Books! Ba-ba-loo-ba-la, BOOKS!

In case you guys were wondering about my disappearing act—it’s been a busy past month at our household, what with cousins coming over from half-way across the world from Singapore, and then our own two week trip to London which was VERY productive because. . .

I GOT ME SOME BOOKS!

Behold all the books I brought back with me:

Persephone Books

Because, of course, I had to visit Persephone Books.

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And also the venerable Hatchard’s!

Hatchard's

Books

I bought the one at the top of this pile as a joke for husband. It’s called Harris’s List Of Covent Garden Ladies, and is ahem, as you can imagine, a list of the covent garden ladies in whose company the gents could find some, ahem, pleasure. Here’s my current favorite lady:

Miss Godf-y, No. 22, Upper Newman-street

If parts can conquer great and small,
Sure—and Godf-y—must needs do all.

This lady is a kind of boatswain in her way, and when she speaks, every word is uttered with a thundering and vociferous tone. She is a fine lively little girl, about 22, very fond of dancing, has dark eyes, and hair, well shaped, and an exceeding good bed-fellow, will take brandy with any one, or drink and swear, and though but little, will fight a good battle. We apprehend this lady would be an extraordinary companion for an officer in the army, as she might save him the trouble of giving the word of command.

She resides in the first floor.

I know, I know. I should be horrified. And outraged. But right now, I’m only capable of gurgles of laughter!

I was also very pleased to find an omnibus of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, a collection of stories set in the small village of Malgudi, some of which I remember reading and enjoying hugely as a kid!

And alas, my library does not carry The Ruby In The Smoke, so I knew I was going to buy that at some point.

Dog Ears is a children’s book that I searched for high and low in the U.S. but couldn’t find! The wonderful nobodyjones characterized it as Blytonian so of course I had to try it out! Also, can I just say how RELIEVED I was to find Enid Blytons stacked up and down all over London’s bookstores? Their absolute absence in the U.S. had me start questioning if they were a figment of my imagination!

Then there’s Elizabeth Goudge whom I remembered being a children’s author though I have no recollection which book of hers I read. This one though, The Dean’s Watch, seems like a grown-up book with an interesting enough story. Oh, and it was gifted to someone in 1960!

Reader, I have discovered the pleasure of second-hand bookstores! And London simply BRIMS with them. The whole of Charing Cross Street is lined with one second hand bookshop after the next. It has made me want to seek out some here in my own city too!

Rose Macaulay, and Angela Thirkell, I recall wanting to try out, but never succeeding in finding any of their work.

Homestead is the only one amongst this lot that I have absolutely no idea about except that it has a blurb, and a setting (Switzerland) that sounded intriguing.

Middlemarch

And then there’s Middlemarch. I have been meaning to get around to reading it and I just could not resist this gorgeous edition.

Have you guys read any of these books? I’d love to know what you thought!

Richmal Crompton: Family Roundabout

Family Roundabout has quite an ensemble of characters—two matriarchs with 5 children apiece. Add the odds and ends that round out the lives of these 12 characters and there’s quite a bit that needs to be kept sorted and straightened. Thankfully, Miss Crompton’s distinct voice for each of her characters makes it easy to do so.

Let’s start with the two matriarchs who embody two completely opposite character types, two completely opposite approaches to parenting and are the heart of the novel.

Mrs. Fowler is a poetry loving, genteel woman whose air of quiet vagueness has been perfected into an effective weapon against the domineering personalities in her life: her husband (who died before the novel opens), her elder daughter Helen and the other matriarch of the novel, Mrs. Willoughby. Her hands-off approach to parenting involves letting her various progeny muddle through their lives and their mistakes on their own while acting as the one constant in their life that offers non-judgmental, sympathetic support.

Mrs. Willoughby’s hands are always occupied and she has a healthy distrust of books. She’s brisk, efficient and practical. Her realm of influence is vast and expansive, encompassing her children, grandchildren, and the poor relations that are never forgotten and always taken care of. She knows the best course of action in every situation and her children are never allowed to forget this fact.

These two women are then the center about whom the merry-go-round of the family revolves and the book becomes an exploration of the shadow that these two matriarchs and their approach to life and parenting casts over their children.

