Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Halloween Special: What the Witch Knows

the book:

Halloween Party by Agatha Christie

published 1969     chapter 1

One of the most popular contests, at any rate among the girls, was the arrival of the Halloween witch played by Mrs Goodbody, a local cleaning woman who, not only having the necessary hooked nose and chin which almost me, was admirably proficient in producing a semi-cooing voice which had definitely sinister undertones and also produced magical doggerel rhymes.

“Now then, come along. Beatrice, is it? Ah, Beatrice. A very interesting name. Now you want to know hat your husband is going to look like. Now, my dear, sit here. Yes, yes, under this light here. Sit here and hold this little mirror in your hand, and presently when the lights go out you’ll see him appear. You’ll see him looking over your shoulder. Now hold the mirror steady. Abracadabra, who shall see? The face of the man who will marry me. Beatrice, Beatrice, you shall find, the face of the man who shall please your mind.”

observations: Agatha Christie was interested in witches: the idea of them (at least) features in several books, and in The Pale Horse there is an extended discussion. Miss Marple tells us in Nemesis her views on the staging of Macbeth, how the witches should look like normal old women, but with a faint air of menace.

This witch does not predict which of the girls is going to die shortly…

The party itself is quite hard to picture. The age range is from 10 to 17 (though it’s also described as an 11-plus party for those about to go to new schools), and there is a fairly relaxed claim that teenage parties (though clearly not this one which – murder apart – is very respectable) might feature drugs such as LSD or pot. A couple are caught snogging: the boy is 15, the girl 12. The adult hostess’s friends (and a houseguest in the shape of Ariadne Oliver) have all come to help. It all sounds extremely unlikely, but whether that is because we are the wrong age and class, or because no such party ever took place, is hard to decide.

The recent TV version of this one took the usual liberties with the plot (including apparently moving it back in time to the 1950s), but did do a spooky atmosphere very well. The book has a very strange and disturbing atmosphere, but it seems quite separate from Halloween, which doesn’t really feature once the murder is done and we can get on with finding clues.

Links up with: Other Halloween Special entries this week.
The Pale Horse featured a spooky séance. Men having their fortunes told here and here.

The picture is another of the Halloween
greeting cards held by the New York Public Library.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Halloween Special: Children Dressing Up

the book:

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

published 1978


Mary Ann tugged on her driver’s arm. ‘Oh, Norman… beep will you?’

‘Who is it?’

‘Michael and his parents. Mona’s roommate.’

Norman tapped on the horn. Michael looked towards them as Mary Ann blew a kiss from the window of the Falcon. He smiled feebly and pretended to yank out a handful of hair. His parents were charging ahead, oblivious.

‘Poor baby!’ said Mary Ann.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh….it’s complicated.’

‘He’s queer, isn’t he?’

‘Gay, Norman.’

Lexy poked her head over the seat. ‘What’s queer?’

‘Sit down,’ said Norman.

Mary Ann turned around and fussed with Lexy’s Wonder Woman cape. ‘You look so nice, Lexy.’

The child bounced on the back seat. ‘Why don’t you have a costume?’

‘Well… I’m a grownup, Lexy.’

The child shook her head vehemently and pointed out the window to three men dressed as high school majorettes. ‘Those grownups have costumes.’

Mary Ann sighed. ‘How old did you say she was?’

observations: Halloween in San Fransisco in the 70s - it is a Sunday, which pretty much makes it 1976 – was something like Mardi Gras. Michael hasn’t come out to his parents yet, and is nervous wandering round the city because Oct 31st truly was The Witches’ Sabbath for the gay population – ‘In this town, he thought, The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name almost never shuts up.’ In the end he gets away with only having to explain away the roller-skating male nuns who loved his jockey shorts.

Meanwhile Mary Ann Singleton (the name tells you her story) is going on a practice date with straight guy Norman and a borrowed child. But of all the story strands, this one, unexpectedly, is one of the darkest, and will drift back into sight in the late addition to the series, Mary Ann in Autumn, 30 years later.

Dressing up and costumes are an important part of Maupin’s series of books, usually seen as a celebration of differences and a way to have fun, rarely negative or hiding anything. 

Links up with: The books follow the inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane over the years – the blog has previously visited
Brian, the straight guy on the look-out for women. More Halloween entries yesterday and tomorrow.

The picture is a Halloween
greeting card from the New York Public Library’s collection.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Halloween Special: Spooky Girls

the book:

The Shining by Stephen King

published 1977

[Jack Torrance hears about his predecessor in his job at the Overlook Hotel] ‘I hired this . . . this unfortunate named Delbert Grady… He had a wife and two daughters…He killed them, Mr Torrance, and then committed suicide. He murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way...’ Ullman spread his hands and looked at Jack self-righteously...

