Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cover Designs! #6

And now for another installment in my occasional feature: "women facing away on book covers" matched up with a modern pattern that can recreate the look of her outfit, with some creative license!

I recently discovered this fabulous vintage cover over at The Dusty Bookcase, whose review is entertaining in itself -- this book sounds lurid, dreadful, and like a good argument for why 'vintage' is not always better.

As soon as I saw that dame's back I knew instantly which pattern could replicate that look. The brassy hair, however, is another story...

I would choose Vogue 8728
See, even the gloves and shoes are right on!

This back view provides a better comparison. Lengthen this one
slightly, perhaps reduce the fullness of the skirt slightly...spot on.

This line drawing gives a clear view. Exchange
the skinny belt for a wide green sash and you are done.

This cover model clearly does things her own way, including what really should be a vintage fashion faux pas in her colour choices ("blue and green should never be seen") I can only think she's reaching into her green purse for a revolver...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Cleaner of Chartres

The Cleaner of Chartres / Salley Vickers
New York: Plum, 2014, c2012.
296 p.

And the third in my trio of books set in France, this is a more modern and mysterious story than the others.

Agnes Morel is a stranger to Chartres, despite having lived there for nearly 20 years. She is a quiet, reclusive woman, trying to keep on living despite a dark secret in her past. Because of this secret, she doesn't make friends lightly -- she really only has one or two.

Agnes works as a cleaner, both for the great Chartres Cathedral and for local residents. This occupation gets her into some hot water, as one jealous housefrau accuses her of theft and then stirs up gossip about her past, becoming obsessed with uncovering Agnes' secret. This situation drives most of the action of the story, although most of the actual "action" takes place in the past, and here we are finally seeing the truth and its repercussions.

Chartres is a beautiful part of this book; the town's side-by-side modernity and very ancient history creates a wonderful setting. Scenes of Agnes scrubbing the 11th century labyrinth on her knees, following the path as she goes, are a rich symbol of her daily existence as a penitent, trying to atone for her previous life. There are quite a number of mentions of the labyrinth in this novel -- how could there not be, when it is such a part of Chartres? (and a large part of the inspiration for this novel). Agnes' lonely work in an empty, quiet cathedral is beautiful and evocative, even when suddenly broken by the appearance of Alain, a stone mason working far above on repairs. It was because of my own interest in the labyrinth that I picked up this book in the first place, hoping to see some mention of it; it is discussed and evoked in a wonderful manner, wholly within the context of the story.

Gentle priests, troubled women, painters, artists, restaurateurs...there are many intriguing characters living in the old town of Chartres, interacting with Agnes as she moves in her daily round, brushing against the walls she's set up to protect herself, drawing her into community. In this way I see the structure of the whole book as a labyrinth; Agnes is following the same path as others, though they are all in different places.

But even without a fascination for the labyrinth like mine, readers can enjoy a well-developed character in Agnes, and the strong presence of France itself as the setting for her story. It's a slow-moving book that depends on characters being exposed bit by bit, through indirect means -- it's perfect for those who enjoy stories based on character, told in language that is also full of images, reflecting the fragmented nature of Agnes' past life. I really enjoyed this book, as it slowed me down to follow the twists of the sentences and the story. But it also held lots of human behaviour that made this deceptively quiet; there are many incidents despite the slower pace. It's worth getting to know Agnes, and especially Chartres.

Further Reading:

Joanne Harris' Chocolat captures the same feeling of a strange woman in a small French town who mysteriously causes things to happen, and people to change.

An Uncertain Age by Ulrica Hume also centres around Chartes and delves into its mysterious esoteric past. It features characters who are on a philosophical search for meaning and who experience things that can't always be explained.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Those Without Shadows

Those Without Shadows / Francoise Sagan; translated from the French by Frances Frenaye.
New York: Dell, 1959, c1957.
158 p.

