“Reflect upon your present blessings ― of which every man has many ― not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” ― Charles Dickens

Christmas is a time for reflection

As we come to the close of 2014 I am faced with the realisation that I have let a few things slip over the last 12 months. I started the year with so many good intentions as to books I would read and things I would get done, and although I have accomplished a lot this year, there are certain books I have really wanted to read which I have let pile up and gather dust. And so, as part of my end of year reflections I am going to give you a short review of three books I read this month, after realising I had put off the task, if indeed you can call it a task, for far too long.

The Thurber Carnival – James Thurber 

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The first book is one my beloved bought me for Valentine’s Day this year; I know a lot of thought went into choosing a book he knew I would enjoy. So this month I spent a few days curled up in bed with Mr Thurber and indulged myself in his musings, and what an experience it was.

As Thurber writes in the preface:

‘This book contains a selection of the stories and drawings the old boy did in his prime, a period which extended roughly from the year Lindbergh flew the Atlantic to the day coffee was rationed.  He presents this to his readers with his sincere best wishes for a happy new world.’

If you have yet to read any James Thurber I cannot recommend him highly enough. The Thurber Carnival is an eclectic mix of short stories, essays, biographical snapshots, poems and anecdotes which give you a little bit of everything. As a first time reader you may find yourself laughing out loud at his work, while at the same time suffering slight confusion as to what exactly is happening – in this way Thurber’s work is full of unexpected and not entirely understandable surprises.

The book was put together by the author himself, adapted from some of his most colourful work, almost all of which was originally published in the New Yorker. Some of the better known parts of the book include ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ which was recently adapted on the big screen, but even the lesser known anecdotal sentences speak volumes about Thurber’s work. Each piece within the volume, down to the smallest of cartoons is worthy of publication.catslikemice

Here is one of my favourite snippets from ‘The Owl in the Attic’, in which the author offers advice in the form of questions and answers from pet owners:

Q. We have cats the way most people have mice. – Mrs C.L Footloose.

A. I see you have. I can’t tell from your communication, however, whether you wish advice or are just boasting.

I also really enjoyed Thurber’s selection of fables which carry somewhat unusual morals. I think my favourite, and it was a difficult choice as they are all hilarious, was ‘The Very Proper Gander’, in which a goose who is very fond of singing to his family was accused of being a dangerous bird capable of spreading propaganda by a nosey hen and subsequently forced to flee his home. This tale carried with it the insightful moral ‘Anybody who you or your wife thinks is going to overthrow the government by violence must be driven out of the country’.

I spent many an afternoon doubled up laughing at Thurber’s anecdotes from ‘My Life and hard times’ including such gems as ‘The Night the Bed Fell’ and ‘The Night the Ghost got in’, in fact I spent many an afternoon laughing at just about everything.

The Thurber Carnival serves as a fantastic amalgamation of the very best of Thurber’s insights and observations, effortlessly presented and bound with a mix of effortless humour and the correct balance of subtle and obvious eccentricities. While highlighting Thurber’s much deserved reputation as a truly great humourist and storyteller, the book simultaneously unleashes upon the reader his second role as a truly profound thinker, philosopher and anthropologist. It has been a while since a book has made me laugh, and think, in quite this way. This collection has something for everyone, if the writing is a little out of your reach; you’re bound to appreciate the illustrations at the very least.

The Snow Goose – Paul Gallico

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The second book was recommended by a man whose presence in my life was all too short, and this month sadly marks one year since he passed. Michael was a truly inspirational man, and I have many fond memories of the time I got to know him. He recommended that I read The Snow Goose on one of the last occasions I ever saw him and I am somewhat ashamed to say the book has been sitting by my bed ever since.

Set against the backdrop of World War II, The Snow Goose documents the touching, if somewhat unusual, friendship between Philip Rhayader, a disfigured artist living a solitary life a lighthouse in the Essex marshlands and a young local girl named Fritha. The unlikely friendship is born out of Fritha’s discovery of a snow goose, miles from its Canadian homeland and wounded by a gunshot.