[Maintenance man Watson tells Jack more] ‘Was a ranger from the National Park that found em; the phone was out. All of em up in the west wing on the third floor, froze solid. Too bad about the little girls. Eight and six, they was. Cute as cut-buttons. Oh, that was a hell of a mess.’...

[much later, Jack meets a barman in the hotel] Jack suddenly reached out and touched the man’s shoulder. ‘Yes, sir?’

‘Pardon me, but . . . what’s your name?’

The other showed no surprise. ‘Grady, sir, Delbert Grady.’

‘But you . . . I mean that . . .’ The bartender was looking at him politely. Jack tried again, although his mouth was mushed by gin and unreality; each word felt as large as an ice cube. ‘Weren’t you once the caretaker here? When you . . . when . . .’ But he couldn’t finish. He couldn’t say it.

‘Why no, sir. I don’t believe so.’

‘But your wife . . . your daughters . . .’

‘My wife is helping in the kitchen, sir. The girls are asleep, of course. It’s much too late for them.’

‘You were the caretaker. You—’ Oh say it! ‘You killed them.’ 

observations: And that’s it really. Delbert Grady also claims that ‘My own girls, sir, didn’t care for the Overlook at first. One of them actually stole a pack of my matches and tried to burn it down.’ But the famous weird twins from the 1980 film of The Shining scarcely feature in the book, and in fact are clearly not twins, but sisters. In the film (always associated with Halloween for no particular reason), they play a small but terrifying role, make their memorable mark in it, and were definitely played by twins.

There is endless speculation about this on the Internet – all Stanley Kubrick’s film attract attention, and this one is particularly open to interpretation. For a particularly bizarre and detailed look at the girls, see
this site. Here are two sample quotes:

These twins are universally assumed to be Grady’s daughters, but quite simply they have nothing to do with the Grady family…. The set design isn’t precisely mirrored along the central axis because there’s a connecting hallway to the left, but directly to the right of the hallway is a door with an exit sign above. This exit sign will become thematically important shortly.

Links up with:
Russian sisters, Irish sisters, Boleyn sisters.

With big thanks to the mysterious CharBar who agreed to  their photo being used.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Dress Down Sunday: Miss Pettigrew and the corsets

Dress Down Sunday -
a look at what goes on under the clothes

the book:

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

published 1938  chapter 13


Talk just happened….There was Joe’s career.

Corsets!’ said Joe. ‘There’s a lot of money to be made in corsets. If you can get in touch with the right people. I did. If you can take an inch of a woman’s… well, I won’t mention the place, but you can guess… you can make a fortune. Talk about the age of corsets being done! My eye! You’ve no idea how these society women fly to me to give them the perfect figure they lack naturally. Do you think Julian’s gowns would look the way they do without my groundwork underneath? No, sir, they wouldn’t. A protruding, well, dash it all, you can guess… back or front, could ruin the look of any creation.’

Miss Pettigrew sat fascinated. This was an amazing topic of conversation between a man and woman meeting for the first time, but she found it a thousand times more interesting than discussing the weather. It was not indelicate. It was Big Business.

observations: An earlier entry showed us Miss Pettigrew getting dressed to go to the nightclub where she meets Joe, and should be read to keep up with the plot. Joe tells her she has a splendid figure and asks how she does it. Miss P thinks ‘short food and continual nervous worry’ but replies ‘it’s natural.’

Figure-forming underpinnings change dramatically over the years – particularly with the development of new and lighter materials. It’s also true that whalebone was for hundreds of years used in corsets, and modern sensibilities would no longer allow that. But Joe is right that there’s a big difference between what people say and what they do – you can find 1930s writers busy saying corsetry is finished, but Joe is more convincing. (A future entry will feature another writer taking a line that Joe would disagree with.) And girdles and corselettes were disdained by young women in the 1970s, but somehow corset tops (which would have been seen as Victorian instruments of oppression to 70s feminists), and
Bridget Jones’s Big Pants, and items called bodysuits, all come calling these days.

Links up with: Corsets featured before
here and here, and Sylvia Plath describes the underwear needed to make a dress look good.

The picture is an advertisement for a corset company, and can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Real people in books

the book:

After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold

published 2012  chapter 2

At a quarter past nine, Nettie, Benjy and I went downstairs. I had on my best white dress with blue piping and a blue silk sash, and was already feeling very hot. Nettie had put more ribbons than usual in my hair so as to fix the ringlets in position, but I knew the curls would be out before the end of the day, especially once I’d put on my straw hat. It was the absolute sinful desire of my life to have natural curls like my sisters. Each strand of their hair was always very well-behaved and fell in exactly the same way at the end of the day as at the beginning. I watched them now, sitting demurely side by side on the piano stool, wearing grown-up dresses with extremely puffed sleeves and with silver bangles around their wrists. They always seemed so much older than me, although Christiana was only fifteen and a half and Sarah a year younger. They were both tall, like Papa, whereas I was small for my age and, to my continued mortification, always being mistaken for someone much younger.

observations: The child is called Daisy, or Margaret, but the whole book is plainly based on the story of Alice Liddell, the original of Alice in Wonderland. The hair in the photo is very different from the hair in the extract, and this is quite a feature of the novel – Daisy cuts her own hair, to her mother’s horror. The photo is of the original Alice, and she is a remarkably striking child – Clothes in Books looks at photos all the time, frequently featuring children, and Alice stands out a mile. It is also true that it is very rare for a child of her era and social position to have the short-ish hair in this photo.

