings are universal.)

For a complete change of pace but still linking with the topic of coming-of-age/young people, I rather think that Lucy Knisley’s graphic novels have a summer-y feel to them: Displacement and French Milk seem warm-weather to me… Or what about An Age of License: A Travelogue or even her first book Relish?

This leads me to funny (or what I think are funny) books. Have a try at some of these if you’d like to have a good laugh (assuming you have a similar sense of humor as I do):

  • A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson (1998) or any of his earlier works. (He gets crabby and grumpy in the more recent books, but the old ones are still rather fun.)
  • P.G. Wodehouse books are mostly light-hearted summer fun
  • Three Men in a Boat– Jerome K. Jerome (1889) (pre-blog but worth searching out)

The Jerome book is in a diary format with short entries, and if you’re in the mood for some good and pretty funny epistolary (journal/letter format) reading, I can suggest the absolutely gorgeous read, Letters from New York – Helene Hanff (1992).

More diary joy resides in The Country Diaries: A Year in the British Countryside (Alan Taylor (ed.) (2009)) which, just as it says on the tin, covers a whole calendar year of real diary entries about rural living in England from people through history up to the present. An excellent read, and great for picking and putting down, should the summer temperatures affect your concentration…

(You could also try The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diaries edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. More of the same except broader in scope —  a much longer read from a wider selection of sources…)

And Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007) had me nodding with agreement as he talks about how the Queen of England discovers the joy of reading… 🙂

Some other authors with lots of titles that don’t particularly need to be read in order (because – summer!) and that are just plain good and perfect for hot days:

And then don’t rule out the older titles for they also can be great. For example, the long novella/short novel, Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton 1911) is a great read packed with lots of things to think about during and post-reading.

Christopher Morley is a US author, but if you’ve not heard of him, never fear. He’s available on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere, and for just a plain good read of a book about the joys of books and reading, look no further than Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop . *Perfect* for bookie people, these may very well bring tears to your eyes as they are so gorgeous…

English author, T. H. White, is more known for writing about King Arthur and his men, but he does have a gorgeous and poignant back list title called Farewell Victoria (1933) which is a novel following the life of an older character who is struggling to keep up with the process of time at the turn of the twentieth century. (He wasn’t the only one, naturally, as there were/are whole generations with the same struggle.)

I’ll make a break here, but watch out for the non-fiction-heavy book list of suggested summer reading coming soon.

In the meantime, what are your recommendations for some hot weather reading?

ETA: I’ve just noticed that this list of recommendations has very few POC authors or topics in this. I’ll get that addressed soon as there’s a ton of good reads in that category as well…

Catch Up Time…

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So I’ve been doing some reading and thought I’d do a quick catch up post of mini-reviews for you. Nothing wrong with these books at all – just perhaps don’t have that much to say about them, really. Don’t let that stop you from reading them (except for the Bradbury – I can save you some time there. :-))

A Child in the Forest – Winifred Foley (1974)

A delightful memoir of a childhood growing up in the Forest of Dean with a family close to the poverty line – perhaps poor of money, but rich in other ways (but that’s not much good if you’re cold and hungry though….) Anyhoo, this was a really sweet and poignant collection of autobiographical memories for Winifred Foley, and almost made me cry. Along the lines of Cider with Rosie (pre-blog) but a bit tougher of a childhood, I think. The author has a very sly sense of humor which frequently made me smile.

Farewell Summer – Ray Bradbury (2006)

Having been delighted with Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine , I came across this sequel only to find out (post-read) that it’s actually Book 3 in a trilogy. (Dandelion Wine is number one.) No worries. This still works out of order. It’s a fictional take on a small town group of boys who are coming of age as the summer months come to an end, and there are some really good descriptions here of the long summer days and an ongoing half-serious half-humorous battle between the old men and the young gang. Both groups are aching to stop time (but for different reasons), and it’s this theme that runs through the novel. I adore Dandelion Wine, and consider it to be one of the best autumn books to read at that time of year. I think that this title would also be good to read when the leaves turn. However, no leaves turning here and as I’d also been reading another childhood memoir (but NF), I think that this title suffered in comparison. (Plus there was a very unexpected last chapter which was totally out of the character with the rest of the book. Bit weird.) A very quick read, and one I’ll have to pick up again in a few months. It might be fun to read the whole Green Town Trilogy (as it’s called)…

And by golly, I’m determined to finish Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns this week. It’s been a few weeks on this one, and I just need to devote some solid reading time to it. Also about growing up in a small town up in the Potteries in England (but this is set later on in childhood, really). I’m enjoying it, but just piddling around with this read. More to come.

