Monday, May 28, 2012

{review} the small back room

Nigel Balchin The Small Back Room (1943)

I found this book as the author sits next to Beryl Bainbridge on the library shelves (and I'm thinking about Beryl Bainbridge Week). Also, the name rang a faint bell. A quick search of google reader (far more reliable than my memory) revealed that I'd flagged it to track down after reading the excellent review on futile preoccupations and that Balchin had been discussed (so recently that I should be ashamed of forgetting) by beauty is a sleeping cat and a work in progress.  

The Small Back Room is a shortish and very intense book, set during the Second World War. The protagonist is a 'backroom boy' - a scientist working in a small team which basically throws up ideas and sees if they'll work: new types of silent guns, odd fuses, ways to stop things freezing, and so on. The novel offers a deeply depressing look at how individual egos can dominate to the detriment of the big picture - the actual war and, more specifically, the men on the front who will have to use these new inventions. 

The separation in distance and mind-set between the back room boys and their masters and the men on the front is beautifully brought out when the protagonist - prevented from active service by the loss of a foot in the First World War - has to become actively involved in defusing a deadly new type of bomb. I liked the uneasy atmosphere evoked by this book: the impression that the war was intended to feather certain men's nests; the arguments between the 'old boy' scientists who want to maintain their little fiefdoms without regard to efficiency or making a difference to the war; the go-betweens in cushy safe jobs which they intend to keep. 
"But I don't think you understand," I said rather desperately. "That stuff matters. His own people know that it's good and say it's never been tackled before. There's stuff there that I was working on before the war. What's going to happen to it?"
Waring said, "That's entirely up to Hereward. After what's happened, you can't expect him to be very enthusiastic, can you?"
I felt myself shaking a bit. I said, "It isn't a question of whether Hereward is enthusiastic or not. That idea might make all the difference to operating transport and guns in cold climates. Why should it be stopped because of his bloody dignity? The war isn't his private show."
Mair said gently, "You're being logical, Sammy, and I'm afraid it isn't a matter of logic."
This is not a book about heroes (apart from one very brave and determined bomb disposal expert). The protagonist is not particularly likeable and spends a goodly amount of time feeling sorry for himself and making the life of his lover hellish. This doesn't sound promising, but nevertheless, Balchin's grim (and grimy) assessment of human nature at play on the home front offers much revisional food for thought. Incidentally, Balchin's wikipedia entry offers some interesting parallels between his life and his writing. 

Rating: 8/10; disheartening but great writing. It's been made into a film that sounds rather more redemptive than the book. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

{weekend words}

The drill was to wait patiently in line until it was your turn, and then give your order clearly and succinctly. Madame was a whiz at judging the ripeness of cheese. If you asked for a Camembert, she would cock an eyebrow and ask at what time you wished to serve it: would you be eating it for lunch today, or at dinner tonight, or would you be enjoying it a few days hence? Once you had answered, she’d open several boxes, press each cheese intently with her thumbs, take a big sniff, and—voilà!—she’d hand you just the right one. I marveled at her ability to calibrate a cheese’s readiness down to the hour, and would even order cheese when I didn’t need it just to watch her in action. I never knew her to be wrong.
Julia Child (with Alex Prud'homme)  

Monday, May 21, 2012

{review} sisters of sinai

Then her eye fell on an anonymous volume: ‘It had a forbidding look, for it was very dirty, and its leaves were nearly all stuck together through their having remained unturned probably since the last Syrian monk had died, centuries ago, in the Convent.’ Agnes was struck that the Syriac text she was examining, a collected lives of women saints, seemed to have been written on top of something else. As she looked closer she could see two broad columns of underwriting peeping out from beneath the text and she could make out page headings, also in the Syriac language, that clearly belonged to the earlier text. ‘Of Matthew’, ‘of Luke’, it read. This was a palimpsest. Agnes had never seen one before, but their father ‘had often related to us wonderful stories of how the old monks, when vellum had become scarce and paper was not yet invented, scraped away the writing from the pages of their books and wrote something else new on the top of it; and how, after the lapse of ages, the old ink was revived by the action of common air, and the old words peeped up again; and how a text of Plato had come to light in this curious way’.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Soskice offers a really readable account of how two Victorian sisters not only managed to get themselves to the isolated Monastery of St Catherine's in the Sinai Desert but also possessed the talent to recognise that a palimpsest  manuscript in the monastery library held a lost Syriac version of the Gospels.

Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson (née Smith) had some advantages over other Victorian ladies, being financially independent and, for most of their lives, lacking relatives or husbands (although both were briefly and happily married) who might stand in the way of their unconventional activities. Both were diligent students and scholars, learning an remarkable number of languages between them (an endeavour assisted by their being twins and thus being able to spend days at a time speaking only ancient Greek to each other!). Both were keen to utilise the technology of photography to disseminate their discoveries to the world. Both were snubbed by the university of their adopted home town, Cambridge, where women were not granted degrees until 1948 despite receiving honorary degrees from many other universities. Despite the snub, these ladies went on to found a Presbyterian college in Cambridge, Westminster College.

The twins in 1914 (source)

Soskice's story of their discoveries - and the subsequent academic jealousies that it provoked - is immensely readable, and filled with nice details:
It was reported that they had astonished their neighbours by taking exercise on parallel bars in their back garden – in their bloomers – and that their new house avoided the cause of this distress by incorporating a tower with gymnastic ropes so that the two sisters could exert themselves in privacy.
Margaret was asked by a young Sunday School teacher to visit a pupil about whom she was anxious. Margaret went at once, and reported back ‘You are quite right. The father does drink. If I lived in a house like theirs, I should drink too.’
Rating: 9/10. Thoroughly enjoyable. I now know how to remove rats from a dahabeeah.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

{weekend words}

That a woman should look right in the country is always very important to Englishmen; another thing to which they often attach considerable importance is legs. Richard Atherley now observed that Hetta’s legs, stuck out carelessly in front of her on the sand, though strong and shapely were rather thick, as Central European legs are apt to be; they were not in the least like Julia Probyn’s long lovely ones. And with a sort of pang of surprised emotion the young man realised that in this girl, at any rate, he could even love thick legs.
Ann Bridge (1958)  

Monday, May 14, 2012

{review} the sheik

Edith Hull The Sheik (1919)

"Are you coming in to watch the dancing, Lady Conway?"
"I most decidedly am not. I thoroughly disapprove of the expedition of which this dance is the inauguration. I consider that even by contemplating such a tour alone into the desert with no chaperon or attendant of her own sex, with only native camel drivers and servants, Diana Mayo is behaving with a recklessness and impropriety that is calculated to cast a slur not only on her own reputation, but also on the prestige of her country. I blush to think of it. We English cannot be too careful of our behaviour abroad. No opportunity is slight enough for our continental neighbours to cast stones, and this opportunity is very far from being slight. It is the maddest piece of unprincipled folly I have ever heard of."
The Sheik is pretty hot stuff for its era.

It is also very easy to write it off simply as a work so offensive to the sensibility of modern women that no one should read it. I'm not going to be naïve about this: there are elements of this book which are revolting and it is fortunate that these scenes - multiple rape, for instance - are couched in a sort of Vaseline-tinged aura of Edwardian obfuscation which leaves almost everything to the imagination.

This is a book - written by a woman - which warns about the fate that befalls women who act independently. This is what happens to women who don't listen to men. This is what happens to women who are financially independent. This is what happens if you wear trousers in public. This is the fate of a woman who is "a girl who was a girl by accident of birth only" and who has no desire for marriage or physical intimacy: 
To be bound irrevocably to the will and pleasure of a man who would have the right to demand obedience in all that constituted marriage and the strength to enforce those claims revolted her.
All of this is meant to titillate the reader, of course. Many readers will also be offended by a plot development along Stockholm Syndrome lines between abused and abuser. There's also a weird homoerotic subtext about the Sheik liking women who look like boys. The Sheik also plays into stereotypes of Orientalism (I'm think about Edward Said here) and the non-white Other: 
Until they started shooting the thought that the Arabs could be hostile had not crossed her mind. She imagined that they were merely showing off with the childish love of display which she knew was characteristic.
This is ugly stuff.
She was utterly in his power and at his mercy—the mercy of an Arab who was merciless.
I'd read this book if you want a good laugh at outdated customs such as changing for dinner in the desert into "clinging jade-green silk, swinging short above her slender ankles, the neck cut low, revealing the gleaming white of her soft, girlish bosom":
That explorer woman we met in London that first year I began travelling with you explained to me the real moral and physical value of changing into comfortable, pretty clothes after a hard day in breeches and boots. You change yourself.
Apart from that, read it at your own peril.
She turned the pages, dipping here and there, finally forgetting the author altogether in the book. It was a wonderful story of a man's love and faithfulness, and Diana pushed it aside at last with a very bitter sigh. Things happened so in books. In real life they happened very differently.
I certainly hope so.

