The oldest book (by publication date) which I finished recently was Charles Lamb’s Last Essays of Elia. I still can’t make up my mind about Lamb. Some of his writing is delightful; so whimsical and opinionated, that you have to love him. But his style is so convoluted! It seems old-fashioned for its time (he died in 1834) and he’s harder to read than, say, Boswell, who was writing much earlier.
I then jump to 1928 and As Far as Grandmother’s which, as reported earlier, I was lucky enough to find at the market just when Edith Olivier had swum into my ken. I enjoyed it very much and would like to find more books by her. It deals with three generations of women. ‘Grandmother’s’ is where grandmother lives, within walking distance of her daughter’s house. Grandmother is a person who always gets her own way through sheer force of personality. Her daughter escaped by eloping, then living in a nearby cottage. She gets her own way by lying on a sofa and being so apparently passive and delicate that no one dares cross her. That leaves our heroine Jane, stuck in between the two. Which path will she follow? It’s interesting to find out. This is exactly the kind of book which Persephone might publish.
Let’s move on to O Douglas and Unforgettable, Unforgotten, another market find. This is a memoir of family life rather than an autobiography and much of it deals with her brother, John Buchan. It’s interesting to note how the family lives in a fairly humble way then, through John’s success, get to move amongst the great and the good. I do recommend this to anyone who likes O Douglas, because it shows how much her writing was based on her own experience. In her introduction, she writes that all her books are about remembering happier times, which must account for the comfort factor so many people find in her books. When I’d finished this, I re-read Pink Sugar. It was a good choice because the writer Merren Strang who becomes Kirsty’s friend, shares many characteristics with O Douglas and writes the same kinds of books; books which don’t dwell unnecessarily on unpleasant things, or ‘slime’ but cheer the reader.
When cornflower mentioned H E Bates recently, I remembered that I had an unread book by him on the shelf: The Feast of July. This is a book club edition with a pretty cover, shown above. I think it was another market buy. This is an historical story, set in the Midlands in the nineteenth century. The way the characters speak and the descriptions of local trades are slightly reminiscent of George Eliot. All the descriptions of the countryside are lovely (Bates was good at that) but the heroine, Bella, somehow fails to satisfy. Deserted by her first love, she goes in search of him, only to find another. It’s an interesting story but we don’t really know Bella any better by the end of the book than we did at the beginning.
One Last Summer, by Aubrey de Selincourt is the only children’s book I’ve read lately and was, wait for it, another lucky find at the market. Published in 1944, it’s the fourth book about the Rutherford family, who are all mad keen on sailing. This is a holiday adventure involving wrecks and local mysteries. The Rutherford parents are quite casual about leaving the children to their own devices and they seem to sail or camp as they please. There is some depth to the characters; the reader is bound to find Robin and Elizabeth (the sensitive, thoughtful ones), more attractive than the other two. I’d previously read one other book in the series. It didn’t make me want to collect the lot but they are essential reading for anyone interested in children’s books published in the 1940s.
The Drama channel showed ‘The Dorothy L Sayers Mysteries’ yet again. I can never get enough of Edward Petherbridge playing Lord Peter, so I watched them. Then I re-read Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, which I always think of as one book. Of course, I’ve read Gaudy Night several times before but on this occasion I was struck by how very long and self-indulgent it is. I can understand why Sayers wanted to write it, though. I always enjoy Busman’s Honeymoon in spite of its many toe curling moments, because it’s so cleverly done. It’s chilling the way every clue to the murder is laid out before the unsuspecting reader and characters in the very first chapters.
I needed a book which would be compulsive reading for a while and looked through my Mary Stewart hoard. I found Nine Coaches Waiting, which I’d never read before and could hardly put down. It fitted the bill perfectly. I followed that with another one new to me, Thunder on the Right. That wasn’t quite as good, I thought, and was much too short. Still looking for safe books, I turned to Carola Dunn and Daisy Dalrymple. I’ve already read Murder at Wentwater Court, and The Winter Garden Mystery and am on the next one now. This must be my third read of what has become a favourite series.
Books to be published in September
The Paradise of Glass by Petra Durst-Benning is the final book in The Glassblower Trilogy and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.
At first I thought it suffered from ‘Oh no, I have to write a third book’ syndrome, but I was soon drawn into it, even though parts were rather melodramatic. In the first book we are introduced to the Steinmann sisters, from a glass blowing family in Lauscha. Left on their own when their father dies, each sister follows a different path. Ruth marries a boorish local glassblower and eventually leaves for America with her rich future husband Stephen and her young daughter. Marie is the creative one who becomes the first female glassblower in Lauscha and spends her time designing beautiful glass baubles. Johanna turns entrepreneur and eventually runs a successful glass blowing workshop. Again, she is the first woman to do so.
In book two, Ruth has become a conventional New York society lady and tries to bring up her daughter Wanda to be the same. Marie travels to America on a visit and (spoiler, I can’t possibly reveal what happens to her!) Wanda discovers that although she loves Stephen, he’s not her biological father. Against Ruth’s wishes, she travels to Europe to discover where she came from and meets up with Marie.
On to book three and Wanda is now looking after a baby which isn’t hers. In Lauscha, she tries to help the villagers when the local foundry is to be taken over by a cruel new owner. There are many financial shenanigans and the book turns into a thriller as Wanda and friends unmask the villain, incidentally getting some revenge for Johanna, whom he wronged in book one. Phew. The Steinmann sisters triumph again! I still prefer the first book to the next ones, but once you’ve read that, you’ll want to find out what happens to the girls.
The New Meritocracy: a History of UK Independent Schools 1979 – 2015, Mark Peel
This wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. I was misled by the first part of the title, with its obvious reference to Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy. This book is neither sociological nor a polemic but exactly what the title says, a history. It’s a very detailed and, I assume, accurate account of how independent schools have been forced to adapt to changing conditions in order to survive and how successfully they’ve done so. This is all very good and interesting, although I skimmed those parts of the book dealing with rugby:-) I remain unconvinced by the ‘meritocracy’ aspect. It’s well known that social mobility has actually declined since the 1960s and 70s; that fewer students from state schools go to Oxbridge now than did then, and that a disproportionate number of top jobs in the professions are still held by the privately educated. Peel’s argument seems to be that the independent schools are now more deserving of this dominance because of the dramatic rise in their standards which has made them amongst the best schools in the world, hence ‘meritocracy’. Like most of the heads of independent schools (who are as worried about state education as anyone else), he has no answers. I think his book would be more convincing if ‘meritocracy’ had been left out of the title. It’s an interesting book, full of anecdotes, and I’m sure Mr Peel is a good egg, because he’s written a biography of Ken Barrington, one of the cricketing heroes of my youth.
My thanks to Elliott & Thompson for sending me a copy.