This is Gaynor Arnold’s second book fictionalizing the lives of prominent Victorians – the first was the marvellous Girl in a Blue Dress about Charles Dickens and his wife Kate. (Which could have been a title for this one: Alice in Wonderland is usually portrayed in a blue dress).

Links up with: The real Alice has appeared before, as a
beggar girl. The heroine of this novel suffers from amnesia, and a notebook is key, as in this book. Getting curls into your hair is discussed in this entry.

The picture of Alice Liddell can be found on
Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 26 October 2012

The importance of numbers on watches

the book:

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

published 1969 chapter 14


[Narrator Henry is on a train to Istanbul, and has met and is sitting with a young woman called Tooley]

Her hand was on my knee, and the enormous wrist-watch stared up at me with its great blank white face and its four figures in scarlet, 12 3 6 9, as if those were the only important ones to remember – the hours when you had to take your medicine. I remembered Miss Keene’s minute gold wristwatch like a doll’s which Sir Alfred had given her on her 21st birthday. In its tiny ring it contained all the figures of the hours as though none were unimportant or without its special duty. Most of the hours of my life had been eliminated from Tooley’s watch. There were no hours marked there for sitting quietly and watching a woman tat. I felt as though one night in Southwood I had turned my back on any possibility of home, so that here I was shaken up and down between two segments of Bulgarian darkness.

observations: And that’s why Graham Greene is a great great writer. Who else could see the point of the two different watches and express it so well and so perfectly, and make it sound so obvious? Henry twice has his fortune told in this book – by reading tealeaves and palms -  so in this section he is reading the runes, and his future, in watches.

Miss Keene was his one early attempt at romance, doomed to dwindle away, though things will change now that he is travelling with his aunt. It would seem very likely that Henry’s own watch would be straightforward and have all the numbers on it.

The era, 1969, is nicely distant from now – the characters travel by train and boat rather than plane, and the use and possession of cannabis is taken very seriously indeed. An impressive item is that in London Henry is able to call the phone number represented by CHICKEN and order ready meals (of for example salmon) delivered to his home- although commonplace now (and, one suspects, in the US in 1969) this would have been very rare and unusual at the time in London. It would be interesting to know if this was a real service GG knew about and used.

Links up with: Travels with my Aunt featured here, and was one of the triggers for this entry. There’s a girl here too poor to have a wristwatch at all - ‘Wot d’you think we get ’ere? Miners’ wages?’ Frank Bascomb is another protagonist with a penchant for fortune-tellers.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

One of the inspirations for Clothes in Books...

the book:

The Green Hat by Michael Arlen

published 1924 chapter 1

It has occurred to the writer to call this unimportant history The Green Hat because a green hat was the first thing about her that he saw: as also it was, in a way, the last thing about her that he saw. It was bright green, of a sort of felt, and bravely worn: being, no doubt, one of those that women who have many hats affect pour le sport

"Do you know if Mr. March is in?" asked the voice of the green hat. But I could not see her face for the shadow of the brim, for it was a piratical brim, such as might very possibly defy the burning suns of El Dorado… Still she looked up, thoughtfully. She was tall, not very tall, but as tall as becomes a woman. Her hair, in the shadow of her hat, may have been any colour, but I dared swear that there was a tawny whisper to it. And it seemed to dance, from beneath her hat, a very formal dance on her cheeks. One had, with her, a sense of the conventions; and that she had just been playing six sets of tennis…

She stood carelessly, like the women in Georges Barbier's almanacks, Falbalas et Fanfreluches, who know how to stand carelessly. Her hands were thrust into the pockets of a light brown leather jacket -- pour le sport -- which shone quite definitely in the lamplight: it was wide open at the throat, and had a high collar of the fur of a few minks. I once had a friend who was a taxidermist, and that was how I knew that.

observations: Clothes in Books has been running for nine months, this is the 274th entry, and it has taken me this long to find a picture I felt could illustrate The Green Hat, one of the first books I put on my original list of essentials. The book was a massive best-seller in its day – it was racy, Bohemian, very readable, with a melodramatic plot involving high moral principles and low sexual shenanigans. The lady in the green hat is called Iris Storm – what a name! – and she is famous for having ‘a pagan body and a Chiselhurst mind’. She is a heroine that only a man could have conjured up, but she is great fun, and the whole book is still a splendid read. Claud Cockburn writes very perceptively about it in his study Bestseller, a 1970s look at ‘the books everyone read 1900-1939’ – apart from anything else, if you like this kind of novel from the past (and Clothes in Books does), Cockburn gives you a wonderful reading list.