Rating: are you kidding? 

Incidentally, I read this because I read Verity's review (her perspective is both kinder and more balanced) and thus realised it was still in print; and because I enjoy old films.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

{weekend words}

"What an awful affair a confinement is!", noted Charles Darwin after the birth of his first child in 1839: the event "knocked me up, almost as much as it did Emma herself."
Stephanie J. Snow (2008) 
How Anaesthetics Changed the World

Monday, May 7, 2012

{review} operation mincemeat

Ben Macintyre Operation Mincemeat (2010) 

"The true spy story that changed the course of World War II". 

Ben Macintyre has produced an entertaining and enlightening exploration of a minor espionage project of the Second World War that had major repercussions and - probably - smoothed the path of an easier allied victory in WW2. 

I like the way he goes about this: each participant in or part of the project is explored in detail, usually in a whole chapter. The story of Mincemeat is a small one, but in Macintyre's hands we get to glimpse the big picture - how each little cog in Operation Mincemeat was vitally important to the project as a whole and how Operation Mincemeat was itself a small cog of vital significance for the invasion of Sicily (and, thus, the liberation of Europe). 

Operation Mincemeat was one of those crazy schemes that it is hard to see that anyone could take seriously: 
"The plan was born in the mind of a novelist, and took shape through a most unlikely cast of characters: a brilliant barrister, a family of undertakers, a forensic pathologist, a gold prospector, an inventor, a submarine captain, a transvestite English spy mater, a rally driver, a pretty secretary, a credulous Nazi, and a grumpy admiral who loved fly-fishing." 
Operation Mincemeat was a plan to dump a dead body at sea off the Spanish coast, on which would be found important 'secret' documents designed to mislead the Nazi high command about the site chosen for the invasion of Europe. 

There were many, many things that could go wrong: from making sure a suitable body didn't decompose too much; to inventing a life for the body involving theatre tickets and tailor's receipts; to ensuring that a sympathetic Spaniard did not return the 'top secret' papers to the Brits before the Nazi's had got hold of a copy. If Mincemeat's papers were believed, the result would be a splitting of German forces across the entire Mediterranean, rather than a concentration of forces in Italy/Sicily. Mincemeat's success could prevent a bloodbath on Sicily for the allies: "thousands of Allied soldiers were massing on the coast of North Africa, whose future depended on a ruse that had once seemed like a jolly game, but was now a matter of life and death on a massive scale." 

In practical terms, where the British 8th Army had anticipated "10,000 casualties in the first week of the invasion; just one-seventh of that number were killed or wounded." 

Macintyre does a great job in making Mincemeat come to life. Even Hitler was fooled in the end, and there is a lovely irony in that this deception was planned by a Jew. 

Rating: 8/10. Fascinating popular history. 

If you liked this: I hear that Macintyre's Agent Zigzag is good too.  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

{weekend words}

Mrs. Hableton did not give him time to finish, but walking to the gate, opened it with a jerk. "Use your legs and walk in," she said, and the stranger having done so, she led the way into the house, and into a small neat sitting-room, which seemed to overflow with antimacassars, wool mats, and wax flowers. There were also a row of emu eggs on the mantelpiece, a cutlass on the wall, and a grimy line of hard-looking little books, set in a stiff row on a shelf, presumably for ornament, for their appearance in no way tempted one to read them.
Fergus Hume (1886)
The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

