Thursday, August 28, 2014

Snobs by Julian Fellowes

I dare say if you have watched any of Downton Abbey then you might think you know just how things work within the British aristocracy. But, there is more! Before Julian Fellowes created DA, he wrote a very funny book called Snobs

Told by an unnamed narrator, this tale of a middle-class, beautiful young woman who marries into a titled family definitely gives the reader more than a taste of how actually staid and perhaps just a tad boring the lives of the Upper Classes can be. It is not all fancy dress balls, garden fetes, and villas in Mallorca. There are plenty of vast, poorly heated country homes and 
interminable talk of hedgerows and hunting.

But lucky Edith Lavery. Her dreams come true when she marries kind-hearted Charles, the Earl Broughton (there is no of in the title as there is no place called Broughton, don't you know) and moves into his world. Not as easy as one might hope for even the well-mannered Edith. The family has known all their friends and acquaintances since birth - and are related to many of them - so most of what they talk about over the silver tea service is one another. Fellowes calls it The Name Game. 

Outsiders beware!

I found this book to be quite amusing because I love the gossipy tone and the insider information. I loved this look at the inner workings of Charles's family, especially how his mother, Lady Uckfield, handles people and events. Stiff upper lip and all that. 

There are many cups of tea, glasses of champagne, and witty lines in this tale. Of course, by the end of the novel, the reader still might not know what really goes on with the Upper Class but will have sure had fun reading Snobs and thinking so.  And, believe me, if this story were played out in a small town in Nebraska, it wouldn't be quite as delicious. 

Here is a taste:
I have often been surprised at the fantastic discomfort and deprivation the grand English are prepared to put their friends (and total strangers) through, particularly in my youth. I've been shown into bathrooms that could just about manage a cold squirt of brown water, bedrooms with doors that don't shut, blankets like tissue, and pillows like rocks. I have driven an hour cross-country to lunch with some grand relations of my father, who gave me one sausage, two small potatoes and twenty-eight peas. Once, during a house-party for a ball in Hampshire, I was so cold that I ended up piling all my clothes, with two threadbare towels, onto the bed and then holding all this together with a worn square of Turkish carpet - the only bit of floor-covering in the room.  When my hostess woke me the next day, she made no comment on the fact that I was sleeping in a sort of webbing sarcophagus and clearly would not have been less interested in whether I had ever shut my eyes. When one thinks of the Edwardians who revelled in luxury it seems odd that their grandchildren should be so impervious to it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Jewels from the Used Book Sale

I know you all are anxiously awaiting the results of the visit to the Summer Book Sale yesterday.  I got there within forty-five minutes of its opening and it was already crowded, but manageable. I only had an hour or so before I had to leave and my searches kept being interrupted by chats with people I used to work with, in the 1990s, at a large independent bookstore. Imagine that. Former booksellers buying books. Wonders will never cease!

Yes, everyone is in a good mood at a book sale.

Anyway, I donated twenty books and came home with ten. I did feel a bit rushed and am fighting the urge to go back today!

Here is my haul. 

First the paperbacks:

Beau Geste by P.C.Wren
A nice clean paperback edition of this tale of the French Foreign Legion first published in 1924. I read this some years ago and found it full of adventure and great language. I look forward to again accompanying M. Geste on his adventures. Such a colorful and exciting cover!

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
Ah, one of the Mitford Sisters. I have long wanted to read this and I couldn't resist the oh-so-elegant photo of the author on this edition. 

Snobs by Julian Fellowes
I don't remember where I heard about this book by Mr. Fellowes, he of Downton Abbey fame, but as will happen at a used book sale, a woman I had been chatting with over the mystery table tracked me down later to recommend it. I am so glad she did!