George Barbier was a famous French illustrator with a familiar style – I’d never heard of him but a quick look on Google Images was revelatory.
Falbalas et Fanfreluches means something like frills and flounces, and was the name of a collection of his sketches.

Links up with: More hat stories
here and here. For more books set in the 1920s, click on the tab below.

The picture is by William Orpen, is of his first wife, Grace, and comes from the wonderful website. Orpen’s pictures have featured on the blog before, here and here.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Be careful what you wish for

the book:

Five Children and It by E.Nesbit

published 1902   chapter 9

They all wished hard, for the sight was enough to dismay the most heartless. They all wished so hard, indeed, that they felt quite giddy and almost lost consciousness; but the wishing was quite vain, for, when the wood ceased to whirl round, their dazed eyes were riveted at once by the spectacle of a very proper-looking young man in flannels and a straw hat—a young man who wore the same little black mustache which just before they had actually seen growing upon the Baby's lip. This, then, was the Lamb—grown up! Their own Lamb! It was a terrible moment. The grown-up Lamb moved gracefully across the moss and settled himself against the trunk of the sweet chestnut. He tilted the straw hat over his eyes. He was evidently weary. He was going to sleep. The Lamb—the original little tiresome beloved Lamb often went to sleep at odd times and in unexpected places. Was this new Lamb in the grey flannel suit and the pale green necktie like the other Lamb? or had his mind grown up together with his body?

observations: A second visit to this splendid book. One of the children, annoyed with their baby brother, has thoughtlessly said ‘I wish … he would grow up’ in front of the sandfairy, the Psammead, with predictable results. Wishes are never really allowed to work out too well in story books, and this is no exception, but the moral isn’t hammered home too hard. The Lamb is rather unfortunate in his name – the book isn’t nearly as sentimental as that makes it sound – but not as unfortunate as his sister Anthea, who has the eye-catching nickname of Panty. (She could make friends with Titty from Swallows and Amazons, and form a League of Misnamed Heroines).

The deadpan jokes are as appealing to adults as to children:

"Autre temps autres mœurs," said the creature.

"Is that the Ninevite language?" asked Anthea, who had learned no foreign language at school except French.

The blog is second to none in our
admiration for another great children’s author, Frances Hodgson Burnett – a close contemporary of Nesbit – but you can’t imagine FHB making a joke like that. Nesbit is much funnier, more ironic, more modern.

Links up with: The grown-up baby resembles
this young man from Saki. The Three Men in a Boat are nattily dressed. Jacqueline Wilson wrote a lovely modern day follow-up, Four Children and It.

The picture is of the silent movie star
Buster Keaton. He looks a lot like Sheldon Cooper from the TV programme Big Bang Theory.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Don't mess with Maugham's Julia

the book:

Theatre by W Somerset Maugham
(also known as Being Julia)

published 1937    chapter 20

[Julia Lambert is a famous actress. Her son Roger has asked her to see a young woman about getting a job in the theatre]

She suddenly remembered who Joan Denver was… She was the girl who had seduced poor Roger. Her face went grim. But she was curious to see her… "Tell her I'll see her after the play."

She wore in the last act an evening dress with a train; it was a very grand dress and showed her beautiful figure to advantage. She wore diamonds in her dark hair and diamond bracelets on her arms. She looked, as indeed the part required, majestic. She received Joan Denver the moment she had taken her last call. Julia could in the twinkling of an eye leap from her part into private life, but now without an effort she continued to play the imperious, aloof, stately and well-bred woman of the play. "I've kept you waiting so long I thought I wouldn't keep you till I'd got changed." …Her cordial smile was the smile of a queen; her graciousness kept you at a respectful distance. In a glance she had taken in the young girl who entered her dressing-room. She was young, with a pretty little face and a snub nose, a good deal made-up and not very well made-up.

observations: This is a fabulous book, which is why it is featuring for the third time on the blog. W Somerset Maugham is very under-regarded now, and that seems a shame when his books are so very readable, and, as we keep stressing, his women characters are streets ahead of most male (and a lot of female) writers of his era. He is very realistic about the way women think and act and – very unusual – he does not judge them for sexual misbehaviour. If you think about it, that is not something you could say of many others.

Julia is a wonderful creation: vain, clever, manipulative, amoral and tremendously attractive. Mind you, she does judge women for sexual misbehaviour – Joan, above, will get short shrift as her son’s seducer, but that is just a practice run for what Julia is going to do to another young woman whom she thinks has stolen her man/men.

Links up with: two other entries from this book, and click on Maugham’s label below to see more from him.
This book has a theatrical setting, and these young women could easily be so many Joans. Julia could surely have starred in the play Romance.

