The Englishwoman’s Wardrobe – Angela Huth

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Sometimes it’s more fun to read ‘history’ when it’s not intended as history at all. This is very recent history, although I was still a bit stunned to realise it was published 30 years ago. I spotted it while browsing through the titles at an online secondhand bookseller. I was looking for Flavia Leng’s biography of her mother, Daphne Du Maurier, and as you can probably tell I got a little sidetracked.

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And I’m so happy I did. This is such a fun and often slightly cutting read. Take this for example, from Huth’s introduction. Poor unknown ‘English Wedding Guest’:

“…the Epitome of the English Wedding Guest, who inspired me to write it. She was a middle-aged lady whose smile indicated how pleased she was to have the opportunity to dress up. Perversely, making the least of that opportunity, she had plucked her ‘Smart Uniform for Special Occasions’ from the cupboard and, possibly, added a new hat… The uniform scarcely needs describing: patent court shoes, flesh-coloured tights, black pleated crepe skirt, plum velvet jacket from whose neck sprouted the inevitable frills of a silk shirt, rising to meet the frills of rather too long greying hair….”

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Words and pictures combine to create a perfect slice of life (albeit slightly privileged society life for the most part). There are some familiar faces. Princess Margaret, a very young Martha Fiennes, Jilly Cooper and Sue Lawley rub shoulders with the Honorable Pearl Lawson Johnston, first woman High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, historical novelist Vivian Stuart, sportswoman of the year 1985, Virginia Holgate, and film producer Laura Gregory. I was also thrilled to see the familiar face of Elizabeth Jane Howard and to learn that she was ‘famous for her jewellery’ which includes ‘mostly ancient gold’.

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The clothes are often brilliantly crazy – this is the 80s after all – but what I found most interesting was the fact that so many of these disparate women shared similar opinions on getting dressed. The vast majority were horribly uncomplimentary about the Englishwoman’s ability to dress herself in a way that wasn’t dowdy, slapdash and drab. Princess Diana was a common style inspiration. And with just one exception, everyone bought their pants at good old M&S.

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What comes across most strongly though is how in thrall we all are these days to the ubiquitous fast fashion. These women kept their clothes, often for years, sometimes decades. They were stored carefully, cared for and a particular dress would bring back memories of all the occasions when it was worn.

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It made me nostalgic for a way of life where we didn’t treat possessions with such carefree abandon and thought more about where and how they were made, something I’ve been struggling to be much more mindful of in my own shopping habits.

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If you’re at all interested in clothing or taking a sneaky peek into the lives of others, it’s well worth seeing if you can track down a copy of Huth’s book.

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Jess Kidd – Himself

Probably the top contender for my book of 2016. And it was a lucky find in the ‘new in’ section of my local library rather than a considered selection. I love when that happens.

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In Jess Kidd’s debut, Mahoney returns to the place of his birth, Mulderrig, a tiny village on the West coast of Ireland, to find out what happened to the mother he lost as an infant. What follows is a murder investigation with a dream-like twist, where fantastical, paranormal elements are woven into the fabric of the story so seamlessly that it often seems odder to look up and realise you’re actually in a world where the dead aren’t regularly poking their faces through the walls.

The opening section caused my heart to skip over itself for a beat or two. It’s one of the most powerful, most shocking descriptions I’ve read, so it was something of a surprise to discover the book that followed; equal parts black as pitch, laugh-out-loud funny, witty, surreal, heartwarming and full of the most glorious imaginings I’ve read in a while. I’m already a fan of magic realism but I’ve rarely seen it handled with such glorious irreverence. Kidd’s voice creates a world that is familiar but ‘faerie’, it made me think of the way that places you know well take on an otherworldly strangeness in thick fog.

Kidd is also brilliantly adept at characterisations and the townsfolk of Mulderrig are so vibrantly drawn that I feel almost as if I’ve met them in person. From the warm-hearted Bridget, to the caustic, theatrical Mrs Cauley, the vulpine priest, to the sinister Widow, there’s not a weak-link in the line-up, welcoming or otherwise. And over them all, Mahoney, who I’m probably just as susceptible to falling in love with as the poor women of Mulderrig.

I’m reluctant to say too much more, which is often the way with favourite books I knew little about on my first read. If you’re inclined to give it a go, I’d suggest you’d be better off knowing as little as possible.

Further reading: 

2016 – Looking back at books

Looking back:

A lot happened in 2016 that wasn’t about books so I’m particularly proud to have managed to read a fair amount – and a lot of it great. I’ve just been having a browse through my list of books read this year and these are the standouts (in the order in which they were read):

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  • Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – a witty, gentle read by a man whose achievements should put him at real risk of hubris and yet who displays anything but as he explains how he did what he did, with some excellent ‘zero gravity’ stories along the way. Read my review here.
  • Michel Faber’s The Courage Consort – an exquisitely crafted novella about musicians on the brink of crisis. Dark, funny and with a warmth at its heart that I’m amazed Faber managed to create in so short a read. Read my review here.
  • Margaret Forster’s My Life in Houses – a poignant, wise read about how bricks and mortar become the bones of a life. It also came along at just the right time for me.
  • Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife – this was a reread for me and is supposedly a fictionalised look at the experiences of former First Lady Barbara Bush. I’m always drawn to the personal stories behind the political or the historical; the perspective that helps you remember that everyone is also a person, no matter how much the media may obscure that. A gripping and insightful read.
  • Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest – the book I feel most guilty for not having written up and perhaps the one I’m most likely to reread soon. Tesson spent six months living alone in a remote cabin in Siberia, fortified by vodka, cigars and tabasco. This book came out of the diaries he kept and is both beautiful, thought-provoking and inspiring.
  • TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos – an unusual book about a deeply unusual experience; in this case, that of the women who accompanied the men who built the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. Read my review here.