And now for the hardcover editions:

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
The Portable Thomas Wolfe edited by Maxwell Geismar
Having just visited Thomas Wolfe's home in Asheville, North Carolina and unable to find any used editions of his books in the entire city, I was thrilled when not three miles from my home I found two. The Modern Library edition of LHW is very sturdy which will prove to be important when reading its 626 pages. It doesn't have a copyright date, but a handwritten inscription from a woman to her godson is dated Christmas, 1954.
The Viking Portable Reader contains excerpts from all four of Mr. Wolfe's novels and a selection of short stories. Its copyright date is 1950. It is dedicated to TW's editor, Maxwell Perkins.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
A sweet, small edition and my one and only book by Mr. Trollope. This was first published in 1857. I am not sure of the publication date of this volume. The inscription on the inside cover tells the 'giftee' that this tale was 'the great escape book in England during the war.' I wonder which war she was referring to?

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
One cannot go wrong with Mr. Waugh. The novel was first published in England in 1934. This is a 1944 American edition.

Edith Wharton Abroad edited by Sarah Bird Wright
Always happy to find a travel book based on personal experiences. This one covers Ms. Wharton's journeys in Morocco, Italy, and France. It includes photos and illustrations. The cover watercolor is Venetian Canal by John Singer Sargent. Lovely.

A Reader's Guide to Writers' Britain by Sally Varlow
I don't even need to tell you why I snatched this book off the table. It is a wonderful treasure published and printed in Great Britain full of maps, photos, and lively information. Oh, my. Wordsworth, Dickens, Milne, Potter, Stevenson....

A Little Tour in France by Henry James
This poor little volume has seen better days. The cover, which is some sort of leather, crumbles to my touch. I will have to create a protective jacket in order to read it. The inside pages, though, are in fine condition. It is a book of travel episodes published in 1884, with excellent illustrations by Joseph Pennell.  If you remember, Henry James and Edith Wharton were close friends and it seems fitting that I now own a travel book by each of them. This edition contains a preface written by H.J. dated 
August 9, 1900. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Oh, joy! The Locust Grove Used Book Sale Begins Tomorrow

Going out the door...

The Locust Grove Used Book Sale is this weekend. I am very excited as I have found many, many treasures at this twice-a-year event. Perhaps too many treasures.

Nevertheless, I plan on binge-buying tomorrow. As a penance for my inability to pass up a book bargain, I have just spent the past thirty minutes or so going through my bookshelves in search of books to donate to the sale. I have done this the past couple of sales and usually find six or eight books to donate even though I come away with two or three more than I take. 

This morning I was ruthless. I found twenty books to take with me tomorrow which, according to my faithful tape measure, frees up about twenty inches of bookshelf space. 

Most of the books I will be donating are paperbacks that I have read or for which I have since purchased the hardcover edition. Quite a few are books I bought at this very book sale over the years. 

Some of the things I have learned about attending this sale:

I take my own cloth book bag; it makes it so much easier to carry books I plan on buying as I wander the aisles.

The sale is very well organized and there is always a large selection of vintage hardcover books that I am drawn to immediately. After that I check out the fiction and mystery (these are mostly softcover editions), travel, and children's categories. 

Even though the space is small, which I like as I am easily
overwhelmed, I know that I will only be able to last about an hour and then I am finished. Time to pay up; paperbacks $1, hardcovers $2.

Finally, I remind myself to breathe and not to panic. It is easy to swoon in the presence of so many books, but I know that just the right books with find their way into my bag.  And besides, I can always go back Saturday and Sunday.

I can hardly wait! 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Batch of Books

I keep thinking I will get back to writing a daily post here at Belle, Book, and Candle but family deaths, my own emotional and physical health hits, and emergency travels - and okay, some recreational travels as well - have pretty much made that impossible this year. 

But, I have been reading a lot. 

Today, I thought I would write about a batch of books that I have enjoyed recently. 

Yesterday's Spy (1975) by Len Deighton 

I never really understand what is going on in spy novels so I just let myself go along for the ride to foreign locales.  This one had an engaging narrator, locations in the south of France and Switzerland, and well-written characters. This is the only spy adventure of Mr. Deighton's that I have read and I dare say I will be back for more. He also wrote The IPCRESS File and Funeral in Berlin which were made into movies starring the ever-handsome Michael Caine.  