The picture is of the Baroness de Guestre, from the
Library of Congress Bain collection. She featured before in this entry: apparently she had many different dresses and rooms to be photographed in, but just the one pose.


Monday, 22 October 2012

The Detective wore magenta, orange and blue

the book:

Death at the Opera by Gladys Mitchell

published 1934  chapter 5


Alceste Boyle saw a woman in the middle sixties, with sharp black eyes like those of a witch, an aristocratic nose, a thin mouth which pursed itself into a queer little birdlike beak as its owner summed her up, and, lying idle for the moment, for Mrs. Bradley had returned his scribbling-tablet to the Headmaster some two minutes before the entrance of Alceste Boyle, a pair of yellow, claw-like hands, the fingers of which were heavily loaded with rings. Alceste’s non-committal cardigan, jumper and dark skirt—a costume which was almost the uniform of the women members of the staff—contrasted oddly with Mrs. Bradley’s outrageous colour scheme of magenta, orange and blue. Notwithstanding all physical and sartorial evidence to the contrary, however, Alceste decided that the queer little old woman was attractive. “You wanted me, Mr. Cliffordson?” she said. “Yes. Take a seat, Mrs. Boyle. Look here.” He handed her the list of names. “All those people were behind the scenes on the night of Miss Ferris’s death. Is the list complete, or can you add to it?”

observations: Death at the Opera is somewhat of a misnomer: the death is at a girls’ school, and the ‘opera’ is a performance of Gilbert&Sullivan’s The Mikado – not what true snobs think of as proper opera. But, as we’ve said before, murder stories at educational establishments get a free ride here, we love them, and Gladys Mitchell – who had a long career as a teacher – did some very good ones.

The remarkable Gladys Mitchell tribute site,
The Stone House, picks out this as one of her very best books, and that might be a step too far, but it is a very typical specimen – if you like Gladys Mitchell, you’ll like this one. They all have bizarre plots, unlikely motivations, extremely unlikely solutions, weird and wild diversions, and some nice writing -  like the description 'non-committal' above.

Links up with: Mrs Bradley’s strange clothes have come under Clothes-in-Books scrutiny
before – with a very similar colour scheme to that mentioned above. All kinds of schools have featured before – search on school in the box above. And for more crime fiction click on the tab above.

The picture is a vintage knitting pattern from this
excellent site, one that's sure to feature again soon.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Dress Down Sunday: Disappointing Knickers

Dress Down Sunday -
looking at what goes on under the clothes

the book:

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

published 1995   chapter 2

[Narrator Rob’s girlfriend has just left him]

I was worried about what it would be like, coming back to the flat tonight, but it’s fine: the unreliable sense of well-being I’ve had since this morning is still with me. And, anyway, it won’t always be like this, with all her things around. She’ll clear it out soon, and the Marie Celestial air about the place – the half-read Julian Barnes paperback on the bedside table and the knickers in the dirty clothes basket – will vanish. (Women’s knickers were a terrible disappointment to me when I embarked on my co-habiting career. I never really recovered from the shock of discovering that women do what we do: they save their best pairs for the nights when they know they are going to sleep with somebody. When you live with a woman, these faded, shrunken tatty M&S scraps suddenly appear on radiators all over the house; your lascivious schoolboy dreams of adulthood as a time when you are surrounded by exotic lingerie for ever and ever amen… those dreams crumble to dust.)

observations: Nick Hornby has featured on the blog before, here and here, but strangely in his moonlighting job as a reviewer rather than in his more prominent role as one of our great modern novelists. He is dismissed by some critics as a lightweight or ladslit author, but he is held in very high esteem round here: great books with serious intent, but written in a very funny and readable style.

He has written a regular column about his reading for a US magazine, and the
collections of these pieces are well worth a look – full of great recommendations for books, but also enabling the keen reader to divine some of his own views on writing as well as on literature.

This was his first novel, following on from the football memoir Fever Pitch, and it is charming and honest and real; very astute about man/woman relations; and very funny. (“We could have done an acoustic set.” “Oh right, Kraftwerk unplugged. That’d be nice.”)

High Fidelity was made into a not-bad-at-all
film in 2000, starring John Cusack, and transferred from the mean streets of North London to Chicago, to the sound of sharp intakes of breath from Brit fans. 

For non-UK readers: M&S is Marks and Spencer, a chainstore where, indeed, most British women buy their underwear. Later Rob tells us that he has been looking for  the Look of Love from the Dusty Springfield song: 'Forget it. As mythical as the exotic underwear.'

 Book suggested by Audrey AND Barbara, so thanks to both.

Links up with: more Dress Down Sunday by clicking on the label below. US/UK usage of the term knickers is discussed in
this entry, and the items themselves turn up here and here.