Now here's another slim tale set in France, but it is so very different from my last readerly visit to that country: this one is definitely for adults, and it is much more cynical as well.

In fact, the level of blase cynicism really put me off. Because the book was brief, because it was written by Sagan, because I had hopes it might turn around for me, I continued. But sadly, the mid-century French misogyny just got me down. I've seen Sagan's characters compared to Salinger's take on restless teenagers -- perhaps that should have warned me off as I also dislike Salinger -- but I went ahead and read this account of shallow, substance-less people existing amidst great ennui, "those without shadows" indeed -- they are all surface.

It is fully taken for granted in this book that young beautiful women are every middle-aged man's property to trade and use and lust after. That middle-aged wives just have to grin and bear their husband's public infatuations, after all, they've lost their looks and are lucky they're still married. That a young woman can sleep with one man because she's sorry for him (oh, so sad, you've turned down his advances so owe him one) and then go home to another who is far below her intellectually but whom she adores because he is strong, aggressive, and possessive.

There is a whole mess of characters in this tale, and they're all tangled up. Older male writers and businessmen, young female actresses and ingenues, dumb young men from the country, tortured young artistic men etc. etc. They all lust after one another, shift their allegiances, and trail off into an inconclusive ending.

I was so not in the mood for this kind of read; I could find no redeeming qualities in it except for the adorable vintage cover. After two tries at her novels (Bonjour, Tristesse was the other) I think I've pretty much established that Sagan is not the writer for me. Perhaps she will find admiration elsewhere from now on.

Thursday, August 21, 2014



Aarti of Book Lust is once again hosting her More Diverse Universe reading challenge. I'm really looking forward to it! 

Previously this challenge was focused on science fiction & fantasy, as that is an area in which writers of colour are noticeably underrepresented. This year, however, Aarti has adapted the challenge to include ANY book written by a person of colour. Whatever you like to read, pick just ONE book and read along!

Aarti says:

  • Read and review one book
  • Written by a person of color
  • During the last two weeks of September (September 14th – 27th) 
Do you think you can do it? Sure you can! Sign up over at Aarti's blog and join the plethora of readers who will be celebrating the vast number of books that feature a more diverse universe.

I'm not sure what I'll be reading, but I have some great choices on my TBR right now, so I will probably pick up at least one of those. I've discovered some fabulous authors through this challenge, hope to find more this year!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Godden's Greengage Summer

Greengage Summer / Rumer Godden
New York: Viking, 1958, c1957.
218 p.

I've read many of Godden's books, though I hadn't got to this title, one of her most well-known ones, until now. I thought that a warm summer's day sitting in the backyard was the perfect environment for this read, and as it happens, I spent an entire day last week reading it (ending up with a little bit of a sunburn to go with it!) My copy is an old green clothbound edition, with a yellow imprint of plums on the front -- it feels vintage.

It's a interesting tale; partly a coming-of-age for our narrator, partly a story of children abroad sans parents, partly a thriller. The Grey family is being taken abroad by their mother, who feels they don't have an appreciation of life and need to tour the war cemeterie
s and battlefields of France to get some perspective. Their mother, who is a bit of a flibbertigibbet, has found a hotel on the recommendation of a local gentleman, Les Oiellets. Just before they leave England, she gets a horsefly bite, which rapidly turns into a serious illness thanks to blood poisoning.

The children manage to get her to the hotel, where a fellow Englishman recognizes how ill she is and pops her into the local hospital, after she has extracted his promise to look after the children. This is certainly one element that dates the story; letting a strange man look after all five of your children! And there is more to this man that is first apparent; his charm has a darker side.