{review} miss buncle's book

D. E. Stevenson Miss Buncle's Book (1934 [2008]) 

Mr Abbott... had given up trying to predict the success or unsuccess of the novels he published, but he went on publishing them and hoping that each one published would prove itself a bestseller. Last Friday morning his nephew, Sam Abbott, who had just been taken into the firm of Abbott & Spicer, suddenly appeared in Mr Abbott's sanctum with a deplorable lack of ceremony, and announced 'Uncle Arthur, the feller who wrote this book is either a genius or an imbecile.' Something stirred in Mr Abbott's heart at these words, (a sort of sixth sense perhaps) and he had held out his hand for the untidy-looking manuscript with a feeling of excitement – was this the bestseller at last?
I'm going to confess up front that I read Miss Buncle's Book... on my Kindle. I know, I know: what about the tactile pleasures of a beautiful Persephone book in the hand? What of the terribleness of e-reading something with the actual word 'Book' on the cover, etc. etc.? I'm a bad person. But Persephone Books is now selling e-books, and one can only hope that this leads to an even wider audience for their lovely publications.

I am always a bit worried that I won't like a book that others love. For instance, I find myself in the tiny camp (I may even be camping by myself) of people who didn't like Miss Hargreaves and found I Capture the Castle twee and annoying. Fortunately, I loved Miss Buncle's Book: I loved the idea of the book within the book within the book, I loved the writing, and I just thought it was screwball comedy funny - like a wonderful B&W film of the 30s.

Without giving too much away, Miss Buncle writes a book based on what she knows. What she knows is, unfortunately for her future peace of mind, the inner workings of the small village in which she lives. Chronicles of an English Village (a.k.a. Disturbers of the Peace) becomes a bestseller and half the village is up in arms about who the anonymous author could be; and then strange things begin to happen amid the chaos... Miss Buncle - with her "unsophisticated palate and a good digestion"- we find, is a very fine student of human nature indeed:
She was obviously a simple sort of person – shabbily dressed in a coat and skirt of blue flannel. Her hat was dreadful, her face was pale and rather thin, with a pointed chin and a nondescript nose, but on the other hand her eyes were good – dark blue with long lashes – and they twinkled a little when she laughed. Her mouth was good too, and her teeth – if they were real – magnificent.
Miss Buncle is also my favourite type of heroine: as well as making her own way entirely on the merits of her own intelligence, she ticks another box - the heroine who whips off her spectacles (figuratively in this case), lets down her hair (OK, perms her hair), finds a good dressmaker and is instantly transformed into, if not a Siren, then certainly into her rather different alter-ego of the book.

I find this trope eerily irresistible. The Cinderella scene always gives me a primitive sort of pleasure even as I snort in derision at yet another manipulative canonical trope courtesy of the patriarchy: think of Miss Pettigrew transformed; or, the companion in Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train or the young tomboy in another favourite Christie, The Moving Finger, or, indeed, Eliza Doolittle.

I've heard (My Porch) that the sequel (Miss Buncle Married) isn't as good, so I'm just going to leave this one in my mind for a bit.
'How nice for you – and for her of course,' exclaimed Barbara. She had lived for so long amongst these people and had suffered so many afternoon teas that she was able to say the expected thing without thinking about it at all. You simply put a penny in the machine and the expected thing came out at once, all done up in a neat little packet, and suitably labelled. The machine worked without any effort on Barbara's part, it even worked when the real Barbara was absent and only the shell, dressed in its shabby garments, remained sitting upright upon its chair. The real Barbara often flew away like that and took refuge from the dullness and boredom of Silverstream in the scintillating atmosphere of Copperfield.
Did Stevenson write anything else I should read?

Rating: 10/10.

If you liked this: my favourite examples of the Cinderella transformation are above.

{READ IN 2018}

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  • 25. This is What Happened - Mick Herron
  • 24. London Rules - Mick Herron
  • 23. The Third Eye - Ethel Lina White
  • 22. Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mewed - Alan Bradley
  • 21. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust - Alan Bradley
  • 20. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches - Alan Bradley
  • 19. Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley
  • 18. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
  • 17. Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd
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  • 14. The Talented Mr Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
  • 13. Portrait of a Murderer - Anthony Gilbert
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{READ IN 2017}