Chasing Cezanne (1997) by Peter Mayle

I am a big fan of Peter Mayle. His capers are filled with intriguing characters, most often living the high life, and exotic locations, most often somewhere in France.  In Chasing Cezanne we meet art forgers, wealthy art collectors, and a home decor magazine editor (who I swear is Vogue's Anna Wintour in disguise). We get to spend a couple of days touring Paris. We spend time relaxing on the the lovely Cote d'Azure. And, as always, with Mr. Mayle, we are treated to scrumptious meals in glamorous restaurants. All the while chasing down a stolen Cezanne. What's not to like about that?

The Axe Factor (2014) by Colin Cotterill
This is the third mystery starring Jimm Juree, a freelance journalist living with her kooky family and helping to manage their rundown seaside resort in southern Thailand. In this fast-paced story, Jimm gets involved with a British mystery writer who may or may not have killed his wife. Romantic interludes aside, Jimm is also investigating the disappearance of the village doctor. All this in the middle of monsoon season. Quite fun. Mr. Cotterill also writes the mysteries featuring Dr. Siri, the aging national coroner of Laos set in the 1970s. 

Vertigo 42 (2014) by Martha Grimes
I have long been a follower of New Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury and now after a four-year hiatus he is back with his friend Lord Ardry/Melrose Plant, the gang at the Jack and Hammer pub, and various dogs, cats, and, of course, murder. If you haven't read any of Ms. Grimes's witty mysteries set in England, you might start now with her first one, The Man With a Load of Mischief, published in 1981. All the titles of her Richard Jury mysteries are taken from the names of British pubs. I don't know if I can wait another four years for the next Jury investigation so I may have to begin rereading her entire series of, now, twenty-three books.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Duc Jean des Esseintes in
À Rebours 
Joris-Karl Huysmans
(from the 1931 illustrated edition)

Okay, this is probably the weirdest, albeit fascinating, book I have ever read. It was mentioned in Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel and I thought I would give it a go.

The book is À  Rebours (translated as Against Nature or Against the Grain) by Frenchman Joris-Karl Huysmans. It was published in 1884. It is the story of Duc Jean des Esseintes, "a frail young man of thirty, nervous and anaemic, with hollow cheeks and cold, steel-blue eyes, a straight nose with flaring nostrils, and dry, slender hands." He is the solitary descendant of a wealthy and once thriving aristocratic family.

His personal motto could be Satre's comment that "Hell is other people."

He has grown bored with the vulgarity of modern life. He has lost interest in activities and romance and the banal conversations of his companions.

In response to his malaise, he buys and moves to an isolated property outside of Paris. He builds a house that insures he will not be bothered by noise, society, or servants. He goes about furnishing the house in exquisite colors, and with materials and items that are elegant, expensive, and all to his own aesthete tastes.

For most of the book's 180 or so pages, we learn what those tastes include in literature (mostly Latin books with a few modern French ones thrown in), music, art, and poetry. Beauty is his watchword. He even goes so far as to have the shell of a live tortoise gilded and set with jewels. A very quiet companion, indeed.

When he is not paging through his books or staring at his art, Des Esseintes is thinking about past love affairs, the strange events of his childhood, his school days with the Jesuits, and his Parisian escapades.

I will admit that many - okay, most - of the works he references were unfamiliar to me. But, as someone who has spent time curating her own furnishings, collections, art, and activities, I can appreciate Des Esseintes's desire to be surrounded by only those things he loves and that he deems beautiful.

I read this while in a drug-induced swoon brought on by antibiotics and antihistamines prescribed to treat a sinus infection. I pretty much just let the words roll over me and now that my head is beginning to clear, I think perhaps the book might be worth rereading.

I don't know if I could actually recommend this book to you. But if you can get over the obscure cultural references (there are explanatory notes in the Oxford Classic edition for those who would bother to read them) then perhaps this is the tale for you. I guarantee it will make quite an impression.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

The Art of Travel (2002) by Alain de Botton is an education in itself.  If you are thinking it is all about how to pack your suitcase, how to breeze through customs, or how to take a cruise and not get seasick, you would be wrong. 

