Things on Cowboy’s Head – No. 89

Things on Cowboy's Head No. 88: Ribbons and bows.

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 88: Ribbons and bows.

Background Note: Cowboy, as you may know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level). All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

New things…

Pen_inkIt’s been a busy last few days (and weeks) for me, so much so that I’ve finally come to the realization that I’m not going to be able to pick up the amount of reading that I was enjoying back before my promotion. Less reading will probably translate into fewer titles on my blog, so I hope you are OK with that. I used to be able to juggle one classic, one non-fiction title, and one fiction title all at the same time, but sadly, I must cut back out of this through necessity.

So – I’m back to reading one title at a time (instead of multi-tasking) and I’m actually fine with that. I’m enjoying what I’m reading as I go, AND I even returned all my library books as they were just sitting in a pile haunting me about not spending time with them. So – now, I feel as though I have more space in my head for the things that I can and need to fit in there. It’s a really good feeling.

You know that I’m all about words and writing, and so to support my writing a bit more (and to see if I can curb my absolutely terrible handwriting), I have plunked down some cash for a new fabulous ink pen, cartridges, and a snazzy Moleskin note book.

I have been yearning for a posh Moleskin notebook for ages, but couldn’t fork over the cash (read: too mean), but I won a gift certificate in a photography exhibition and used that to purchase the pen and notebook. And wow. Do I love writing with my ink pen…

It flows so smoothly and I just love to write with it. With the ink being what it is, I have found out that I need to write on some pretty nice thick paper (or it comes through to the back page) and there comes in the Moleskin notebook. Fountain pen + lovely notebook… Oh joy and be still my heart.

Anyway, I haven’t forsaken the reading word and I certainly haven’t forsaken the written word. I just have to balance my life at the moment in terms of cutting back on titles a bit.

And – if you haven’t tried a fountain pen since your messy-fingered* youth, I recommend taking another look at it.

It’s really fun now.

* That might have been only me who got ink over everything though. :-)

Aurora Floyd – M. E. Braddon (1863)

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Mary Elizabeth (M. E.) Braddon was a prolific writer (approx. 90 (!) books between 1860 and 1915) and her output consisted of plays, poetry, essays, novels and a number of literary magazines. She had also been an actress in her earlier days, an experience which is said to have helped with her sensation novels published later. (Both Lady Audley’s Secret [1862] and Aurora Floyd [1863] were wildly popular, so much so that certain groups were threatened by her writing and she was criticized as a “purveyor of immoral fiction.”)

Sensation novels were a literary trend in Victorian times usually characterized by mystery, strong passions and opinions (unseemly at the Victorian time) and intricate plotting, all of which are there in large quantities during Aurora Floyd. (See here for a review of her earlier novel, Lady Audley’s Secret.) If you know to expect over-the-top everything going in, it’s a great ride for the reader. It’s a roller coaster ride which speeds along and then ambles in places, but it’s always enjoyable.

The novel spins its tale of murder, intrigue and family over three volumes (at least in my Kindle copy) – this sounds long, but it’s a fast experience as a reader. It’s a fun tale of Gothic romance, incredible coincidences and massive amounts of overwriting, but it worked.

The plot involves the titular Aurora Floyd, the young beautiful daughter of a rich widower in northern England who married a ne’er-do-well husband in her early years, a decision that comes back to haunt her and that involves blackmail, secret-keeping, and loads of money. (You can just feel the frisson that was felt by well-bred Victorian ladies reading this behind their fans in the drawing room on a rainy Monday while their husbands checked the Stock Exchange numbers.)

Typical of sensation novels, Braddon runs a lot of different lines of plot throughout this read, but as each string is added one after another and then linked back, it’s surprisingly easy to keep track of who is doing what to whom. (“Dickensian” was the way that I’d describe this although this was much more Mills and Boon without delving into the hard-hitting social issues quite so much at all.)

ME Braddon in her younger years

I enjoyed it also as a look into the world of domestic life slap in the middle of Victorian times, for a look at rural vs city life, and also to see how slow and difficult murder investigations must have been before the inventions of cars, telephones, forensic evidence and the internet.*

It’s a fun read, and one that I kept returning to before, during, and after vacation, so it obviously kept my attention and interest. If you’re in the mood for anything Gothic, murder, fainting heroines, black mail, and dastardly husbands, you would probably enjoy this. It’s nothing too deep, but it’s a fun read and I recommend it.

(*Slightly relevant historical side note: The concept of professional police (as opposed to private paying for whoever was willing to do it) was officially introduced in England by Sir Robert Peel when he became Home Secretary in 1822. His work led to the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 which established a full-time professional and centrally-organized police force for greater London are known as Metropolitan Police. By the 1850’s, police forces were established nationally across England, Scotland and Wales.