How’s your reading life coming along?

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The Man from the Norlands – John Buchan (1936)

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Another caper novel from old John Buchan (1936), this one is set in mostly Scotland and England, along with some larks in Denmark, and features eponymous hero Sir Richard Hannay as he assists old comrades in rescuing a kidnapped daughter from the hands of enemies. (The “Norlands” reference in the title is to the Northlands and which refers in this case to Denmark.)

In a similar vein as the earlier “The Thirty Nine Steps”, this story relies on completely eye-rolling coincidences and some leaps (or perhaps lapses) of logic, but if you read it as it’s intended to read (as, I assume, a fun way to while some time away and to fall into a world completely different than your own), then it’s a good read. Nothing too deep and meaningful here, it is just a fun read featuring a “Golden Age hero who battles baddies in order to rescue a young maiden from the dragon” sort of idea.

Despite the superficial plot, Buchan is a good writer with an expansive vocabulary and a strong descriptive voice who can effectively weave the various strands of the plot together in a way that makes sense. I do think that this is a book to be read in huge big chunks of time as opposed to picking up and putting down (which is what I was doing). The large cast of characters (one of whom is a Viking descendent) travel up and down England so there is quite a lot of journeying for all involved.  That’s one of the reasons why I recommend you to read this in big chunks, as if not (or as was the case in my own experience), it can get a wee bit confusing at times. It’s quite fascinating just how well Buchan has managed to pack in so many car chases in the plot that they end up making this quite a thrilling read.

Again, classified as a YA book (as was The Thirty Nine Steps), this is a pretty fun and enthralling story about a time gone by. I think this would make a good movie (if it hasn’t been made into one already). Lots of car chases, airplanes, and chasing each other over the moors…

(It’s also titled “The Island of the Sheep” (UK title) or Richard Hannay #5, if you are a serious series kind of person.)

So just a fun read and nicely balanced out a rather heavy book I’m reading about medical apartheid in the U.S. If you’re searching for fast moving fiction and an overall palate cleanser kind of read, you can’t go wrong with one of Buchan’s books.

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951)

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I’ve been familiar with this title since childhood, but hadn’t actually picked it up and read it. Perusing my Century of Books project, the year of 1951 was open and unfilled, so this was the perfect chance to take this title off the shelf. I think I knew the plot on a vague level – man-eating plants, scary, apocalypse etc. – but I do have to admit that it was a much better read than I had thought I was going to get.

This is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the days following an unexplained meteor shower that hits earth one ordinary night. Anyone who watched the meteor shower went blind, but the hero, Bill Masen, avoids that calamity by having had a previous accident to his eyes and being bandaged up that evening. The morning after the shower, Bill’s bandages are taken off, and he is plunged into a new world of mostly blind people and the triffids – clever man-eating plants who can walk around to trap their prey.

It sounds ridiculous, but it was a really good narrative. How does Bill survive when he is one of the few left who can see? How to live in this new world of shrinking resources and aggressive vegetation? Like any post-apocalyptic story, there are bands of people who battle for food and petrol, for clean water and for power, and although the book covers a short period of time, so much happens so quickly that you as the reader are taken along for the ride.

Written in the 50’s, it’s got the cultural references of the time with regard to gender expectations (men should rescue women, women love nice clothes and cook etc.), and it’s so interesting to watch them wrestle with these issues as their new world develops. Overarching everything are the triffids, the experimental plants that have escaped their enclosed yards and are now inching over the earth. They seem to be learning from experience, gathering together for strategy, and communicating with each other. They also have a ten-foot lash that they whip out unexpectedly to kill people.

I’m not usually a sci fi person, but I do tend to like spec fiction like this, and it was a good read overall. I just found out in Wiki that Brian Aldiss, a sci fi historian, called this “a cosy catastrophe” in that it’s a post-war apocalyptic world in which society is destroyed but for a handful of survivors who go on to enjoy a “fairly comfortable existence”. I wasn’t familiar with the term, but now that I know of it, it’s a perfect fit. This is sort of like gentle horror. It keeps your interest but isn’t too scary overall. I loved the read.

Wyndham based this tale on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) (I haven’t read it yet), and was very open about the influence. This Triffid book itself proved to have a long life with multiple versions of radio, movie and TV adaptations so perhaps we’ll track one of them down to watch (or listen to) this Christmas season.

Anyway, this was a surprisingly good read. I enjoyed it.

Cliff Notes of England Trip…

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HMS Belfast, Royal Navy vessel in WWII.

