Diana Athill 1917-2019

Athill

Despite the fact that Diana Athill was 101 – I was genuinely sad when I heard on the radio news this morning that she had died. You can read her Guardian obituary here.

I enjoyed reading several of her books and watched a BBC documentary about her. Then she was 99 and striding out confidently on the streets of London. She was far from perfect as I’m sure she would have agreed, but she was hugely entertaining and reminded me of a friend of mine who had been from the same era.

A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

A Time of Love and Tartan cover

A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith is one from the author’s 44 Scotland Street series and the setting is of course Edinburgh although towards the end of the book there’s a bit of a keek into Orkney. This book was published in 2017 so I’m a bit late in getting to this Scotland Street catch up. These books aren’t great literature, but it’s always good to find out what is happening to the inhabitants. Bertie is probably everybody’s favourite character and he’s still seven years old, he seems to have been seven for about three books. and he’s a bit of a miracle child as he has managed to survive and even thrive despite the behaviour of his ghastly mother Irene. At last it seems like things are looking up for him and his father Stuart, there are changes afoot for them. Will they ever get to that promised land – Glasgow? It’s a place they both hanker after although Bertie had decided that he would have to wait until he was 18 before moving there.

Pat has an encounter with Bruce her ex boyfriend, it’s one of those moments when all readers will be saying – no don’t ever go back!. Matthew, the father of triplets gets into a very embarrassing situation involving an old teacher of his. The newly married Domenica is wondering if she has done the right thing and Big Lou is as ever keeping everyone going with her coffee.

The doings of the characters are interspersed with lots of philosophical and ethical meanderings and even some comments on artists by the Scotland Street artist Angus Lordie.

Alexander McCall Smith uses these books to register his own opinions about modern life, and in this one he takes on the rampant feminism that we have in many government workplaces now where he believes men are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to promotion as political correctness has gone crazy. I think that any job should go to the best candidate, no matter which sex they happen to be, so I have sympathy with his sentiments. This is an enjoyable read, although a bit disjointed.

When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney

nefertiti

When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney is a recent publication from National Geographic and the subject matter is six women who ruled in ancient Egypt at the time of the pharaohs. The introduction is titled Why Women Don’t Rule the World. The epilogue is titled: Why Women Should Rule the \World. In between there are six chapters dedicated to each of the six women who had a measure of power in ancient Egypt. Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret and Cleopatra. I must admit I hadn’t heard of all of them before, but I do tend to watch TV documentaries on ancient Egypt, so I wasn’t a complete novice to this.

I’m finding it quite difficult to review this book because although the author has a laid back style which makes it very readable, at times I thought her style was just a wee bit too casual. Call me old-fashioned but I don’t think that the word ‘kid’ should be used to describe a young pharaoh, it just seems so incongruous somehow. There are several pages of interesting photographs featuring statues, coins, jewellery, painted images and such.

I read all 325 pages of the book but at the end of it I don’t seem to have learned an awful lot more than I already knew. This is because there’s very little that anyone knows about what went on in ancient Egypt. Cooney uses the word ‘likely’ constantly, so it’s mainly supposition. However I don’t think the book was written as a means of educating people, it’s mainly about the female/male power balance. But what it comes down to is that at times men were happy for women to fill in and rule the roost until the young pharaoh was old enough to take over. Bizarrely the word ‘regent’ is explained, but maybe in a society unused to such things it has to be spelled out.

The section on Cleopatra is far more specific, but that is inevitable due to her links with the Romans who loved to write about her.

In the UK we’re well used to women having power and being at the head of things, I believe our society just isn’t as paternalistic as some others are. However, at the moment we still have a female prime minister because the men are all very happy to stand back and observe when things are too difficult, they have no intention of taking on the poison chalice and they want a woman to clean up the mess!

I have to say though that I have no time for those black belt feminists for whom every female is good and all males bad. Kara Cooney says: “It is the men who all too easily allow their thin-skinned sensibilities and lust for power and domination over their enemies to lead them to maim and murder.” What a lot of nonsense. Just think of Margaret Thatcher who took us into a war with Argentina (which she provoked) all so that she would get re-elected in the general election – and it worked. History is full of awful women .