Narrator Cecil, second oldest of five children, is the voice of the story. Her father is a botanist who regularly goes on 3 year expeditions -- he's now in Tibet -- which explains why all of the children are 3 years apart in age. The eldest, Joss, is 16 and blooming into a beautiful young woman, which has a large influence on the plot. She's also a painter. Cecil is 13, a natural observer, and a writer. Her analysis of their experience is clear and unsentimental. The middle child, Hester, is quiet and accepts anything that comes along, and she loves her camera. The only boy, William, known to the family as Willmouse, is 7 and he is fixated on fashion design, and loves Vogue magazine. He spends most of his time in his 'atelier' under a tree in the garden, mocking up dress designs with his sketchbooks and dolls. He definitely sees himself as a designer, scoffing at the idea that he would sew these dresses himself; "they'll be sewn in my workrooms". I hadn't expected this character -- just one more example of fashion playing a role in the fiction I've been reading. And youngest child Vicky, just about 5, is a charming little thing who loves food and captures the heart of the chef in their hotel. Each of these children has their own area of creative expression, something that I find very Rumer Godden-ish.

Also very Godden-ish is the way that all the other characters are cruel, selfish, or warped underneath their social facade. The hotel concierge and owner are both rather malevolent, and the kitchen boy Paul, befriended by the two middle girls, grabs Cecil's breasts at one point and threatens the eldest with sexual assault; and yet they don't speak up or seem to think they can do anything much about it. Rather, they feel sorry for him. The plot and some of the incidents, like these, do much to date this story; it's an example of what's taken for granted in mid-century by these children.

In any case, this story does have a dream-like summer idyll feel to it, a warm drowsiness which hides the danger beneath the calm. The children escape damage, but they do experience violence and threat, some psychological, some actual physical attack. They stick together as a unit, though, and are able to survive. The story comes to an action-filled, police-included conclusion that is traumatic, emotional and unexpected, in light of the slower moving first half of the book. But Cecil gets it all down, and we know from the moments in the story in which the adult Cecil comments on the past that they all move on from this experience.

It's a book that features many children, and yet is not for children. There are adult themes and it carries a sense of recording a lost world, in all its harshness, that might only be appreciated by adult readers. If you like Godden, or are interested in an unsentimental portrayal of the loss of innocence in the early teen years, told in wonderful style, this will be one for you. It's a great summer read.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tiger in the Smoke

The Tiger in the Smoke.jpgThe Tiger in the Smoke / Margery Allingham
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, c1952.
254 p.

This was a great book. Really, the most interesting of all the varied and interesting crime titles I've been reading lately.

It's set in post-WWII London -- the Big Smoke. Heavy fog plays a continuing role in this story, and Allingham's own description of weather in London reminded me of the opening lines to Dickens' Bleak House:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

But in this novel, the fog remains the same while the world has changed; it is now a world that includes damaged war vets, criminal gangs, and murderers, rather than skippers and pensioners. As the story begins, word comes to Albert Campion and Inspector Charles Luke that Jack Havoc, criminal mastermind and psychopath, has escaped from jail and is at large in London. They must try to puzzle out where he is and what his next move is going to be. They never quite catch on though, and that is what makes this book so intriguing.

The story is not a typical detective story, as it is much, much more about the psychology of Havoc, of others who enable him, of class conflict, of trust and betrayal, and the struggle between good and evil in the soul of every character. It's fascinating how each of the characters is drawn for the reader, how the saintliness of one character, Canon Avril, is counterbalanced by the cold-hearted criminal sociopath, Havoc, who has no compunction about killing violently as he feels like it. He is a thorough villain, and yet even he has some background that makes him more than an evil caricature.

There are wonderful side characters (including a gang of unstable misfits who have turned to crime in lieu of any other option) who add complexity to the tale. There is a love story at the heart of the book as well; fashion designer Meg Elginbrodde is about to marry Geoffrey Levett, but someone has been sending her current photos of her soldier husband, who had been presumed dead for the last five years. She enlists her friend Amanda -- and Amanda's husband Albert Campion -- to help her figure out what is going on. These two storylines converge, of course, and we follow the increasingly dangerous behaviour of Havoc as he tries to locate a fabled treasure that is linked to Meg (unbeknownst to her).