The picture and its advice - an ad for Ivory Flakes soap powder, found on
Wikimedia Commons – pretty much resists any comment whatsoever, and makes Rob’s views on underwear look positively feminist.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Dressing like a filmstar for a day out

the book:

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

published 2006    section set in 1947


‘You look like a film-star,’ said Reggie, as Viv got into his car. He made a show of looking her over. ‘Can I have your autograph?’

‘Just get going, will you?’ she said. She’d been standing in the sun, waiting for him, for half an hour. They moved together and briefly kissed. He let down the handbrake and the car moved off.

She was wearing a light cotton dress and a plum-coloured cardigan, and sunglasses with pale plastic frames; instead of a hat she had a white silk scarf, which she’d tied in a knot beneath her chin. The scarf and the sunglasses looked striking against her hair and the red of her lipstick. She straightened her skirt, making herself comfortable; then wound down her window and sat with her elbow on the sill, her face in the draught – like a girl in an American picture, just as Reggie had said. Slowing the car for a traffic-light, he put his hand on her thigh and murmured admiringly, ‘Oh if the boys in Hendon could only see me now.

observations: Sarah Waters is a great writer – atmosphere, details and appearances are very important in her books, and she does them very well. Also feelings: in this book in particular, she enters the different characters’ heads and makes each one seem real, describing love, jealousy and loneliness in a way to instil head-shaking admiration. But it’s not a book to love – the reverse structure is mysterious: in my naivete I don’t really understand why you would write a book this way? What’s the point? What does it add?

Also, she writes amazing sentences, then (to my eye) trips them up with endless commas separating clauses unnecessarily. For example, in the lines above, why is ‘waiting for him’ marked off with commas? This may be house-style from her publishers – it’s quite noticeable in other modern books too.

But a wonderful writer, all her books well worth reading.

Thanks to Audrey for the suggestion.

Links up with: Sunglasses were an important fashion item in this
extract, and Bernadette wears them in this book.

The picture is of a real filmstar, Marilyn Monroe, with her then-husband the playwright Arthur Miller. She has featured before in
this entry, and another photo is linked to in this one.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Terrible recipes, great jokes

the book:

The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken

published 1961  chapter 10 Little Kids' Parties


The Hobo Party

This is the best way out of the summer birthday party situation. You advise the mothers to send the children dressed in old clothes. Then you buy a spotted handkerchief for each little guest, put his lunch in it, and tie it to the end of a stick. His lunch could be: three different sandwich triangles, wrapped separately, an apple or a banana, a small chocolate bar, a sealed container of milk, and two straws. You then lead the little horrors, each carrying his bundle, to the park or the zoo for a picnic. (If there’s no park or zoo handy, or no car to ferry them in, let them parade around the block with their bundles and some noisemakers, then have the picnic in the back yard or on the porch.) Bring them into the house last, for the ice cream and cake.

observations: Peg Bracken would never have been decorating cupcakes. She was a great believer in women working, having fun, and living their lives out in the world.  That did not encompass much in the way of cooking, or spending time on housekeeping, and she wrote various books passing on her tips to other women in the 1960s. It would be lovely to report that the recipes in this book are delicious and of great use to modern women, but sadly most of them sound truly revolting. One recipe contains 1 tin of evaporated milk, 2 tins of corn and a tin of tuna, but it has the decency to be called Cancan casserole, and the good thing about the book is that you can read and enjoy it without ever wanting to make most of the food. She is full of good jokes, encouragement, and funny comments.

And, this book contains my favourite line from any recipe or cookbook ever. It comes from the instructions for Skid Road Stroganoff, talking of hobos. Yes it is just as disgusting as it sounds, and yes the ingredients include 2 tins of mushrooms, a tin of chicken soup, and mince. But consider this:

Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.

You could forgive the woman anything for that.

Links up with: Dressing for a children’s party is important

here, picnicking features here and here.

picture is from George Eastman House, a source of wonderful photos which they kindly have made freely available. It’s an advert for Cream of Wheat.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

How the wife finds out? Ian McEwan

the book:

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

published 2012    chapter 2 set in the 1970s

Of course, the situation couldn’t last and it all came apart … The precise sequence of events is worth recording. There was a silk blouse…bought for me by Tony in early July. It was well chosen. I liked the expensive feel of it on a warm evening and Tony told me more than once how he liked the plain loose cut of it on me. I was touched. He was the first man in my life to buy me an article of clothing. A sugar daddy... It was an old-fashioned thing, this present, with a touch of kitsch about it, and awfully girlish, but I loved it. When I wore it I was in his embrace. The pale blue copperplate words on the label appeared distinctly erotic – ‘wild silk hand wash’. Round the neck and cuffs were bands of broderie anglaise, and two pleats on the shoulder were matched by two little tucks at the back. This gift was an emblem, I suppose. When it was time to come away, I would bring it back to my bedsit, wash it in the basin, and iron and fold it so that it would be ready for the next visit. Like me... In a passing moment of something like wifely entitlement, I lifted the wicker lid and dropped my blouse on top of his shirt and thought no more about it.

observations: This is a very complicated part of the plot, and not what it seems – of course his wife is going to find the blouse and everything will go wrong, but still, none of it seems convincing – either the surface version or an intermediate version, or the ultimate version. And a lot of weight  is put on this very slender device, even if the blouse does come from Liberty’s. McEwan has his getout - whatever you think about this book, it is hard to explain and criticize because of spoilers, and because problems, unconvincing bits and unsuccessful bits might have their own reasoning. Still, as we said before, it’s a rattling good yarn, and very absorbing. A clothes mystery in the book: Serena, the narrator, speaks twice about 'boxing socks' (an activity rather than an item of sports clothing) – it is something her mother does for her father – what does it mean?