Thank you to tlc Books who sent me a copy of this book to review.

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019

lassics

I’ve decided to participate in Karen @Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics Challenge 2019, it seems like a good idea as it’ll be a way of concentrating on unread books that I already have in the house. There are twelve categories – see below – and I intend to read one from each category, just for a wee bit of fun – I know, it takes all sorts! See my reading choices below the categories.

THE CATEGORIES:

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.
1. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1969. All books in this category must have been published at least 50 years ago. The only exceptions are books that were published posthumously but were written at least 50 years ago.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

3. Classic by a Woman Author.
3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a novel other than your native language. You may read the book in your native language, or its original language (or a third language for all you polyglots!) Modern translations are acceptable, as long as the book was originally published at least 50 years ago. Books in translation are acceptable in all other categories as well.
4. The Earth by Emile Zola

5. Classic Comic Novel. Any comedy, satire, or humorous work. Humor is very subjective, so if you think Crime and Punishment is hilarious, go ahead and use it, but if it’s a work that’s traditionally not considered humorous, please tell us why in your post. Some classic comic novels: Cold Comfort Farm; Three Men in a Boat; Lucky Jim; and the works of P. G. Wodehouse.
5. An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer

6. Classic Tragic Novel. Tragedies traditionally have a sad ending, but just like the comedies, this is up for the reader to interpret. Examples include The Grapes of Wrath, House of Mirth, and Madame Bovary.
6. The Trial by Franz Kafka

7. Very Long Classic. Any classic single work 500 pages or longer, not including introductions or end notes. Omnibus editions of multiple works do not count. Since page counts can vary depending on the edition, average the page count of various editions to determine the length.
7. Is He Popinjoy? by Anthony Trollope

8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages.
8. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either North or South America or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries. Examples include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (United States); Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jamaica); or One Hundred Years of Solitude (Columbia/South America).
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Any classic set in one of those continentss or islands, or by an author from these regions. Examples include Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt); The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (Japan); On the Beach by Nevile Shute (Australia); Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria).
10. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

11. Classic From a Place You’ve Lived. Read locally! Any classic set in a city, county, state or country in which you’ve lived, or by a local author. Choices for me include Giant by Edna Ferber (Texas); Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (Chicago); and Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Germany).
11. Waverley by Walter Scott

12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible for this category only.
12. The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Have you read any of these ones? It isn’t too late to join in with this challenge – go on, I dare you!

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen is the author’s first book, but it certainly doesn’t read like a first effort. It was first published in 1927 but my edition is from 1950. I really enjoyed this one although not a lot happens, it’s all about the relationships between the various hotel guests.

The setting is a hotel on the Italian Riviera which is frequented by well off English people. It isn’t long after the end of World War 1 so there are far more females around than males in society in general. Friends fall out, one young woman has a rather intense relationship with an older woman. An unmarried vicar arrives and upsets some guests as he inadvertently uses their bathroom, he’s never forgiven but he’s completely oblivious to it. It’s the funniest episode in the book. Some people are completely delusional, would be horrified to know what others think of them. People are ‘dropped’. Those who should know better fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat. There’s nothing at all earth shattering, but it is entertaining.

Elizabeth Bowen wrote far more books than I had realised, you can see her output here.

I do enjoy a hotel setting, I suppose because it gives the writer scope for gathering together odd characters who are out of their usual milieu, and everyone is a bit different from usual when they’re on holiday. I seem to have read a lot of books with hotel settings over the years so I might devote a blogpost to them – sometime.

Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins Comes Back cover

Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers was first published in 1935 but my copy is a 1997 paperback. For years I thought there was only the one Mary Poppins book, but this one is the second of four. It’s illustrated by Mary Shepard.

Nothing seems to have gone right within the Banks household for ages, probably not since Mary Poppins left them in fact. The boot boy has polished Mr Banks’s bowler hat with boot polish and to make matters even worse Mr Banks has just had a letter from his old nanny. She’s coming to stay with them and he’s horrified by that idea. Lots of children’s nannies have come and gone since Mary Poppins left but nobody but Mary can cope with them. There are five children in the family so it is quite a handful, especially as they Miss Mary Poppins so much.