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  • 132. Death Against the Clock - Anthony Gilbert
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  • 129. And Death Came Too - Anthony Gilbert
  • 128. Snake in the Grass - Anthony Gilbert
  • 127. Footsteps Behind Me - Anthony Gilbert
  • 126. Miss Pinnegar Disappears - Anthony Gilbert
  • 125. Lady-Killer - Anthony Gilbert
  • 124. A Nice Cup of Tea - Anthony Gilbert
  • 123. Die in the Dark - Anthony Gilbert
  • 122. Death in the Wrong Room - Anthony Gilbert
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  • 120. Lift up the Lid - Anthony Gilbert
  • 119. Don't Open the Door - Anthony Gilbert
  • 118. The Black Stage - Anthony Gilbert
  • 117. A Spy for Mr Crook - Anthony Gilbert
  • 116. The Scarlet Button - Anthony Gilbert
  • 115. He Came by Night - Anthony Gilbert
  • 114. Something Nasty in the Woodshed - Anthony Gilbert
  • 113. Death in the Blackout - Anthony Gilbert
  • 112. The Woman in Red - Anthony Gilbert
  • 111. The Vanishing Corpse - Anthony Gilbert
  • 110. London Crimes - Martin Edwards (ed.)
  • 109. The Midnight Line - Anthony Gilbert
  • 108. The Clock in the Hatbox - Anthony Gilbert
  • 107. Dear Dead Woman - Anthony Gilbert
  • 106. The Bell of Death - Anthony Gilbert
  • 105. Treason in my Breast - Anthony Gilbert
  • 104. Murder has no Tongue - Anthony Gilbert
  • 103. The Man who Wasn't There - Anthony Gilbert
  • 102. Murder by Experts - Anthony Gilbert
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  • 100. The Plumley Inheritance - Christopher Bush
  • 99. Spy - Bernard Newman
  • 98. Cargo of Eagles - Margery Allingham & Philip Youngman Carter
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  • 96. The China Governess - Margery Allingham
  • 95. Hide My Eyes - Margery Allingham
  • 94. The Beckoning Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 93. The Tiger in the Smoke - Margery Allingham
  • 92. More Work for the Undertaker - Margery Allingham
  • 91. Coroner's Pidgin - Margery Allingham
  • 90. Traitor's Purse - Margery Allingham
  • 89. The Fashion in Shrouds - Margery Allingham
  • 88. The Case of the Late Pig - Margery Allingham
  • 87. Dancers in Mourning - Margery Allingham
  • 86. Flowers for the Judge - Margery Allingham
  • 85. Death of a Ghost - Margery Allingham
  • 84. Sweet Danger - Margery Allingham
  • 83. Police at the Funeral - Margery Allingham
  • 82. Look to the Lady - Margery Allingham
  • 81. Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham
  • 80. The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham
  • 79. The White Cottage Mystery - Margery Allingham
  • 78. Murder Underground - Mavis Doriel Hay
  • 77. No Man's Land - David Baldacci
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  • 75. The Forgotten - David Baldacci
  • 74. Zero Day - David Baldacci
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  • 73. Pilgrim's Rest - Patricia Wentworth
  • 72. The Case is Closed - Patricia Wentworth
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  • 70. Lonesome Road - Patricia Wentworth
  • 69. The Listening Eye - Patricia Wentworth
  • 68. Through the Wall - Patricia Wentworth
  • 67. Out of the Past - Patricia Wentworth
  • 66. Mistress - Amanda Quick
  • 65. The Black Widow - Daniel Silva
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  • 63. The Poet - Michael Connelly
  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
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  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
  • 59. Mrs Roosevelt's Confidante - Susan Elia MacNeal
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  • 57. His Majesty's Hope - Susan Elia MacNeal
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  • 53. Hit & Run - Lawrence Block
  • 52. Hit Parade - Lawrence Block
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  • 48. Dark is the Clue - E. R. Punshon
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  • 39. Slow Horses - Mick Herron
  • 38. Everybody Always Tells - E. R. Punshon
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  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
  • 35. A Scream in Soho - John G. Brandon
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  • 32. Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? - Basil Thomson
  • 31. The Dartmoor Enigma - Basil Thomson
  • 30. The Case of the Dead Diplomat - Basil Thomson
  • 29. The Case of Naomi Clynes - Basil Thomson
  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
  • 27. A Deadly Thaw - Sarah Ward
  • 26. The Spy Paramount - E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • 25. The Great Impersonation - E. Phillips Oppenheim
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  • 23. The Case of Sir Adam Braid - Molly Thynne
  • 22. The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene
  • 21. The Draycott Murder Mystery - Molly Thynne
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
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  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
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  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
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