As mentioned, our trip to England was lovely. Weather in England was wonderful (for us). It was cloudy, cold, and rainy which, after the endless summer here in Texas, was a treat. Gloves. Rain coat. The whole thing. Bliss. I did notice that people in London only wear shades of black, grey/gray, or dark blue so my bright pink raincoat stood out a bit. 🙂 No worries. I embraced “being American” (as usually these are the people wearing really bright colors in UK), and I got to stay nice and dry under that colorful exterior.

The flight to the UK ended up being fabulous as, although we bought the cheap seats, the flight was almost empty and so I ended up being able to lie down across three seats the whole way. ZZZZZ. Still, ended up with jet lag and taking a nap about 4p the first day, but wow. What a difference a sleeping flight can be! I’ve flown back and forth across the Atlantic regularly for 30+ years, but this “being able to sleep across a whole row” thing has happened only a few times so I really appreciate it when it does. Hooray for traveling off-season.

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The River Ouse in Bedford, England. We spent a lot of our childhood messing around on the river (a la Toad and Mole).

The first few days were spent in Bedford, the town in which I grew up and where my lovely mum still lives. Lots of memories for me as we wandered around and down by the river (see right-hand pic), and for the first day or two, the streets seemed to be like Toy Town as they were so much smaller than the streets in Texas! Got used to that pretty quickly though, but did keep on having to remember to “Look Left” instead of right when we were crossing the roads.

When we finally arrived in London (where my brother and family live), we had a really in-depth tour of the Houses of Parliament, and I think I finally have the House of Lords vs. House of Commons sorted out now. (Only taken 50 years!) I also learned a ton about the HoP which I didn’t before, so thanks to a good guide (and a former teacher), we had a good time. Did have to have a cup of tea to recover after that though. 🙂

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The Queen’s Coronation Carriage.

Another place that we visited was the Royal Mews, which is where the Queen’s horse-drawn carriages (pic above) are kept and the horses looked after. We’d never been before, so it was really interesting to walk around and see all the carriages in the collection.

Visited the British Library (which was a joy), and saw some of their treasures there (including an original copy of the Magna Carta [sort of the British Constitution] and one of the journals from Captain Scott’s doomed expedition to Antarctica. (Really interesting as I’m reading Volume 2 of the diaries of the men who were on that 1910-1913 trip and who returned in one piece.) Collection pieces ranged from ancient music texts to the original draft of some Beatles music to more up to date stuff, and if you’re ever in the range of the British Library, I really recommend a stop there. You won’t regret it.

Saw my Favorite Uncle Peter (:-)) who took us to a historical clothing exhibition at the Barbican (fascinating) and then out to dinner (yummy). Visited HMS Belfast, a WWII naval ship permanently lodged on the river, and walked across the top level of the famous Tower Bridge. (Well worth doing. It has a glass floor and a mirror ceiling as part of the visit, and this was really discombobulating for lots of people including me. Very fun though. (Check out the pic just below the Tower Bridge pic below. I’m taking the photo looking up into the mirror which is then reflecting the view down [where you can see the traffic]…)

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Got to hang out with my bro and see where he works (University College of London). They have a long tradition of bringing the mummified corpse of the founder (Henry Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux ) to various special meetings and then keeping him in a glass case when he’s not working. Hilarious. Heard my bro play blue grass at a pub with some friends of his, and really just had a good time.

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The UCL Founder’s mummified corpse who actually attends meetings every now and then.

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And maybe, just maybe, brought back some Jaffa Cakes (above) and other pieces of deliciousness that I couldn’t live without… 🙂

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Speaking of food, we went into a McDonalds for a drink, and saw this sign where one can order a meal using the Welsh language and others. (The “Cymraeg” button in the middle.)

Watched three movies on the plane on the way back. (Just couldn’t get into reading for some reason, but that’s ok.) I regrettably watched the recent Absolutely Fabulous movie (but I wish I could get that time back, to be honest). Then I watched Enough Said (which was fun and poignant), and then one more which I can’t seem to remember… Still, a fun way to pass the time if you have to sit down in one place for ten hours (as one does when one is flying from UK to US).

So, had a nice time and really recommend traveling to UK in the off season. (Admittedly, some of the sights do close in October, but there is so much other stuff to do, that it really doesn’t matter much…)

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Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home – Nina Stibbe (2013)

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Coming of age as I did in 1980’s England, I always look back with plenty of nostalgia at that time: few responsibilities, lots of free time, great fashion (!), fantastic music, the belief that the world was our oyster… I just loved the whole thing, and so when I found a book that was about that time by someone who’d been around the same age and was English, I leaped at it. Not only was this by a peer from that time and in England, she had been as lost (future-plan-wise) as I had been, it was funny, and then — delirious joy — it was epistolary to boot.