The book is full of culture and particularly book references – Serena in her youth likes to claim
Valley of the Dolls is as good as Jane Austen – and, even better, a long if possibly off-topic discussion of the Monty Hall probability problem. The whole book might be designed to please those of us who feel we could speak with authority on Jacqueline Susann, Jane Austen AND Monty Hall.

Links up with: an orange silk gown decorated this entry about Sweet Tooth; another troubled empire with spies is
here; affairs are among the many plot strands in this book.
The picture is by Paul Gauguin, and is in an Art Museum in Brussels.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Thomas Cromwell gets Booker Justice

the book:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

published 2012   chapter 1

He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. Every day Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly. Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood. At home in his city house at Austin Friars, his portrait broods on the wall; he is wrapped in wool and fur, his hand clenched around a document as if he were throttling it. Hans had pushed a table back to trap him and said, Thomas, you mustn’t laugh; and they had proceeded on that basis, Hans humming as he worked and he staring ferociously into the middle distance. When he saw the portrait finished he had said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer’; and his son Gregory said, didn’t you know?

observations: The Man Booker Prize for 2012 went to Hilary Mantel last night, for Bring up the Bodies – a huge surprise because it was so obviously the right choice, and Booker juries are notoriously unpredictable. She won the prize for its forerunner, Wolf Hall, in 2009, and it seemed that might be her lot. The Booker is very successful in one direction: it amasses a huge amount of publicity. But it couldn’t ever be painted as truly an award for the best book of the year – its aim is to sell books, not quite the same thing, so wayward selection panels and controversy are always important. But this time, Thomas Cromwell’s stars were in the right place - good fortune called on him, and he was there.

These two books surely will be read forever – Mantel’s ability to create a world and enter her protagonist’s head is extraordinary. Most historical novels based on real events leave the reader wondering ‘is that true, what are the known facts about this, well surely no-one knows…’; but these two have the opposite effect, and you have to keep reminding yourself that it is just a construction, that he probably wasn’t like that at all, and this isn’t the final and correct explanation – as it feels – for all those events of the 1520s and 1530s.

Links up with: both books have featured before,
here and here, and Tudors and Boleyns were on our mind last week as well, twice.

The picture is one
version of the Holbein portrait described above.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Searching for the children with Dennis Lehane

the book:

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

published 2010  chapter 10


[private investigator Patrick Kenzie is looking for Amanda McReady: he talks to the headmistress of the upmarket school she attended]

‘What about the pressure to fit in? She’s a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. The girls here drive Daddy’s Lex. She doesn’t even get Daddy’s bus pass.’

She nodded. ‘Her freshman year, I seem to remember, some of the girls got a little cruel. They taunted her about her lack of jewelry, her clothes.’

‘Her clothes.’

‘They were perfectly acceptable, don’t get me wrong. But they were from Gap or Aéropostale, not Nordstrom or Barneys. Her sunglasses were Polaroids you’d buy at CVS. Her classmates wore Maui Jim and D& G. Amanda’s bag was Old Navy …’

‘The other girls had Gucci.’

She smiled and shook her head. ‘More like Fendi or Marc Jacobs, maybe Juicy Couture. Gucci skews a bit older.’

‘How tragically unhip of me.’

Another smile. ‘That’s the thing – we can joke about it. To us, it’s silly. To fifteen- and sixteen-year-old girls, though?’

‘Life and death.’

‘Pretty much.’

Contains spoilers for the book Gone, Baby, Gone

observations: Moonlight Mile is the follow-up to the 1998 Gone, Baby, Gone - featured in yesterday’s entry - and the two entries should be read together. If you read anything about the second book, it is kind of a spoiler for the first one. Bail now if you don’t want to know.


The lost child Amanda survived the first book, but now she has gone missing again, at the age of 16. Patrick Kenzie – who took a controversial and unpopular decision at the end of the first book – is back on the case, and yet again will search the Boston area underworld for her, as well as some rather more rarefied environments, such as the school above. Dennis Lehane is a wonderful writer, but he’s not one of those authors whose real-life opinions are unguessable – both of these books contain strong opinions on how children should be raised, and you would be very surprised if they weren’t DL’s views.