The tale of the friendship between this unlikely pair is truly moving, and reminded me, in some respects, of the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Rhayader is a beautiful soul who is so misunderstood given his outward appearance, but whose kindness emerges in his care those close to him. The story is so captivating that you will be forgiven for shedding a tear, as I did, with the outcome of the story.

Rhayader assists in the British retreat from Dunkirk, and succeeds in rescuing hundreds of men. The snow goose accompanies him constantly, flying circles around the fishing boat, a shining beacon of hope in the grey skies above the stormy channel, becoming somewhat of an omen to the men in Dunkirk.

When the snow goose returns briefly to the lighthouse, alone, Fritha sees it as vision of Rhayder’s soul coming to bid her farewell. It is at this point that the girl comes to realise that she loved her friend, and he her. When, shortly after, the lighthouse is lost to a German bomber plane, the only thing which remains of Rhayader’s artwork is a painting of Fritha as a young child, with the injured snow goose in her arms. This ending of this short piece is remarkably powerful, and the image of the painting, the one remaining piece of a life now lost, is something which will remain with me for a long time.

The Snow Goose is a simple, eloquently written, yet powerful tale of the power of friendship and love, which is in equal parts beautiful and devastating.

The Young Visters – Daisy Ashford.

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The final book I have chosen is very dear to me. I was first given this book to read by my grandmother as a child, under the knowledge that it was written by a little girl. Unfortunately the knowledge of the book fell somewhere into the back of my mind, and when my grandparent passed away I realised I had forgotten the title. With no one to ask the book was lost to me somewhere within the household clutter that results from many lives well lived. I recently decided to try and find the name of the book and was surprised to find how simple the task was, such are the wonders of the internet. I treated myself to a lovely little second had edition and it seemed natural that this would make it into my Christmas list.

The Young Visiters was written by Daisy Ashford at the remarkable age of nine, and was discovered many years later in a notebook hidden amongst her mother’s possessions. The book was published in a completely unedited state, save for having the single block of text which makes up each chapter divided into paragraphs for readability. Needless to say, the book is truly extraordinary, as J M Barrie writes in his preface to the work: ‘It seems to me to be a remarkable work for a child, remarkable even in its length and completeness, for when children turn author they usually stop in the middle, like the kitten when it jumps.’

There is so much I could say about The Young Visiters; such is my love for this charmingly childish tale. Since rediscovering the work I have recommended it to so many, and have bought it as a Christmas gift for others. It makes a beautiful addition to any collection, and reading it is an experience I can guarantee you will enjoy.

I remember enjoying the book when I first read it, but reading it as an adult has afforded me a whole new appreciation of Ashford’s writing. When I was first given the book by my grandmother she interrogated me almost immediately, asking me if I had noticed anything funny about the book. I remember referring to the sentence ‘Then he sat down and eat the egg which Ethel had so kindly laid for him.’ I will confess does still afford a little chuckle from me, but I noticed so much more about the little girl’s writing this time round, the main thing being her fantastic perception of people and society. J M Barrie writes in his preface that had the author paid a visit to your house ‘I am sure that when you left your bedroom this child stole in, examined everything and summed you up.’ She has a certain way with words, expressing a character with all of the subtlety of a child: ‘My own room is next the bath room said Bernard it is decerated dark red as I have somber tastes.’ Can you think of any better way to sum up ones personality?

There is something so refreshing in reading something written by one so young, who has such a great understanding of life. The heroine in the story Ethel is forever powdering her face with ‘ruge’ for fear that she appears too pale and sickly, an ongoing theme in novels of the time, as stated most eloquently by Ethel : ‘I am very pale owing to the drains in this house’. It is an ongoing these in early 20th century literature that women are almost like china dolls, and liable to break at any moment, which one can pick up quite easily from reading a Jane Austen novel. God forbid a girl gets caught in the rain she is likely to have to stay in bed for the whole summer. Perhaps my favourite snippet from the book in this respect is when Ethel is so overcome with happiness that she faints. The gentleman she is with, Bernard, is very concerned that she is gravely ill, but the matter is soon resolved: ‘Oh no I am very strong said Ethel I fainted from joy she added to explain matters.’

