Book reviews: 27 July
HERO ON A BICYCLE by Shirley Hughes (Walker Books, £9.99)
Shirley Hughes, familiar to most parents or, indeed, grandparents, of small children, as the creator of Alfie and his chaotic family, has now written her first novel. Hero On A Bicycle, set in 1944, is about a boy called Paolo, 13 years old and living just outside Florence with his mother, and sister Constanza, as the allies advance on the German occupiers.
Paolo's dad is away with the partisans and Paolo is prey to feelings of unrest and fear; he thinks he should be doing something about his family's predicament, but isn't sure what. So he spends the nights on clandestine bike rides through the streets of Florence, alleviating the boredom of occupied life by frightening himself half to death with his adventures. One night, returning home, he's apprehended by two men who demand to see his mother. They want her to shelter two escaped prisoners of war and get them to safety behind the lines.
Hughes has created a vivid story about the terror of war, spiked with horrifying moments, such as when Paolo, coming back home in the small hours via the cellar, stretches out his hand in the darkness and encounters a... silent human form. But she's also written a moving book about growing up. Paolo starts the story as a boy, but ends it the equal of the adults; he's even accorded some respect by his older sister – something that only the unifying anxiety of wartime could produce.
THE LETTERS OF T.S. ELIOT, VOLUME 3: 1926-1927, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (Faber and Faber, £40)
What criteria should you use to review a volume of the letters of one of the 20th century's greatest, most influential poets? This is a fine scholarly edition and the notes and apparatus are exemplary. However, I fear only Eliot completists, or those with an interest in the editing of literary magazines, will really be absorbed by a book that is so much focused on Eliot's work as editor of The Criterion: A Literary Review.
Eliot comes across as likeable and reliably courteous to sometimes irascible contributors; an unflappable, occasionally arch, always driven figure. But it is only when writing to her or considering the situation of his first wife Vivien, who is mentally ill in a sanatorium in France, that we catch a vivid sight of his personal pain and anxiety. Considering his own disposition (the nervous breakdown suffered earlier while writing The Waste Land), his solicitousness towards the suicidal Vivien is moving, especially when Eliot is writing to his family. In 1927, he became a naturalised British citizen, swapping Unitarianism for the Church of England, and with 'Journey of the Magi' his poetry also struck off on to a very different road. But perhaps unsurprisingly for a poet who cultivated impersonality, he has less to say about this than might be imagined. What we really need from Faber is a selected letters for the general reader, available in paperback and which preferably covers the poet's whole life; Eliot deserves no less.
AT HOME ON THE RANGE by Margaret Yardley Potter (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
Unpacking a box of books, the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, discovered a cookbook written by her greatgrandmother. Margaret Yardley Potter wrote At Home On The Range in 1947, almost a generation before Julia Child. She was, explains Gilbert, way ahead of her time, being intrigued by the history of food, an early advocate of farmers' markets and a woman who persuaded an Italian shop keeper in Philadelphia in 1918 to teach her how to make pizza. Her book, writes Gilbert in the Introduction, is a 'cross between Dorothy Parker and MFK Fisher...' 'Don't overthink orange marmalade' she advises at one point... 'constant stirring and average intelligence is really all that's necessary.'
Other chapters reveal a wry attitude to domestic cooking. 'Weekend Guests Without a Weakened Hostess' she notes, depends on a system of planning ahead; 'Egg Yourself on in Emergencies' advises 'hardboiled eggs are the best helpers out if you have frequent unexpected guests... keep a half dozen or so ready in the icebox... They can be stretchers for almost any creamed dish.' At the end of the book, Gilbert has included her top 10 family recipes, including fruitcake and chicken livers with red wine.
ONE ON ONE: 101 TRUE ENCOUNTERS by Craig Brown (Fourth Estate, £8.99)
A book of bizarre and unexpected encounters between unlikely people. Craig Brown, the satirist and parodist, has done some riveting research, and has thrown up all kinds of weirdly incongruous get-togethers between people you would never have imagined had been in a position to meet: Michael Jackson and Nancy Reagan for instance, Marilyn Monroe and Nikita Khrushchev, Salvador Dalí and Sigmund Freud... how one would like to have been a fly on the wall for that. Quite apart from being a gossipy delight, full of eccentric and revealing chat, it is also an exercise in design: Brown has included 101 entries, each of exactly 1,001 words, making the book 101,101 words long – each one to be savoured.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
First catch your husband
Stephanie Cross is charmed by an account of the marriage boats that took single girls in search of a mate to India
THE FISHING FLEET: HUSBAND HUNTING IN THE RAJ by Anne de Courcy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)
In the days before 'Sugar Daddy' dating websites there was another, distinctly more romantic way to find an eligible gent. True, it took rather more effort than just logging on: the women of the 'Fishing Fleet' sailed across the globe to India to land a prize.
From the 17th century to the end of the Raj, boatloads of wellbred young British women embarked on this matrimonial quest. But Cupid and a spirit of adventure weren't the only inspirations. In Victorian England the spinster was a pitiful fi gure, and at 25 a girl was already approaching her sell-by date. In India, however, she could have her pick of Empire builders all desperate for a spouse. (When the East India Company was first established it was acceptable for an English man to have an Indian wife or mistress; by the late-19th century, it was forbidden.)