I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed the book. I did not find any of the characters particularly appealing or relatable: the tendency of all the progeny to suffer and feel trapped drove me bananas. Don’t get me wrong. I could see why each of the characters was doing what they were doing but that failure to connect with any of them emotionally did prevent me from enjoying the unfolding drama whole-heartedly.

And then the complete petulization (yes, I made up that word. It denotes the degeneration of a character into petulance and general weirdness, a process that leaves the reader in a slight daze) of Oliver (one of Mrs. Willoughby’s son) felt off-key. I did not understand how his life-long rebellion could take the form it did—that of dandified neuroticism. Or maybe that’s what a suppressed rebellion erupts into? Whatever be the reason it did not feel like the natural evolution of the character.

The “rebellion” by Mrs. Willoughby’s two elder daughters was also abrupt. That’s not to say that I did not feel like shouting out, “Finally!” but after the heavy hand that Miss Crompton had dealt her characters through the entire length of the book these little endings seemed an attempt to end the book on a slightly more cheerful note.

I’ve also been thinking about Mrs. Fowler’s dialogue at the end of the book:

It’s like a sort of a roundabout, isn’t it? You get one lot more or less settled, and then, before you know where you are, it’s all starting again with the next.

She is referring to the themes that played out in the two matriarchs’ children’s lives being played out in their grandchildren’s lives as well and it conjures an image of continuity and a grand design in my mind. And perhaps that’s what Miss Crompton is trying to say—that no matter what one does or doesn’t do as a parent those themes will get played out in the children’s lives.

Dorothy Whipple’s The Other Day: An Autobiography

So I haven’t read any of Dorothy Whipple’s books and yet when I read about her I knew that I wanted to read The Other Day where she chronicles her childhood from age 6 to age 11. So I ILL-ed it sometime in July and then forgot about it. About a month and a half later I get a notification from NYPL saying that my ILL item is ready to be picked up! Oh my god! The book made its way all the way from Illinois! From Illinois to NY to make its way into my hands. There’s something thrilling about the thought of a book traveling all that distance to come to me.

Sigh. I do love libraries.

Onto The Other Day—it is a peek into another world, another era. A world where children travelled to and fro on trains on their own with the portly (in my imagination) conductor pointing out the station they have to get off at; a world of quaint market places where one knows the hawker from whom one is buying her wares and asks after their family and children while deciding which melon to buy.

The Other Day is structured as a series of vignettes and I’m amazed at the details with which Miss Whipple recounts each of the situations. There’s a vividness to her descriptions that makes for lovely reading and at the same time is also kind of astounding. How DOES she remember all that stuff in so much detail?! Certainly, the book makes one think about the nature and form of memories. And I guess being that observant so early on must have come in handy in her career as an author.

Then there’s the memories themselves—there’s nothing complicated or complex about any of the situations in which the young Miss Whipple finds herself in but they do give one nice insights into the minds and mental make-up of young children. The things that the young Dorothy gets excited about, that fill her with happiness are simple things, in fact childish things at the first glance and yet the way that Dorothy seems to ride the wave of each moment to its fullest—no matter how simple that moment appears to be—is inspiring.

There are bits that struck me as particularly astute:

Grown-ups behaved differently when children were not about, just as children behaved differently when grown-ups were not about. It was strange that we never looked upon grown-ups as creatures we should one day be ourselves, but as creatures we should never in any way resemble.

And:

Now that we lived in the country we entertained differently. In the town my parents had given modest card parties on winter evenings, and we used to hang over the stairs in our nightgear to listen to what seemed the silly conversation. . . . But now it was different. Our friends, parents and children came for the day and we all went about together, parents behind, children on in front. There seemed to be room in the country for parents and children to go about together without friction.

There’s not a lot that happens in The Other Day and what does happen is somewhat mundane. And yet therein lies the book’s charm. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys low-key fares and are ok with not having a lot of intellectual and emotional twists and turns you might enjoy The Other Day. I’m certainly interested in reading Miss Whipple’s fiction now. It will be interesting to see the sort of stories she writes.