I could delve further into the story, but really, I don’t feel there is any need. I don’t feel anyone is better equipped to tell the tale than the ‘smug’ – as J M Barrie refers to her – little nine-year-old who wrote it.  I would highly recommend this book to just about anyone who enjoys reading. Buy it, read it, and pass it on, you won’t regret it.

“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.” ― Oscar Wilde

Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all

Brideshead Revisited ― Evelyn Waugh

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Brideshead Revisited is the first contact I have had with Evelyn Waugh, and I now find myself completely overwhelmed with the desire to explore and read more of his work. I enjoy a book that is a challenge, so that I can feel I have achieved something when I finally shut the cover for the last time, and this is how I felt having finished Brideshead. Waugh’s style was a little difficult to get used to with at first, but I soon found myself reading as though from book I had read many times before, whose words knew so well.

Waugh’s writing was once described by Gore Vidal as “so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American”, and when I first read this it struck me as an almost perfect sentiment, I don’t feel I can fault the style, while it is in many ways different to what I am used to, it works, almost perfectly.

Something I found most striking, and indeed satisfying, about Waugh’s style is his trademark use of rapid dialogue, unattributed but with the effect that the reader knows exactly who is speaking. This had such a profound effect that I felt as though I could actually hold a conversation with many of the characters in the book.

Brideshead Revisited is a nostalgic look back on post war England, through the story of Charles Ryder, a captain in the British Military during WWII, who returns to a place he once knew so well – the home of the Marchmain family. The novel serves as Charles’ reflection on a time when his life became intertwined with that of the Marchmain’s, a highly privileged, catholic family, one of the few remnants of a rapidly vanishing world.

Charles original contact with the family was during his time at Oxford University, attached to the hip of the youngest son Sebastian, a charming, lovable figure, with an inability to let go of his childhood, as shown by his constant companion, Aloysius the teddy bear. Charles seemed so infatuated with every aspect of Sebastian, his profile, his conversation, his home, that the relationship seemed to me transcend that between just friends, and become almost romantic.

Charles found himself enchanted next by Sebastian’s family, bemused by their religion, charmed by the forgiving mother, and even the rogue father. Before finding himself engaged in a short but passionate love affair with the elder sister Julia, a girl so alike Sebastian in so many ways. Despite the apparent closeness that Charles is said to have shared with the family, there was a single dividing factor mentioned throughout the novel which seemed sure to separate these lives which at first seemed so inextricably linked.

It was not the Marchmain family’s position in society that sets them apart from Charles Ryder, but rather their religion. The presence of the Catholic church in the Marchmain household which was often a matter of contention during conversation between Charles and the Marchmain family. It was Catholicism which eventually reclaims even the shamed Lord Marchmain, who lived for years with his mistress, before proclaiming his belief during the last moments of his life. Finally it was Catholicism which drove Charles and Julia apart, when she realised that she could no longer commit to a life of sin.

Such are the memories that pass though Captain Charles Ryder’s mind as he stands in the closed chapel of the Marchmain family home upon his return in the midst of WWII. It seems as though his life will forever be drawn back towards this family, a family with whom he shall forever be spiritually distanced.

While I enjoyed the story itself very much, what stands out the most is that I feel almost as though these could be my own memories, and that I only have to open the book to be transformed once more to a carefree summer afternoon on the terrace of Brideshead.

I cannot claim to fully understand the writing of Waugh from reading just one novel, needless to say there will definitely be more Waugh reviews to come. I’m sure when I’ve read more I will look back on this one with a more educated eye. Until then, watch this space.