Peel had this philosophy based on “The police are the public and the public are police” (or “policing by consent” as it’s known in UK circles). These “Peelian Principles”, as they are known and upon which an ethical police force are based, are as follows:

  • Every police officer should be issued an identification number to assure accountability for his/her actions
  • Whether the police are effective is not measured on the number of arrests, but on the lack of crime
  • Above all else, an effective authority figure knows trust and accountability are paramount (thus the idea of “policing through consent”)

(Interesting aside #1: UK police used to have a height requirement for all applicants: at least 5 ft. 10 inches until 1960. [Ah-ha: That’s why Dixon of Dock Green was so imposing…] This was not removed until 1990 when minimum height requirements were dropped. The shortest recorded UK police officer is PC Sue Day of Wiltshire Police at 4 ft. 10 inches.)

Well then. Now you know these things….

(One more slightly interesting aside #2, this time related to the book: There is a 1912 American silent movie of Aurora Floyd which was quickly followed by another US version in 1915. And if you were alive in 1863, you could have seen a stage version in London whilst BBC Radio 4 did a radio version with Colin Firth called A Cold Embrace in 2009 if anyone caught that. Luckily, no one has attempted to do a version only doing mime just yet.)

DixonofDockGreen (Above) This is Dixon, of the TV show “Dixon on Dock Green” which was on the BBC from 1955-1976 and featured the daily life at a London police station.

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 88

Things on Cowboy's Head No. 88: Workout bag.

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 88: Workout bag.

Editor’s Note: Now this image above may look as though Cowboy has been comfortably sleeping in my work out bag for hours, but she’s faking. Not one minute before this pic was taken, the bag was zipped up on the floor doing its own thing. Getting ready to W/O, I picked up the bag and put it on the bed to put my things in it. I turned my head for two seconds, then looked back and there’s Cowboy fake-napping. Two minutes later, this bag (with her in it) accidentally fell off the bed so I think she may have been cured of this particular Bag Curiosity, but we’ll see. Cats, cats, cats…

Background Note: Cowboy, as you may know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) — all of which traits help with this ongoing project I have…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that.* It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

* Sometimes we do other things as well…

Letter from New York – Helene Hanff (1992)

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What a complete joy this little read was. It almost popped my socks off in its charming-ness, and I’d like everyone who reads this blog post to leave right now and get yourselves a copy somehow. It’s that lovely.

It’s a very quick read, understandable as it’s a collection of some five minute radio broadcasts that Hanff did on the BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour during the 1980’s (after the publishing success of her earlier book, 84 Charing Cross Road. (Again, if you haven’t read the Charing Cross Road book, this epistolary true story of the friendship between Hanff and an English bookseller is super, and I highly recommend that you do.)

Anyway, each of these brief radio broadcasts tells about Hanff’s life in New York City, where she lived in a block of apartments, a place that she calls “community living” as many of the other tenants were also her friends and make appearances in her columns here. (Oh, and don’t forget the friends’ dogs. There are lots of dog stories in here, but not enough to cross it over into Crazy Dog Person Land.)

If you’re familiar with any of Hanff’s writing, you’ll know that she writes in a breezy optimistic style about the minutiae of living in New York as a self-employed writer. (Interestingly, there is not a lot of talk about her actual writing. Lots more focus on her life and what Hanff notices around her, which to me is a lot more fascinating in this particular case.) She’s very down-to-earth, has an interesting group of friends (with their dogs), and lives a full life of museum visits, concerts, and stories about her own particular neighborhood.

The columns are organized month by month and cover about three or four years, so the reader is taken through the seasons. She is such a good writer and really engages her reader in her slice-of-life descriptions as she recalls them here. I bet that this could fall into the epistolary category as well, as each column reads as though it is a letter from a favorite auntie (or similar) just to you. As you can probably surmise, I adored this quick read and think others of you might as well.

Seriously – one of my favorite reads so far this year.

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey (2014)

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One really good book I recently finished (and haven’t really reviewed here) was called “Elizabeth is Missing” by Emma Healey. Called a “darkly riveting debut novel, a sophisticated psychological mystery…”, this was a really enjoyable (and quite challenging) read. Expectations were also raised with a cover blurb from Deborah Moggach (whose work I usually love) who wrote “I read it at a gulp.” And you know what? I did “read it in a gulp” (or at least what counts for a gulp in my reading life). This was great.

It’s a novel (combining itself with these other genres) about one elderly woman called Maud who suffers from dementia who is convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing. But when you have dementia (quite advanced, it seems), how do you convince your family that your friend really IS missing and that it’s not just part of your illness speaking? (Or is she really missing?)  Who is to judge what is reality and memory, and how to portray that? It was a fascinating and complex read.

To try to solve this and to check on her friend’s well-being, Maud visits Elizabeth’s house – but is she there? Or not there? Maud tries to track her steps with a system of notes and of spotting rocks on the pavement, but that leads to complications: did someone move the rock? Was that the same rock as she had spotted last time? Was this the right street? Which note has the right and most recent information? Did she need to get peach slices from the corner shop? (Peach slices get some mentions in this book.)

With an unreliable memory as a leading part of the narrative, the reader remains puzzled as well. Maud’s family are helping her with her day-to-day life, but there are struggles on both sides: Maud fighting to retain her freedom and to solve this mystery about Elizabeth, her family fighting to keep Maud “safe” by getting her moved to an assisted care home. Kudos to her daughter (Maud’s caregiver) for being so kind and patient.