Instead, the book is filled with art, literature, personal experience, poetry, architecture, and adventure. 

I love a book like this.

Pleasing to read, full of information, and just the right size to carry with you on your travels - whether real or armchair.

Mr. de Botton opens each of the five sections of the book with a personal experience about a place he has visited. Thereby we swoop from Barbados to which he escapes from a dreary British winter to England's Lake District and on to Madrid, Provence, and Amsterdam. Our trip also includes musings on the banality and the sterility of airports and motorway rest stops. 

His travel guides, though, are not Baedecker or Fodor but instead the lives and works of, among others, poets William Wordsworth and Charles Baudelaire, artists Edward Hopper and Vincent Van Gogh, author Gustave Flaubert, explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and art critic John Ruskin. 

Oh, this book, that takes a look at how we travel and why we travel and how perhaps we could get more out of our travels, is a delight. The author examines the disconnect between the promises of the glossy travel brochure and our actual experiences upon arrival at our destination. And how we let someone or something - tour guide or researched tour book - take us to sites that we really have no interest in whereas we might do better to follow our own curiosity. Or how a certain fictional character, Joris-Karl Huysmans' Des Esseintes, found that sitting in a British pub in Paris offers the same atmosphere and experience as a rowdy pub in London without ever having to pack a trunk. 

Yes, I can highly recommend The Art of Travel whether you are preparing for a trip around the world or simply settling in to your armchair. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thomas Wolfe House and Museum

Thomas Wolfe House
Asheville, North Carolina

My time in Asheville, although short, was informative and relaxing. The weather was cool and clear; the Blue Ridge Mountains were blue, as promised; and I found two bookstores which always makes for a pleasant adventure.

Asheville is a very literary town although it is probably more well known for its painters, potters, weavers and other craft artists.

Since I won't be taking a Grand Southern Literary Tour this year as I did in 2012 and 2013, this trip will have to be known as my Petite Southern Literary Tour 2014.

The highlight was a visit to the Thomas Wolfe House and Museum which was conveniently located right across the street from my hotel. I relished the entire experience from watching the 20-minute biographical film; strolling through the museum that plotted the author's short life (he died in 1938 just weeks short of his 38th birthday); and touring the house in which lived with his mother, Julia, who ran it as a boarding house.

I sat in one of the old-fashioned rocking chairs on the front porch as our tour guide, David, gave us an overview of Wolfe's life and the years spent living in the house known as the Old Kentucky Home. There were only two other folks on the early morning tour so the visit was quite leisurely and intimate.

We visited the small room off the kitchen that Wolfe's hard-working mother slept in. There were the grander first floor room of his father's; the small and large guest rooms; the dreary formal parlor at the front of the house; the lovely sun room that reminded me of my grandmother's house; and the dining room where the boarders ate three meals a day. 

Julia Wolfe's tiny room off the kitchen.

One of the nicer guest rooms.

A lovely window seat in the dining room.

This house, of course, was the setting for Wolfe's autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel (1929). When it was published, the story made the people of Asheville furious. The tale exposed the somewhat trashy behavior of the citizens of this mountain town. The real adulterers, the alcoholics, the embezzlers were all easily identified and Thomas was not welcomed back to his hometown for many years.  

While the house contained the prosaic furnishings of his years there, it was the museum, featuring the author's personal items that fascinated me.

Wolfe's desk from his New York apartment. All items were 
brought back to Asheville upon his death.

Close-up of the three books on Wolfe's desk. 
(I cannot decipher the 
title of the red book.)

There are those who think Thomas Wolfe was a genius and there are those who think he was simply too verbose and who get lost in his wandering sentences. I must admit that I have not read anything by Mr. Wolfe, other than perhaps a random quote or two, so I do not know into which camp I might fall.

What has been your experience, if any, with Thomas Wolfe?