1) THE SHORTEST WAY TO HADES by Sarah Caudwell. Copyright 1984, but this edition is from December 1995, and the price sticker on the back tells me I bought it at Murder One -- presumably on one of my trips to London in the late '90s. I may have been attracted to it by what looks like an Edward Gorey cover illustration -- I don't know for sure that it is, because there's no credit given to the artist. (Don't you hate that?) I don't know why I never read it before, but the first chapter is a bit turgid -- being devoted to the details of a complicated family Will; there's even a family tree to help you follow the lines of descent. But once past that, it's a delight for anyone who enjoys an amusing, very mannered, story...classic "cosy" mystery crossed with comedy of manners. Here's a tiny sample, a description of what happened after two young ladies had partaken of some "remarkable" fudge at an unexpectedly louche party:
..."She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment."
I asked for particulars of this uncharacteristic conduct.
"She took from her handbag a paperback edition of "Pride and Prejudice" and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation. I have never known you, Selena, so indifferent to the demands of social obligation." ...
2) THE GUYND by Belinda Rathbone. This is a true story, a memoir by an American woman who married a Scot (heir to a lovely but crumbling Georgian mansion) about her ten years living there. As another American in Scotland I was obviously attracted to this, but her experience could hardly be more different than mine! The circles she moved in were much grander (even when down at heels), and not on the west coast, which makes a surprising difference. "The Guynd" is the name of the house, and should be pronounced to rhyme with "wind", apparantly.
3) ALL SOULS by Javier Marias. Not sure when or why I bought this, but think it was on the strength of a review I'd read of the author's latest novel. Anyway -- I just finished reading it, and am still in that pleasurable, excited haze of discovery that comes when you've discovered a new author to love. It is hard to explain just what impressed me so much, but it is more to do with the tone, the narrative voice, the observations (often quite striking) made by the narrator (an academic from Spain spending two years in Oxford), and lots of little incidental things -- echos, reflections, remarks that crop up from time to time and reverberate. The quotes on the cover refer mostly to the humour and wit which is certainly there, and the clever, sly and accurate depiction of Oxford University, but that wasn't what impressed me most. There isn't a lot of plot, it's like a kind of musing memoir, someone looking back on his few friendships and a love affair that stood out in an otherwise rather bleak and arid period of alienation. The narrator is also a book-collector with a particular interest in Arthur Machen -- then he decides to look for books by someone even more obscure, a writer who called himself John Gawsworth -- I had never heard of him and assumed that Marias had made him up until I came across the two photographs in the book -- one of Gawsworth (real name: Terrence Fytton Armstrong) in RAF uniform, the other of his death mask -- then I looked him up and found he was for real, a friend of Arthur Machen and M.P. Shiel (among others) -- and my enjoyment of "All Souls" kicked up to another level of fascination. A wonderful book, one I will certainly not be getting rid of -- I may even want to reread it; it feels like a book that should be read more than once. And if -- when -- I allow myself to buy some more books, some will be by Javier Marias.
Tags: books; javier marias; sarah caudwell; th
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