As the novel progresses, the reader gets enmeshed into this complex maze where past and present fuse together, where reality and dreams are intertwined, and where it’s just plain hard to know what is what.

And then, to add a third string to the narrative, a third story is added of a vague memory of Maud’s about something that happened 70 years ago. It’s in the flashbacks to the past where Maud gets to shine as she has no trouble recounting her earlier life when she was a child and her sister Sukey went missing. Was Sukey murdered? Did she run away?

This intriguing interplay of time and reality, between clear details of the past and murky details of the present creates a tension of sorts for the reader, and I loved it. It was very hard to put the book down, and when I did, I ended up thinking about Maud and her life.

I think that you’ll love this if you’re ok with unreliable narrators and books that have multiple strings going on with their plots. I’d suggest reading this one in big chunks to keep up, but don’t worry. It reads very quickly due to some excellent writing. Healey is an expert with using language at its best and making Maud someone who you care about.

Loved it.

Swabbing the Decks…

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It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these type of posts, and it’s high time for another one and a good tidy up all around, don’t you think?

So – been working. (Still pretty demanding, but I enjoy it.) Been working out. Been reading some and “falling asleep whilst I’m reading” some. (This is a new skill that I’m crafting, but it’s just because I’m pretty busy at the moment.)

book351Finished off a fun quick read of Agatha Christie’s “Sad Cypress” – I am thinking that it’s hard to go wrong with a Christie especially when you’re looking for a read where everything gets nice and tidied up at the end with a lovely cup of tea. I’m starting to see the attraction of the Cozy Mystery genre now.

book342I’ve been mentioning my read of “Saddlebags for Suitcases” by Mary Bosanquet (1942) for ages without actually reviewing it. Sorry about that, but here it is. This was an equine travelogue (who knew there was a sub-genre for that?) which was written just before the outbreak of WWII and from the perspective of a young privileged woman who decides to ride across Canada on horseback. She’s able to do this through her parents’ generosity, combined with the generosity and hospitality of people she meets along the way. It seems that, back in the 1930’s, no one had written about riding across this huge (and wild in places) country from a female perspective, and so Bosanquet wanted to change that. She also really didn’t have anything else to do: she had finished up school, she wasn’t married, she was already out in the social circuit with not a lot going on, no job or responsibilities, her parents could financially support her… So why not?

I started this read thinking it was going to be the Paris Hilton of female adventuring but ended up being pleasantly surprised that this author had a good sense of humor, understood her privilege and appreciated it. This really was a pretty hard journey to make at that period of time so it’s not anything to sneeze at.

The tale takes us from west to east and takes more than a year to complete (as she lay over in the winter months at a friendly home on her way), and she embraces her hardships and joys along the way.

It was more of a lark than a serious trekking project, and so this attitude is reflected in how she really doesn’t seem to worry that much if things go a bit awry. Her parents would have been able to financially rescue her should she have needed that, a fact that doesn’t take away from her accomplishment of being the first female (white) horse-rider to record her journey, but it does rather remove the element of fear from it. And you know, thinking about it, I’m pretty sure the First Peoples in Canada had done the trek before, but just hadn’t written it down for a book publication deal. Sigh.

This was ok, started well but then went on a bit. I think you may need to be really into horses to appreciate this one, but I’m glad I read it as I was looking, as previously mentioned, for a female adventure memoir of some kind.

book356In the meantime, I’m reading a fun sensation novel by Victorian novelist M. (Mary) E. (Elizabeth) Braddon called “Aurora Floyd”. Braddon was the author of “Lady Audley’s Secret” which was another sensation novel, but good one, and it’s the same in this case as well. “Aurora Floyd” involves a beautiful women with a mysterious background and history, more horses, rigid class division, and overwriting the likes of which is hard to find. (Very typical of sensation novels of the time, and if you take it with a grain of salt, pretty entertaining.) It’s also running into three volumes which is a surprise to me, but that’s ok. It’s still good reading.

Braddon is also one of the most literary writers I have ever read (apart from the current read detailed below). She mentions lashings of literary references, most of which I’m not familiar with and therefore probably don’t see the clever links between the plot and the refs, perhaps. However, she is fairly light-handed with these refs and to be honest, it does fit in with the over-writing of the time.

book355The other book I’m reading (and almost finished) is the more recent “Unnecessary Woman” by Rabih Alameddine, the story set in Lebanon and from the view point of an old and rather crusty woman who has worked in a bookstore in Beirut for years and now is struggling to live her life with as few obligations, familial and otherwise, as she can. Her years in the bookshop mean that she is also chockfull of literary references (mostly obscure to me, I’m afraid, but interesting all the same). I did feel massively under-read at times, but goodness gracious me – who would know all these refs off the top of your head (apart from the author)? Don’t let that put you off though. This is a thoughtful and literate read.

So — I’m reading away and enjoying life. Can’t really ask for more than that, can you?