Two disparate books again, although they’re both about places you go (a hotel, on the Tube, maybe??). Both of them are to do with occasions, too, as “Underground to Everywhere” was a LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa book from my friend Verity (yes, I know I skipped ahead of it in my reading order, but it was one I had to read in the house rather than out and about, as it’s a large hardback) and “The Hotel” was borrowed from my friend Ali, who took part in an Elizabeth Bowen Reading Week in a Facebook Group we both belong to (Undervalued Mid-20th Century British Women Writers) – her review is here and I came a little late to the party, as I didn’t have a copy of my own. And I enjoyed both of them, so there’s a win!
Elizabeth Bowen – “The Hotel”
(borrowed from Ali, November 2014)
I think Bowen might be better known for her novels about Ireland, and I certainly haven’t read her for a long while (she doesn’t appear in this blog apart from being mentioned as having a short story in a collection I read back in 2005), so I wasn’t sure what to expect, apart from having an idea that she might be a bit mannered and distant, like Elizabeth Taylor, maybe. In fact, this novel about English expats in a 1920s hotel abroad does have a slightly detached and Tayloresque air about it, although the shifting perspectives and zooms in and out make it sometimes feel like a more modernist and experimental novel.
The book starts and finishes with the slightly touchy, difficult and very mid-century women writers-y relationship between two middle-aged, single women who seem to live permanently in the hotel and have a deep but somewhat troubled friendship. In between, we visit various types, from the groups of raucous girls to the professionally difficult Sydney, who has another odd relationship with an older woman, this time, Mrs Kerr. When Mrs Kerr’s son makes his intention to visit known, everyone perks up, but we also have a Church of England chappy who makes a bit of a blundering mess of things, and the stage is set for gossip over the bridge table, arch looks, stolen kisses and all sorts, all seen through a shifting lens of various characters’ eyes.
It does come across as slightly a cold book, although I don’t mind that. You can kind of see the mind of the author moving the characters around and forcing them into confrontations with each other, exploring what love and marriage mean. It’s not a quick read, for all it’s a slender book: for one thing, the type is quite small, and for another, the sentences can get a bit complex (there are also a couple of typos, one of which threw me for a moment as it changes someone’s gender). There’s an air of menace which never quite gets resolved, and a feeling that the author is at the hotel, or has been at a similar one, coolly observing.
PS Hooray – I just checked and this fills in another year in my Century of Reading, without trying at all!
Stephen Halliday – “Underground to Everywhere”
(25 December 2013, from Verity)
I have read quite a few books on the Underground recently, and I started to worry a little when I started this book and got the same story of the Metropolitan Line, Yerkes’ plans for the Tube, the fights between rival companies over the Circle Line and all that stuff. But never before have I been informed that Yerkes rhymes with turkeys, and it’s in its description of the war and inter-war years that this book really comes into its own, really picking up on the idea given in the subtitle that it’s about “London’s Underground railway in the life of the capital”. We learn lots of fascinating information alongside good illustrations and informative maps; for example about the methods they had for blocking off the sub-Thames tunnels in the event of a bomb striking the river and the use of stubs of tunnels for war work.
I need to mention that Iris Murdoch’s novel “A Word Child” is mentioned in a box on p. 88, with reference to the bars that used to be open on the underground. Such little touches add a lot to the book, and, although it tails off a bit into committees and a small rant about under-investment, it’s a useful addition to the literature on the history of the tube, with much to recommend it.
I don’t feel that I’ve read much this month; I’m not sure what’s happened really, although I was working on writing up my Iris Murdoch research at the beginning of the month in a failed attempt at doing Nanowrimo that I will blog about elsewhere in the fullness of time, but I haven’t acquired many books this month, either, so the TBR is still holding at a shelf and only a shelf. I’ll be getting on with the book I’m reviewing for Shiny New Books tomorrow, and I’m having a go around the charity shops to pick up some Secret Santa gifts tomorrow, too – the struggle there will be to resist temptation on my own behalf!
I’m also looking forward to starting to re-read “The Forsyte Saga” along with a non-blogging friend and some other book bloggers, and starting to look at the Anthony Trollopes (I have them on e-book, but should I repurchase the print books, which I carefully deaccessioned a while back to save on shelf space?). I’m also going to have a month of re-reading in January, as I’ve been noticing reviews of lots of books I’ve read and loved on other people’s blogs, and am itching to make a lovely pile to wallow in!
What are you reading as the winter closes in? Are you thinking of next year’s reading challenges or taking it as it comes?