“Love, Nina” follows the true story of a new nanny who has been employed by the then-editor of the London Review of Books who lived smack in the middle of London. The family was small, but the foot traffic and visitors through the house whilst she was nannying was chockfull of literary and arty superstars: authors, screenwriters, and all manner of other creative types would regularly come for a cup of tea, and all recounted in a series of letters sent by author Nina Stibbes to her sister in Leicester.

Author Deborah Moggach (who was also a neighbor up the street from the family) described this read as “Adrian Mole meets Mary Poppins mashed up in literary London…” and I think this analogy hits the nail on the head. As the book is written from Nina’s own POV, the reader goes through some of what Nina experiences and thinks, and TBH, it was hilarious in places.

(Note: There were quite a lot of names of people who I had no idea who they were, but once you get used to this and realize that this lack of knowledge doesn’t actually affect the story in any big way, you can move along. Don’t fret about not knowing who these literati are. Just jump over the names you don’t know. The book is still really enjoyable.)

So, nothing heavy in this read, but it was a very funny nostalgic visit to UK in the 80’s. I really enjoyed this book, and gobbled it down over one weekend. Highly recommended for anyone who lived firsthand through that fabulous decade and who is looking for a good solid read that makes you snigger with recognition on a hot summer day.

(P.S. Don’t be put off by the cover art. The read is better than it looks.)

Swabbing the decks…

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In a vague effort to clear the decks, so to speak, here is a quick review of some of my more recent reads…

So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Endures – Maureen Corrigan (2015). This was such a good nerdy lit crit read especially if you’re a fan of The Great Gatsby. (Actually, as I think aboutbook364 it, I would think that those people would be the only readers who would choose to read such a book…) I am such a person (see the gushing review here) and I just loved this read and gobbled it down in one weekend. I took rather sparse notes during my read though, so you might just have to take my word for it being so good. But trust me – it was.

I did learn about a theater company in NYC called the Elevator Repair Service group who do a 7-hour reading of the text of the GG every now and then. (I don’t know that I’d attend all seven hours, but I would definitely pop along to see some of it.)

I also learned so much about Fitzgerald and his rather sad life, about how the GG was received critically (mostly on the US shore), and then about how the GG slowly resuscitated itself after Fitzgerald died mostly through the efforts of his friends and then continuing on over the years on its own merits. Just how did it get on to so many high school and college reading lists?

”So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”

FITZGERALD/The Great Gatsby.

(Love that quote. Sort of sums up the Lost Generation time period for me.)

Now I’m searching through my TBR to see what would be a good follow-up to that…

book367Finally, an ILL arrived – a graphic novel this time, from Lucy Knisley (she who wrote Relish which was a great read). This one, The Age of License, was also a GN but about the author’s coming-of-age holiday when she traveled through several European countries trying to get over heart-ache and fulfill her book tour travels… Loved it.

book366The Railway Children (by Edith Nesbitt) was another good read (although totally different from Corrigan’s). I must have seen the BBC TV adaptation when I was a kid as I remember the waving of the red petticoats incident, but that was all I could recall so this was basically a new read for me. Lashings of ginger ale and no contractions in the writing, and reminded me a lot of the narrative style of the wonderful Paddington the Bear books. (Stick with the books. The film is not worth its name, TBH.)

And then I did spend quite some time trudging through the first half of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, but then I couldn’t take the over-writing and endless descriptions of the sea storms, that I had to put it down. Now noodling which other classic to pick up to fill in that year (1904) in the Century of Books project I’ve got going on right now. Any ideas?

The Queen’s Houses – Alan Titchmarsh (2014)

book367It seems that every time autumn rolls around, I end up thinking about growing up in England as their autumns can be spectacularly good (and/or spectacularly bad) depending on the year. On the good years, it’s all about Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and as this is my favoritest season, I love the whole thing.

The England thoughts led to this book title, The Queen’s Houses by Alan Titchmarsh, which is a well produced and glossy invitation to look inside six of the grand locations that the Queen (and/or her family past or present) call home:

  • Windsor Castle
  • Buckingham Palace
  • Balmoral
  • Sandringham
  • The Palace of Holyroodhouse
  • The Royal Mews

You’d think that since I’ve grown up in England that I would know a lot more about these places than I do, but no, not really so this was a fun romp through the Queen’s private quarters with a knowledgeable and rather witty guide. (You know – I do think the photos could have been better, but the content was good.)