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  • Christine Montross’ Falling Into The Fire – a moving and unexpectedly poetic example of how to write about mental illness without dehumanising the individuals involved. Read my review here (which also features Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, a book that should probably also be on this list).
  • Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings – an expansive book that follows the lives of six teenagers from their first meeting at a summer camp for those interested in the arts. Once immersed, I found this a believable and absorbing exploration of how envy, loyalty, money and passion can affect the relationships between people.
  • Jess Kidd’s Himself – probably my book of the year and a review will follow in the next couple of days. It’s been written for a while but I gifted (foisted) this particular book on a close friend who also occasionally reads the blog and didn’t want to inadvertently reveal the book before she’d received it!

 

 

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Looking ahead:

I tend to love the idea of shaping my reading more than the reality so I’ve been cautious when thinking about reading resolutions for 2017.  Setting reading aside for a moment, I’d like to write more here in the new year. That means featuring more of the books that I enjoy and trying to create more of a dialogue about them. I also have some ideas for how I’d like to develop the blog and some personal goals for my writing in a wider sense that – apologies – I will keep close to my chest for now.

When it comes to reading, like much of the book blogging community at the beginning of 2016, I am now feeling committed to ‘read my own damn books’, whether that be on my shelves or in the ether of my TBR list. Moving house this year brought it back to me anew just how many books I own and the proportion that remain unread. Coupled with a TBR list that seems permanently stuck at around 500 titles, I feel like I could benefit from just hunkering down and reading a few of the books I’m already excited about rather than constantly being diverted by the new and shiny.

I’m also feeling newly passionate about streamlining my book collection. In the past, I’ve always been the type to keep everything, like a rather large and unwieldy ‘diary’ of book exploits past. Now I feel as if I want the books I keep to be those that bring me real pleasure.

So 2017 will be a year of shortening lists and letting go. I’d like to start 2018 feeling a little less overwhelmed by all the books I always intended to read.

Other than that, I shall selfishly continue to read what I want in a gloriously scattergun way!

Happy new year everyone. Wishing you all a lot of love, happiness and books in the year ahead.

Overdosing on children’s books – some current favourites

I’ve mentioned before that having a baby opened a door into a whole new world of books. Now, in addition to having my own teetering TBR lists, I have lists geared at every stage of my daughter’s life from pop-ups to pre-teen. So I thought it might be nice to share the occasional miscellany of child-friendly reading on the blog. After all, every committed reader I’ve ever met can reel off a list of ‘the books that began it all’ and I’d love your hints and tips on what I have yet to discover.

For starters, here are the books that we (translation: me – she’s largely still indifferent to whatever book we’re reading at bedtime and so I blatantly plump for my favourites over and over again…) are currently enjoying.

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Jon Klassen – I Want My Hat Back

I so wish I could convey in words how the bear sounds in this book. And that funny little possum-like creature who’s never seen a hat. This book is ALL about the voices.

Oliver Jeffers 

Anything by OJ. But particularly Stuck for it’s joyful insanity. And definitely not The Heart in the Bottle because I was ill-prepared for how different this is to Stuck and it really doesn’t make for a smooth bedtime to find yourself suddenly choking back tears and thinking inappropriate ‘Sunrise, Sunset‘ thoughts.

John Vernon Lord – The Giant Jam Sandwich

More hilarious idiocy, only this time with rhymes. And how else would you get rid of four million wasps? This one is a favourite from my own childhood and comes with faint memories of having put it on as a play at my primary school.

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Emma Dodd – Me

This is undoubtedly sentimental but it’s so so lovely and the illustrations are beautiful. The ending always makes me feel a little glow and hug a little tighter.

The Ahlbergs – Peepo

No children’s book collection is complete without a few Ahlberg’s and this one is currently making us smile. As much for the lovely details that set it firmly in an earlier time, like daddy carrying in the bucket of coal.

Helen Stephens – How to Hide a Lion

Essential know-how for a small person. Obviously.

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Steve Antony – Please Mr Panda

I am a complete sucker for books that lend themselves to repetition in various funny voices. Plus this book involves both pandas and doughnuts. Double win.

David McKee – Not Now Bernard

Another proper classic. I love how dark this is once you’ve stopped laughing.

Tatyana Feeney – Little Owl’s Orange Scarf / Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket

Somehow, in very few words, Feeney captures the innocence of children and how things appear through their eyes. Clever, funny and with the loveliest illustrations.

What other children’s books should I (we) be reading??

 

Literary Linking #8

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A bumper crop of links because I’ve been storing them up. An early Christmas present perhaps?

 

Ian Rankin – The Travelling Companion

If you’re in the mood for a bite-size read – and you like a little creepy to go with your cosy at Christmas – it’s worth trying one of the short stories in Book Grail’s Death Sentences. There are 25 stories, each authored by some of the best crime writers out there today, and I’ve just finished Ian Rankin’s The Travelling Companion.

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Coming in at just 88 (pint-size) pages, this is definitely a one-sitting read. Strait-laced and studious Ronald Hastie is working over the summer at the famed Shakespeare and Co bookshop in Paris, in exchange for bed and board. Back in his native Scotland, he will shortly be starting a PhD on literary hero Robert Louis Stevenson. But Hastie’s ordered life takes an obsessive turn when he meets a collector who claims to have not one, but two missing Stevenson manuscripts…

This is a pacy, absorbing little tale but I enjoyed it just as much for the questions it raised and it’s also fascinating for those with an interest in where author’s ideas come from.  I went straight from final line to google, desperate to know how much of the ‘missing manuscript’ story and the discussion about the origins of Stevenson’s Hyde were based in fact. After all, behind every good story there’s…another story.

Further reading: