10% Report: Filling In The Gaps

It was a  wonderful idea: pick 100 books that you want to read, but somehow never get around to, and commit to reading at least 75% of them in five years.

It really shouldn’t have taken me more than two years to reach ten books, but it has. I’m too easily distracted by new books, new discoveries, library books …

And I have actually read thirteen books, but three of them I read when I was on a blogging break and I’m not going to count them until I pick them up again and write something about them.

But, for now, here are my first ten books:

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood is a fairytale says the cover, and yes it is. The story of Cinderella, set in the 1930s, still recognisable but twisted into something new and something just a little bit subversive.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is a stunning portrait of one woman’s descent into madness. And a clear indictment of a particular society’s oppression of women. So much has been and could be written about The Yellow Wallpaper. But I feel so deeply for its narrator that I cannot write about her words intellectually.

Just Like Tomorrow by Faiza Guene

Fifteen year old Doria’s life is far from perfect. She lives with her mother in a tower block on the outskirts of Paris. Her father has returned to his Moroccan birthplace to find a new wife who will provide him with the son he so badly wants. And so mother and daughter are left to subsist on the meagre wages that a woman who doesn’t speak the language can earn as an office cleaner.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Her impressions and experiences as she found her feet in London were wonderfully observed, and her use of language illuminated the gulf between Chinese and English in a way that was both beautiful and clever. I was also struck by the bravery of anyone who travels alone to a country with a very different language that they hardly know. A country so different, so far from home.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Merricat (well how would you abbreviate Mary Katherine ?!) is a quite wonderful narrator – engaging, unreliable and utterly unique. And her tale is quite extraordinary. But I’m not going to say too much about that tale. Much has been written already. And if you haven’t read the book you really should. And you will enjoy it more for knowing little beforehand.

The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski

Melanie thinks she is in a nightmare. She tries to wake up, but she can’t. This is real. She is trapped and helpless. Marghanita Laski conveys her feelings quite perfectly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and deeply unsettling. And the more you think the more unsettling it becomes.

Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark

The Autobiographical Association? It’s the brainchild  on the supremely pompous Sir Quentin Oliver; a society that will support and assist people in  writing their biographies and preserving them until all of those mentioned are dead so that they can be safely  published. Because, of course, they will be of interest to the historians of the future!

Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

It was so, so easy for Cassandra to cast herself and Jane Eyre and Marion as Mr Rochester. But reality would prove to be a little different.

The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

Elements of the modern police procedural can be seen, but this is very much a book of its time. The language, the world it describes tie it to the 1920s, and references to the Great War emphasise its lasting impact on a generation. I was caught up in that world, and with Inspector Grant and his investigation.

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

It is an almost magical emporium, a huge department store that grew from a small draper’s shop, packed full of seductive colours, fabrics, clothes, furnishing, and so much more. The descriptions are rich, detailed, and utterly captivating.

Now I’ve perused my list again I have been inspired, so expect the next ten to arrive much more quickly.

And if you see a book you particularly loved on there, do say!

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski (as Sarah Russell)

She could only say defiantly, “Well, even if what you think its true it’s not all that wrong. You’ve never had to do without your husband, and in any case, you’re different from me. Some women can do without a man and some can’t, and I’m one of those that can’t.” 

Oh, the lies that we tell ourselves to allow us to behave however we choose. 

“Deborah, said Joe, “I want to tell you what my wife said to me in New York just before I came away. she said, “Joe, you’re a normal man and we’re maybe going to be parted for a long time. It’s no good shutting our eyes to what’s going to happen, but I’m going to ask you one thing. Don’t cheapen our marriage. I’d hate you to think of you going with any cheap woman and then coming back to me. But if you ever find a girl you can really respect, like you do me, I wouldn’t mind so much, because it wouldn’t be cheap.”” 

And the consequences that those lies can have. 

 
To Bed With Grand Music is a story about those lies – ones that we sometimes don’t realise are untruths – and those consequences. 

The story open with Deborah in bed with her husband Graham. He is about to go away and, though he does not offer the same, she promises loyalty and fidelity. 

But that promise is swiftly broken. Deborah is bored at home and her mother and her housekeeper are more than willing to take care of her infant son. And so Deborah heads for London. To keep busy, to help the war effort, to be happier… 

But Deborah meets Joe, a charming American, a family man without his family. A relationship develops. When Joe is sent overseas Deborah meets Sheldon, another American. And then Pierre, an older Frenchman. 

“Pierre, said Deborah urgently. “Will you teach me to be a good mistress?” 

“I tell you it is a question of temperament,” said Pierre, “and you do not understand, because you have not got that temperament. But you have got a lot of other things, beauty and freshness and naivety.” 

“To hell with naivety,” though Deborah angrily, “I’m damned if I’m going to be put off learning what I want, just because Pierre likes me naive.” 

I couldn’t find it in myself to like Deborah. But though it might seem that it would be easy to dismiss her as selfish and vacuous, it wasn’t. 

There isn’t too much background, but it was fairly clear that Deborah was a trophy wife. A woman who could only see herself as significant in relation to her man. Her mother’s character strongly suggested that she had been brought up to be just that. She had no other interests, no idea how to occupy her time.  

But she lied to herself about what she was doing, what the effects would be. Did she realise? I think she did, but I think she just lied to herself again so she could carry on. 

Yes, she was selfish. She was vacuous.  And she was responsible for her actions and their effects. 

There would be more men as Deborah turns slowly from a faithless wife into a scarlet woman. Her journey was compelling and utterly convincing. 

And so I found another Marghanita Laski book that I could argue with while reading. She is so good at that! 

She’s great at characters and storytelling too, and she makes some very telling points along the way about double standards and the emotional effects of war. 

And then there’s the ending. She is so so good at endings, and this one is stunning. War is over, and the implications of that do not suit Deborah one little bit. Even after everything that has gone before, it is a shock to realise what Deborah has become. 

Little Boy Lost. The Village. The Victorian Chaise-Longue. To Bed With Grand Music. 

Four novels by Marghanita Laski reissued by Persephone books. All different and all excellent.

Oh for a fifth!

Books Off Shelves and Knitting Off Needles

Now books off shelves may not sound that newsworthy, but bear in mind that I had to move in with my mother because she’s reached a point where she can’t manage alone, and I really don’t want her to have to leave her home, in the same street where she grew up.

What that means is that most of the bookshelves in the house are double banked and a lot of my books live in boxes. I use my LibraryThing catalogue to note where books live, and I am pleased to report that the system works.

I’ve had The Mermaid’s Child by Jo Baker for ages, and I decided that it was the perfect book for this year’s Once Upon a Time challenge. So I found it in my catalogue, went straight to the right shelf, and there it was! I’ve read the first couple of chapters, and I’m very impressed.

Pulling out Persephone Books is even easier. They have their own shelves, too shallow to double bank, and I even have the books arranged in series order. Today I pulled out two for group reads on GoodReads.

I’m very bad at group reads, but I’m determined to reform. How do you do with group reads? Any tips?

I’m having a library ordering embargo for the month of April whick should help. I was supposed to have one in March, but first I forgot and then I was swayed by the Orange Prize longlist. This month it’s serious!

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski is for the Persephone Group. I ‘ve loved Marghanita Laski’s other three Persephones and the subject of this one – the effect of WW2 on lives and relationships – is one that intrigues me.

And The Priory by Dorothy Whipple is for the Between the Wars group. Now how could I resist that?!

*****

I always have at least two pieces of knitting in progress. One interesting bigger project, and one smaller simple project for when I only have a little time and for when I need to knit as a stress-buster.

Today I finished a very simple project.

A Montego Bay scarf in Cherry Tree Hill Supersock. It was so easy, and the yarn was just right for the pattern. So now I have a lovely spring scarf. And a good excuse to rifle through the yarn boxes and the pattern folders for my next simple project.

Then, with my library pile and my reading and knitting works in progress, I’ll have a pretty good reading and knitting plan for the month!

How about you?

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski

It’s a couple of years now since I read my first couple of novels by Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost and then The Village. Two very different books and I loved them both.

Yet I hesitated to read The Victorian Chaise-Longue. Could it possibly live up to such high expectations? Wouldn’t it be awful to not have something new by Marghanita Laski still to read?

The second problem was solved this autumn when Persephone kindly published To Bed with Grand Music. And then the November Novella Challenge inspired me to finally open the pages of The Victorian Chaise-Longue.

Could it live up to my expectations?

“Will you give me your word of honour,” said Melanie, “that I am not going to die?”

It is the middle of the twentieth century. Early in Melanie’s pregnancy her doctor found a patch on her lung – an early sign of tuberculosis. She now has a son, but she hasn’t been allowed to leave her bedroom or be in close contact with her child since the birth.

But now Melanie’s health is improving, and the doctor accedes to her wish to go downstairs and lie upon the Victorian-Chaise Longue.

It’s a strange piece of furniture. Old, worn and out of keeping with the rest of the house, and yet Melanie was drawn to it. She had to have it.

Melanie is spoiled, but she has charm and I couldn’t help sympathising with her situation. And wondering to what degree her upbringing, her family and society had taught her to behave as she did.

She falls asleep on her chaise-longue. And she wakes up on it. But she wakes up a hundred years earlier, in Victorian England. Where is she? Why is she being called Milly?

Melanie thinks she is in a nightmare. She tries to wake up, but she can’t. This is real. She is trapped and helpless.

Marghanita Laski conveys her feelings quite perfectly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, and deeply unsettling. And the more you think the more unsettling it becomes.

Melanie gradually finds out more about Milly’s life. The similarities in their lives and their circumstances are extraordinary, but the consequences in their different times are starkly different.

“We seem to be together now, she explained, you and I, both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin.”

It would be unfair to say too much more, but the situation and Melanie’s emotions intensify as the story build to a conclusion.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue works on more than one level. It is a fine piece of storytelling and it is also a striking analysis of the changing position of women in society.

And while many authors would make a lengthy novel out of this material, Marghanita Laski distils it perfectly into just 99 pages.

The writing and the characterisation is as wonderful as my previous experiences with her writing had led me to expect.

And, once again, Marghanita Laski has come up with a stunning final sentence. How does she do that?!

The Victorian Chaise-Longue definitely lived up to my high expectations.

Persephone Books edition endpapers