Mrs Banks is being driven mad by them all and she tells Jane and Michael to take the twins to the park in their perambulator. Michael takes his kite to fly and when it flies so high in the sky that they can’t see it the Park Keeper helps to haul on its string. But it isn’t their green and yellow kite which appears, it’s something navy blue and as it hurtles towards them they realise that it’s Mary Poppins – she has come back just as suddenly as she had left.

Mary Poppins is of course completely different from the Disney version, she leads the children into all sorts of adventures, they meet strange people and Mary Poppins isn’t at all sweet or even caring, but they have great fun.

Apparently P.L. Travers was so upset by the Disney film version of her first book that she stipulated in her will that no other films were to be made after her death.

The Favourite – a film

Yesterday afternoon we did something a bit different from usual – we went to the local flicks. There’s rarely anything on that we want to watch because most of the films nowadays seem to be of no interest to us at all, I suppose they’re ‘action’ films – or shoot-emups. Just watching the trailers for them is like a punishment to me as the sound is so loud, the sound effect guys really let rip!

Anyway, I saw an advert on TV for The Favourite, I’m fairly sure it was billed as a comedy but there isn’t really much in the way of comedy in it – a few sarcastic quips which at a stretch (and if they’re not aimed at you) could be deemed to be funny I suppose.

It’s about time that Queen Anne had some attention to her, it makes a nice change from Victoria anyway, she had such a sad life though and The Favourite is set towards the end of her life when she was beset by ill health. Just about the only thing that most of us know about Queen Anne is that she ‘lost’ seventeen children, either from miscarriage, still birth or disease. When you think about that then it’s amazing that she survived as long as she did – and wasn’t completely off her head. I lost one child through miscarriage and that was bad enough I can tell you.

Anyway – back to the film: Sarah Churchill, The Duchess of Marlborough is Queen Anne’s closest friend/secret lover, but Sarah is really ruling the roost as Queen Anne isn’t up to the job, she’s too ill. It’s Sarah who plots with politicians to take the country into war, a war which is being waged by Sarah’s husband, it was the making of him financially.

Sarah’s pretty young cousin Abigail turns up at the palace looking for work and protection, Abigail’s abusive father had gambled her away when she was just fifteen, life has been more than tough for her but Sarah sets her to work as a scullery maid. But Abigail knows about herbs and manages to soothe the sores on the queen’s legs, and so begins the rivalry between the two cousins for the Queen’s affection.

Money is needed for the war and it’s proposed that land tax will be doubled, Anne doesn’t want to be at war with France, she’s only really happy when she’s with her seventeen rabbits, one for every child she lost, named after each dead child. I found it to be terribly sad, but as ever Olivia Colman, who plays Queen Anne was great in the role, she really is very versatile in so many different parts.

Although I mainly enjoyed the film there were a few things that annoyed me – as often happens nowadays the diction of the actors just isn’t clear enough, there were quite a few instances when I hadn’t a clue what was being said. At one point , just after Queen Anne slapped Sarah Churchill I’m sure that Sarah said “It’s okay” If she did say that it is completely wrong. I think there were quite a few speech incongruities like that. When you think of all the money and care put into getting the settings, costumes and make-up correct, modern dialogue should be a simple thing to avoid. For me the ending was too abrupt.

Jack noticed that this film was made by Film 4 – if we had waited six months or so we would have been able to see it on that TV channel – oh well, you see it all in far better detail on the big screen.

If you are interested in her history you can read more about Queen Anne here. She was the last of the Stuart monarchs.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

The Driver's Seat cover

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark was first published in 1970 and I borrowed this copy from the library. All of Spark’s books were reprinted last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. This is a very quick read – as are most of her books, just a novella of 90 pages.

