I don’t usually blog about the weather, but it is the dominating fact of our lives at the moment. The snow arrived last Friday night and the threat of more stopped us going away at the week-end. It wasn’t too bad yesterday: my husband got his car out and our daughter got to school. But this morning we woke up and realised that we weren’t going anywhere. Six inches of snow had fallen on top of what was already there. The school was closed. My husband decided he had better work at home.
Before it happened I was groaning in anticipation of the sheer inconvenience and extra effort that would be involved, and yet I have to admit that there are compensations. As I look out of the window this afternoon it is snowing again and it is intensely beautiful. All I can see are trees and snow and the neighbour’s woodshed. The brillance of the light is invigorating. It could be Sweden or Finland. A while ago my daughter and I walked up our lane to the main road. Normally there are cars whizzing up and down. Today virtually all we saw was a gritter and snow plough. We walked up the middle of the road and drank in the silence.
Life is simplified. I can’t get to the shops unless I walk to the station and catch a train into Sheffield. So we’ll make to do with what we’ve got and that’s fine. The inconvenience really starts when the thaw begins and we have to go out to struggle along on icy pavements and roads. For now though ordinary life is suspended and there is pleasure to be had in drawing the curtains and throwing another log on the fire. And what is the ideal book for the snowbound reader to read in front of that fire? The book I have taken off the shelf is the Dorothy L. Sawyers classic, THE NINE TAILORS, which opens with Lord Peter Wimsey running his car into a snow drift. Time to re-read that, I think.
Before I finish, I said in a recent blog that I’d be reading some more William Maxwell and I have. SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW is even better than TIME WILL DARKEN IT. Just wonderful.
I hadn’t read anything by Michael Frayn until I read this memoir, though a few years ago I did go to see his play, NOISES OFF, which was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Judging by MY FATHER’S FORTUNE, I’ve been missing something. Although it does encompass the author’s childhood, it is essentially the story of Frayn’s father as far as Frayn could reconstruct it from his own memory, the memories of his relatives and the historical record. It reminded me of the Pagnol fims, LA GLORIE DE MON PERE and LE CHATEAU DE MA MERE in its loving depiction of the author’s father, though it is more astringent than either of them. But like them, the memories are framed by the devastating blow of the loss of a mother. Frayn was twelve, his sister eight when their mother collapsed and died from a totally unsuspected heart defect. His account of this doesn’t make easy reading. They did not go to the funeral and Frayn says that as far as he can remember ‘she’s never mentioned in our house again’. I can well believe this. Attitudes towards childhood bereavement had not changed nearly twenty years later when my father died suddenly. It was simply thought to be the best way. Parents are generally much more open with their chldren now and it’s a good thing. So, yes, MY FATHER’S FORTUNE is sad, painful at time, but very perceptive. Frayn captures so well our own shifting perspectives on our parents as we too grow older, even perhaps overtaking them. It also had me laughing out loud. Highly recommended.
‘In order to pay off an old debt that someone else had contacted, Austin King had said yes when he knew that he ought to have said no, and now at five o’clock of a July afternoon he saw the grinning face of trouble everywhere he turned. The house was full of strangers from Mississippi; within an hour the friends and family he had invited to an evening party would begin ringing the doorbell; and his wife (whom he loved) was not speaking to him.’
So begins William Maxwell’s fine novel, TIME WILL DARKEN IT. Maxwell is probably best remembered as the fiction editor of THE NEW YORKER where for almost forty years he edited the work of a galaxy of writers, including John Updyke, Eudora Welty and many others. But he was a highly accomplished novelist in his own right. TIME WILL DARKEN IT is the first of his novels that I have read, but it won’t be the last.
From this one mistake that Austin King makes from the best of motives flows a series of consequences that result in catastrophe. A depiction of small-town life, a dissection of a marriage, beautifully organised and described in the kind of detail that brings people and places to life, this is up there with some of the best. It is Chevhovian in its understanding of the compromises that people are driven to, and the ways in which lives can be ship-wrecked. The characters went on living for me at the end of the novel and I wanted to know what happened next. In fact, I just wanted it to go on and on.
It’s always hard to know which books to pack when space is at a premium. Recent holidays have been spent in Northern France so it has just been a matter of slinging a bag of books in the boot of the car. But this time we were going to China so there was a real danger that I might run out of reading matter if I didn’t plan carefully. My husband is easy to cater for: he is not a fast reader so my World’s Classics editon of Trollope’s THE PRIME MINISTER kept him happily occupied right through the fortnight, but I needed more than that, much more. In the end I decided to take mostly paperbacks – some new, some from the Oxfam shop – that I could discard as I read them so as to leave space for presents and souvenirs on the return journey. I took five crime novels, two of which I won’t name as, though readable, I wouldn’t recommend them, but the other three, all by authors I hadn’t read before, were crackers and I’ll be looking out for these writers again.
The first was DEAD OF WINTER by P. J. Parrish. There was something piquant about reading this book, set in a small lake-side community in the middle of winter in Michigan while we were sweltering in subtropical heat. I thought it was first-rate: good characters, nicely drawn setting, and intriguing mystery.
The next, R. J. Ellory’s THE ANNIVERSARY MAN, was in a category all its own. There sometimes comes a time for me on a trip like this, when I start to suffer from sensory overload, too many new sights, too much to take in, and I need to have some time out. When that point came I let my indefatigable husband and daughter head off on their own, while I ordered a bowl of noodles and wonton from room service and settled down with R. J. Ellory. This novel really was electifying – not perfect – but I don’t remember being so gripped by a crime writer new to me since I picked up someone’s discarded copy of Michael Connolly’s THE CONCRETE BLONDE in a hotel in Greece years ago.
The last novel, which I kept for the long flight from Shanghai to Helsinki, was Anne Zouroudi’s THE MESSENGER OF ATHENS, a complete contrast. This is the first in a series set in Greece and though at first I found it a little hard to get into by the end I was loving it. Full of atmosphere and wonderful characters, it’s beautifully written and offers pleasures of a quieter kind.
As well as crime novels, I also read Balsac’s EUGENIE GRANDET, the current choice of my book group, and re-read Willa Cather’s THE PROFESSOR’S HOUSE. I timed it just about right, finishing my last paperback on the plane. As back-up I had World’s Classics editions of EMMA and THE LAST CHRONICLE OF BARSETSHIRE. After all, what we had been stranded by an ash cloud – or, as very nearly did happen, grounded by a typhoon?
And now here I am back in dank, dark, rainy Derbyshire with jetlag and a blocked up ear. Still, as Raymond Brigg’s Father Christmas says, I had a blooming good holiday and at least there is no danger of running out of things to read.