I loved the setting of this tale, and the way the characters are drawn. Meg, Geoffrey, Canon Avril, Jack Havoc, and even the new detective Charles Luke, are the strong nucleus of the book. Campion himself plays an important role in the progression of events, but isn't a focus of the story -- he is not the main character whom we follow to solve a mystery. I liked Meg, even with her rather helpless nature; she was one more example of someone involved with fashion and sewing, which I've been coming across a lot in my Century of Reading books, purely by chance but of great interest to me. Clothes actually play a bit of a role in the plot too, and it was entirely plausible that they would. 

I really don't want to say much about the plot; it's efficiently constructed and makes a kind of sense, but I'd like to leave it to you to discover. The style is fairly dry and intellectual, to counteract some of the more sensational elements, and I enjoyed that juxtaposition. But the star of this show is the setting, that foggy, dangerous London which reflects the confusion of the story, and which clears as the story does. Allingham's character exposition is also excellent here, and all these elements go together to create a very satisfying thriller. I recommend this one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Shelf

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading / Phyllis Rose
New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, c2014.
271 p.

Bookish people unite! Phyllis Rose has written another tale of extreme reading -- in which she takes a random shelf (LEQ to LES) in her exclusive New York subscription library and reads all of the books on it, documenting her progress.

I both liked and disliked this one. While I see that Rose has a lot of critical skill to bring to bear on her experiment, I don't think that it's a unique effort. So many library patrons are doing this very thing every day -- but then, they're not reflecting on their habit or writing essays exploring each author's context and relevance.

While the plot summaries for each book might be dull going, Rose's commentary on each title is often funny, clever, or enlightening -- she's done her research on each book that came her way. It's a very modern look at the way we read; Rose uses Google, Wikipedia and more to investigate her titles. But this experiment also reveals her own reading gaps. When she reads Lermontov's classic A Hero of Our Time, she becomes infatuated with it, searching out other translations, rereading and researching extensively. But when she comes across Margaret Leroy's Yes, My Darling Daughter, she doesn't recognize that it is a modern novel in the gothic romance tradition until other readers enlighten her. It's illuminating to see the ways in which she responds to the varied books on this shelf; it makes me more conscious of my own reading choices and blind spots, too.

Many readers have commented that they enjoyed the chapter on women and privilege -- something that many bloggers discuss extensively -- Rose shares the VIDA numbers, she talks about false categorization, she discusses A Room of One's Own. It's an important chapter on a topic that can always use more discussion, and I found it engaging.

The other bit that many readers have noted as fascinating was a chapter of library de-accessioning. I guess it must be a glimpse inside for many readers, but as a librarian myself I was not interested in going over this thorny issue yet again and must admit I skimmed that chapter. I really didn't feel like getting into work issues while reading for pleasure!

The key message of this book, for me, was to take a chance at making your own unmediated choices -- in reading as well as other things. Other readers have noted the same element: an excerpt from Kerfe's Goodreads review:
"But if we want to open ourselves to the new, the uncomfortable, the exciting and strange, we need to be willing to look beyond the curated life."

And a long essay about moving beyond the filtered life which I just serendipitously found online is also right on target with the message of this book as well.

Rose's love for libraries comes through strongly over the course of the book, which is nice. And her exhortation to read independently is a wonderful one -- worth reading this book just to discover it, as follows:
Only libraries promote random reading through their open stacks and that ultimately random system of organization, alphabetical order. Otherwise, in all realms, literary and literal, the guided tour prevails... That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it's just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.... What do you value? Why? Does reading have more merit than any other way of passing time? Is it useful to read randomly? alone? in discussion groups? bad books? old books? new? I wish that literary criticism could be built back up on the grounds of experience, closer to book reviewing than to academic theory, with a bias toward enthusiasm.......
Well, my fellow enthusiastic book bloggers, that's our call to arms. Keep reading, and keep reviewing, randomly. Let's keep reading off the beaten path!