First, however, there was the voyage itself, and not a few matches were made en route. Fishing Fleet women often sailed with men returning to India after a summer's leave: the starry nights had a heady effect that kept the many churches in Bombay, Calcutta and Rangoon employed. Those not married straight off the boat would be swept up in a social whirl. But it was not just the heat that stifled. Etiquette was inflexible – a young, unmarried woman must always be chaperoned – and then there were the corsets, stockings and flannel underwear that women were expected to don until well into the 1920s. For some, there was the heart-sinking suspicion that a prospective mate – 'in true Raj male style' – cared more for his polo ponies than for domestic bliss. And marriage, after the glamour of the chase, could be quite a comedown: for wives of 'up country' husbands, lives of loneliness and boredom were almost guaranteed.
But if perils abounded – from mildew on one's satin dresses to snakes and even plague – many Fishing Fleet girls lost their hearts twice over, falling utterly for India herself. 'The gleam and gush of the southwest monsoon, mimosa and butterflies the size of birds...' recalled one enchanted Fishing Fleet bride.
Drawing extensively on firsthand accounts, Anne de Courcy's sparkling book is an unalloyed delight.
SEPARATE LIVES by Kathryn Flet (Quercus. £7.99)
You might know Flett from her Grumpy Old Woman role on the BBC, but here she is in a different guise, writing her first novel, a portrayal of marriage and adultery. Susie, Alex and Pippa battle it out in a format (first-person narrator, texts and emails) that allows a tripartite view of the goings-on. Excellent holiday reading.
THE HORROR OF LOVE: NANCY MITFORD AND GASTON PALEWSKI IN PARIS AND LONDON by Lisa Hilton (Phoenix, £8.99)
A fictional version of the grand passion between Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski – the Free-French politician who was according to a family friend 'so ugly but women adored him'. Palewski eventually abandoned Nancy for another woman, but was the pursuit of love worth it? Hilton makes a good stab at persuading us it was.
BULLFIGHTING by Roddy Doyle (Vintage Books, £5.99)
Bullfighting starts slowly, but moves quickly into a well-observed novel that follows the lives of an incongruous coterie of men. All are suffering from loss – either of power, virility or love – which echoes of the boom and bust days of the Celtic Tiger. A challenging new light on contemporary Ireland's woes and triumphs.
THE SONNETS by William Shakespeare (Faber/Touch Press, £9.99)
Should persuade even the most technophobe reader that something good has come out of the iPad. This app marries the sonnets with video and commentaries. Accessible and scholarly.
FOOLING HOUDINI by Alex Stone (Heinemann, £12.99)
An exploration of the cub-culture that magicians inhabit, rubbing up against card sharps, pickpockets and psychological experimentation. Stone, a physicist, learns some tricks of the trade.
Steven Barfield discovers witty and moving poems by Briar Wood, and an essay collection on creating and appreciating poetry by Glyn Maxwell
WELCOME BELTANE by Briar Wood (Palores Publications, £4)
Beltane is the pagan festival of early May, which ushers in summer, a fiery time of renewal, when the spirit world flits close to our own. As Wood writes in the title poem: 'Walls between worlds can be/thin as skin/this time of year'. Welcome Beltane is a fitting title for a collection of work, lyrical and rhythmically diverse, which is brim-full and sparking with both the sights and sounds of Cornwall and those of the poet's homeland New Zealand/Aotearoa.
Autobiography is the dominant mode and it allows a consideration of the relationship between land and culture on the one hand (as in Starch about Lanhydrock); and on the other, an exploration of the way in which people are shaped by their experiences through language, in a continuous negotiation between past and present, emotion and intellect.
Wood is perhaps at her strongest as a poet of concrete place and nature and she sensitively unlocks the parallels between her early life in New Zealand and her passion for Cornwall in poems such as Impromptu Makatu. The poetry is often witty for example in two poems about body-surfing (Between the Flags and Body Surfing), but it can also be very moving and some striking elegies for family members such as her late father (A Can of Striped Paint), and lost friends, can be found here. There is also a vivid sense of the historical, especially of the struggles but also successes of women's remarkable lives. This is a very enjoyable collection redolent of Cornwall's splendid summers, stone-strewn landscapes and of a powerfully optimistic response to the journeys of a life lived in language.
ON POETRY by Glyn Maxwell (Oberon, £12.99)
Maxwell has an impressive reputation as both poet and teacher of creative writing, and while this essay collection consists of personal meditations, the intention is that the book will help us both to create and to appreciate poetry more successfully. There is much useful discussion of material drawn from celebrated poems, but other books arguably do that just as well. Maxwell is at his strongest, however, when uncovering the mysteries of teaching aspirant poets to write.
Related tags:Hero On A Bicycle  The Letters Of T.S.Eliot Volume 3: 1926-1927  At Home On The Range  One on One 101 True Encounters  The Fishing Fleet: Husbanh Hunting In The Raj  Seperate Lives  The Horror Of Love: Nancy Mitfird and Gaston Palewski In Paris And London  Bullfighting  The Sonnets  Fooling Houdini  Welcome Beltane  Books  Book reviews  The Lady
Daily tip from the lady archive
“HEAVEN forbid that we should go back to the days when beauty was under suspicion and plain girls were assumed to have angelic natures.”The Lady. With Prejudice. 28th April 1938