Like many of Muriel Spark’s books this is a strange read with really no likeable characters and particularly not the main character Lise. She had been working in an accountancy firm for years and she has decided that it’s time she had a wonderful holiday abroad. The book begins with Lise in a shop trying on a dress to wear on holiday. She ends up buying a dress and summer coat both of which have very distinctive patterns and clashing psychedelic colours. She looks a fright in them but it’s obvious from the beginning that everything that Lise does is calculated to get the attention of as many people as possible.

She gets into odd conversations with complete strangers, obviously determined to be noticed and remembered by everyone she meets. She’s looking for a particular man but she doesn’t know what he’ll look like although she thinks he might be on the plane.

This is a rather dark read but it does have flashes of comedy with one elderly lady saying:

“I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife”. I can see the reasoning behind that!

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book as the storyline is so obvious, it’s supposed to be obvious, the reader knows what Lise is up to, well, I say that maybe it isn’t so obvious to everyone but if you’ve had a Scottish upbringing as Muriel Spark had, then you know all about predestination and that very Scottish phrase – what’s for you will not go by you (your destiny will not pass you by.) It’s part of the Scottish psyche, just ask R.L.Stevenson.

Dundee Botanic Gardens – the greenhouses

I can hardly believe that it was way back in September when we visited the Dundee Botanic Gardens. I blogged about the ouside of the gardens earlier, but we also went into the greenhouses which are packed with exotics.

Dundee Botanics greenhouse
It was a hot day outside so it was super hot in the greenhouses.
Dundee Botanics greenhouse
I’ve always been keen on cacti, ever since I bought myself a wee cactus plant from good old Woolworth’s when I was 11 years old. Woolies used to be great for plants, seeds and gardening things in general, it’s sadly missed.

Dundee Botanics greenhouse

As I was admiring the lovely healthy Abutilon in this photo below I realised that it had been a big mistake to plant the one I had bought recently out in the garden. I dug it up when I got home and moved it into the sun room where it promptly lost just about all of its leaves. It did give me one flower though and the leaves are growing back, so I live in hope of a good display this summer.

Dundee Botanics greenhouse

The bright cerise Bougainvillea brought back memories of Portugal where it grows ‘like Topsy’.

Dundee Botanics greenhouse

I should know what this plant below is, but it has escaped me at the moment.
Dundee Botanics, greenhouse

The problem with not getting around to blogging about places until long after the visit is – I can’t remember what this tree is called, but it’s certainly unusual.
Dundee Botanics greenhouse

Dundee Botanics greenhouse

I’m sure that some of you will have plants like the ones in these photos growing wild in your gardens, but here in Scotland they need to be cossetted in hothouses. I’m not sure that I would like too many of them in my garden – if they could survive, I’m more of a daisy/primrose sort of woman, but it is lovely to see them thriving here where they’e obviously well looked after. Dundee Botanic Gardens are well worth a visit.

Dundee Botanics greenhouse , Scotland

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil

Joan's Best Chum cover

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil was first published way back in 1926 although my copy has that Book Production War Economy Standard logo on it.

The main characters in this book have all been more or less abandoned by the adults in their lives, albeit not by choice as Joan’s parents are dead and Ursula her older sister has taken on the job of bringing Joan and Rex their brother up, supposedly aided by Uncle Robert who is a local solicitor and turns out to be of no help at all. Ursula realises that if she wants to train as a secretary she will have to ask Ursula to stay at her school as a boarder, rather than a day girl as she is now. Rex has just begun to train in Uncle Robert’s firm of solicitors.

When Mollie ends up joining Allandale School as a boarder too she becomes firm friends with Joan, they have lots in common. Mollie’s mother is dead and her father seems only interested in visiting casinos abroad so he might as well be dead for all the interest he takes in Mollie.

This book is about young women who fight to maintain their dignity and independence in very difficult circumstances which are made worse by the actions of a duplicitous man. It’s interesting because it isn’t all set in the school environment and is a bit of an advert for the YWCA and the YMCA which I was surprised to learn had first been set up way back in 1855 in London for the women and 1844 for men.

I’ve only read a few of Angela Brazil’s books but it seems that she was keen to show lots of aspects of life outside what would be the rather rarefied atmosphere of many boarding schools.