As it covered so many vastly different places, I took random notes and so here they are in bullet points for you:

Random snippets:

One of the

One of the “strewer of herbs” people in action…

  • Charles II (mid 1660’s) was very extravagant as King and had lots of servants with titles such as “Royal Comb-Maker for Life,” “Marker of Swans” (swans were sign of royalty), a Periwig Maker, and one lady called Mary Dowle whose job was “Strewer of Herbs” and who always walked before the King to strew herbs (literal name) as they were believed to ward off the plague.
  • In the 1780’s, there was a position in the Royal Court titled “Keeper of the Buckets”…
  • An awful lot of rebuilding of palaces etc. all took place during the nineteenth century with both Victoria and her earlier relatives. (Before that time, a lot of these royal houses were in various states of disrepair.)
  • George IV (another extravagant young chappie) took over the country estate of his parents (which included Buckingham then-House) just outside London (then much smaller in size), and added wings and other pieces (such as the railings in front etc.) to make it fit his idea of a metropolitan palace. Before this, Buckingham House was a fairly small country house (country home speaking).
  • VE Day (8 May 1945) marked the end of WWII and is so-called because the full title is “Victory in Europe” Day. I  knew what the day stood for, but not the acronym. Huh. This seems so obvious now, but honestly, I didn’t know that.

Victoria snippets: queen-victoria

  • * Victoria had five attempted assassinations on her during her reign.
  • * When Victoria moved into Windsor Castle in 1837, it was a huge event with a big celebration including “the only English female aeronaut” Mrs. Margaret Graham. She went up in a balloon named “Victoria”. Apparently Mrs. Graham had several falls (presumably from high places), and one was described as “although the ground was very hard, there was an evident of her form upon it.” Despite this tendency, she lives to a grand old age for the times.
  • Victoria (oh, Victoria, how I love thee – you’re so weird!): After Albert had died and after her friend John Brown had died, she took an interest in two Indian servants. One of the two was called Mohammed Abdul Karim (or the Munshi for short) and Victoria developed a very close relationship with him. She even spent the night with him in a cottage on the Balmoral estates (much to everyone’s horror). He was not generally well liked – one person described him thus: “his one idea in life seems to be to do nothing and to eat as much as he can”… However, despite such widespread disapproval amongst the Court, Edward VII allowed Munshi to be the very last person to view Victoria’s body and then to take part in her funeral procession. He was subsequently dismissed and returned to India. (I wonder what he did then?…)

QEII snippets:

Local Input~ ROYAL QUIZ- Q30 - Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward's Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward’s Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • The Queen (QEII) has two birthdays, one of which (the “official” birthday) lands in the middle of June. This tradition was started in 1908 by Edward VII who had a November birthday, and whose outdoor birthday celebrations were invariably squelched by bad weather. (For for some reason, I had thought that this was a centuries old tradition.)
  • Re: Other country’s State Visit to England: no more than two countries accorded a state visit each year, and the cost is met by the Royal Treasury.
  • Re: 21 gun salutes: This is a standard gun salute for heads of state but the number can be increased to 41 if the salute is given in a royal park. President Obama and First Wife Michelle were given a 41-gun salute during their May 2011 trip to England. (They were in Green Park, a royal park.) That seems a really long time to stay interested in the event (at least to me). Still, lovely idea.
  • Speaking of processions, it wasn’t until 1953 that the Mall was resurfaced with an application of iron oxide pigment to give the idea of the royal processions walking on a red carpet. (Another thing that I had thought was really really old.)
  • Re: state banquets: The Butlers’ Guild (real thing) says it takes about 15 minutes to set each place setting, and soup has been abolished from state banquets as soup takes at least 20 minutes to serve, eat and then clear away which makes the occasions far too long.

Royal horses snippets: royal-mews

  • The Royal Mews – all this time and I haven’t gone to the Mews so this has been added to the list for next time we’re over there. Called the Mews because the earliest records mentioning that location, back in 1377, said it was the place where royal hawks (usually falcons) were kept during their moulting (or mewing) time from late April to early October. (Mew is from French muer – to change, apparently.)
  • The Royal Mews were originally where Trafalgar Square is now, and were demolished in 1835.

And so it goes on with all sorts of intriguing little nuggets of information about royalty. If you’re curious about the domestic lives of royalty, you will love this book. A potential Christmas pressie, perhaps?

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.