We are so tragically unhip that we had never heard of Maui Jim’s sunglasses, and looked for a picture to illustrate this entry. But they are just like any other sunglasses (they cost £100 upwards) so this is a Juicy Couture girl instead.

Links on the blog: The
Little Princess was well-dressed for school. These characters wear designer clothes, and these young women are fashion-conscious.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Looking after the children with Dennis Lehane

the book:

Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

published 1998   chapter 31


As I neared Broussard’s driveway, a tall, slim woman with long brown hair holding a child by the hand stepped out at the bottom from around a corner of thick pine. She bent with the child as he picked up the newspaper at the base of the drive and handed it to her. I was too close to stop, and she looked up and covered her eyes against the sun, smiled uncertainly at me…

She was a striking woman. Her wide mouth cut unevenly across her face, rose a bit on the left side, and there was something sensual in the skew, the hint of a grin that had discarded all illusions. A cursory glance at her mouth and cheekbones, the sunrise glow of her skin, and I could have easily mistook her for a former model, some financier’s trophy wife. Then I looked in her eyes. The hard, naked intelligence there unsettled me. This was not a woman who’d allow herself to be put on a man’s arm for show. In fact, I was certain this woman didn’t allow herself to be put anywhere. ..

She turned up the sloping driveway, bouncing the boy on her hip, caressing his face, her slim body moving like a dancer’s in her red-and-black lumber-jack shirt and blue jeans. ‘Good luck with nature,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Thanks.’ She turned a bend in the driveway and I lost sight of her and the child behind the same thicket that obscured most of the house from the road.

observations: Dennis Lehane’s cold hard view of the world and his very clever intricate plots make him an unmissable writer. Nick Hornby says Lehane is a writer to make you walk into lamp-posts, because you can’t put the books down. This one was made into a very successful film in 2007, and the ending of both would leave readers and viewers arguing all night – not for any of the usual reasons (it is not ambiguous or unclear) but because the lead character takes a moral stance, and half the audience will disagree with his decision.

The character above scarcely appears in the book, and plays a minor role, and yet…

The plot concerns the abduction of a small child, and makes for wrenching reading, while the picture of lowlife Boston seems very well done. See also tomorrow’s entry.

Links up with: Lost girls are a theme of
this book, and this one.

The wholesome picture is from the
State Library of Queensland.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Dress Down Sunday: the lingerie shop

Dress Down Sunday -
 looking at what goes on underneath the clothes

the book:

Ulysses by James Joyce

published 1922   section 8

Grafton street gay with housed awnings lured his senses. Muslin prints, silkdames and dowagers, jingle of harnesses, hoofthuds lowringing in the baking causeway. Thick feet that woman has in the white stockings. Hope the rain mucks them up on her. Countrybred chawbacon. All the beef to the heels were in. Always gives a woman clumsy feet. Molly looks out of plumb. He passed, dallying, the windows of Brown Thomas, silk mercers. Cascades of ribbons. Flimsy China silks. A tilted urn poured from its mouth a flood of bloodhued poplin: lustrous blood. The huguenots brought that here. La causa ? santa! Tara tara. Great chorus that. Taree tara. Must be washed in rainwater. Meyerbeer. Tara: bom bom bom. Pincushions. I'm a long time threatening to buy one. Sticking them all over the place. Needles in window curtains.

He bared slightly his left forearm. Scrape: nearly gone. Not today anyhow. Must go back for that lotion. For her birthday perhaps. Junejulyaugseptember eighth. Nearly three months off. Then she mightn't like it. Women won't pick up pins. Say it cuts lo.

Gleaming silks, petticoats on slim brass rails, rays of flat silk stockings. Useless to go back. Had to be. Tell me all. High voices. Sunwarm silk. Jingling harnesses. All for a woman, home and houses, silkwebs, silver, rich fruits spicy from Jaffa. Agendath Netaim. Wealth of the world. A warm human plumpness settled down on his brain. His brain yielded. Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore…

observations: Leopold Bloom is expressing his appetites in this section: he is about to make an abortive attempt to have lunch, and he is also looking at the lingerie in the shop windows, and thinking about Agendath Netaim, a company advertising the riches of the orient that pops up throughout the book.

‘Say it cuts lo’ is not a mistake – the word should be love, but Joyce (or Bloom) cuts it short. There’s a theory that this links up with Nabokov’s Lolita – she is frequently referred to as Lo.

The scrape is going back to his grazing his arm on a pin Molly has left lying around – hence the idea to buy her a pincushion. Everything in this book does make sense if you pay enough attention.

One surprising thing in the book is this:
He took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth. 

 - a very early reference to the practice, as the first floss had only been patented a few years earlier, and there don’t seem to be many references to it in the literature of the time.

Ulysses has featured before
here and here. A character in this book goes to work in a lingerie shop (“got me a purple thong”), and a lady here haunts them.

The picture is from the
State Library of Queensland.