Monday, July 15, 2019

The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling


Happy Monday to you, Bookish Friends!

I do love a good literary biography. Before I read The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling (2003), I didn't know much about George Orwell, or the subject of this book, Orwell's wife, Sonia Brownell (1918-1990).

Much of Sonia's life is a sad one. She was born in India to British parents, but when she was four months old, her father died. Later, Sonia went to Catholic school for her education, an experience which gave her a loathing of nuns for the rest of her life.

As a young woman, Sonia became known for her editorial talents and for her attention to detail. She possessed a dedicated work ethic and a facility for languages. Her beauty and charm entranced men and made her famous. She was on the periphery of the Bloomsbury Group and even rated a mention in Virginia Woolf's diary. Sonia also attracted the attention of the art school, the Euston Road School, whose students included the painters William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore. 

She landed at Horizon, the literary journal started by Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson. Sonia thrived in this atmosphere and read many manuscripts where she excelled at finding new talent. The office was a literary hub during World War II, and Connolly was known for his glamorous living as though the war didn't exist. However, Sonia made enemies during this time. While many of the men who submitted manuscripts found her alluring, their egos couldn't handle her dismissive rejection letters.

Sonia first met George Orwell before the war and renewed that acquaintance after the war when he was a widower with a small child. George and Sonia's courtship was short, and their marriage at his deathbed lasted days. Before his death, he appointed her as his literary executor, a thankless job that ruined her life. 

Orwell had strict ideas about his legacy. He wanted Sonia to be the gatekeeper of his letters and papers and discourage anyone from writing about him. Neither of them could have foreseen the popularity of Animal Farm and 1984 or the amount of interest in his life. In striving to fulfill Orwell's wishes, she made more enemies out of Orwell's various biographers who took out their animosity in print. 

For much of her life, Sonia divided her time between London and Paris. Following World War II, she lived in Paris and spent time with Camus, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and others. She fell in love with philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and was devastated when he refused to leave his wife.

Her last years were sad ones with drinking, constant battles with an accountant who withheld money, and a protracted lawsuit having to do with money due to her for copyrights of Orwell's work.

Sonia was a woman of contradictions. To those who loved her, she was a wonderful, vivacious, and generous friend. Spurling includes stories of Sonia's generosity to her friends and godchildren. Toward the end of her life she befriended Jean Rhys and Ivy Compton-Burnett. For those who disliked Sonia, she was a boozy, selfish, name dropper who only married Orwell for his fame and money and future earnings of his books. 

The Girl from the Fiction Department details a bittersweet but fascinating literary life. I loved reading about Sonia's associations with so many literary figures of her day and enjoyed reading about the post-war Paris literary scene. Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are Spurling's insights. She knew Sonia well and did a good job of upending some of the most unkind and untrue rumors.

I found this to be a compelling biography and highly recommend it. Also, it's a fairly short read for a biography at under 200 pages.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: The Corpse at the Crystal Palace by Carola Dunn


Happy Tuesday, Bookish Friends! I'm taking part in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, originally hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea, and can now be found at I'd Rather Be At the Beach, hosted by Vicki. Bloggers share the first paragraph of a book they're reading or planning to read soon.

On my bedside table is a 2018 Daisy Dalrymple mystery, The Corpse at the Crystal Palace. This mystery involves a visit from Daisy's young cousins, missing nannies and possibly a murdered nanny along with mysterious identities and amnesia. Daisy is on the case, but so is her husband, Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher.

I haven't read a cozy mystery in awhile, and this looks promising.

The opening:

"Mrs. Fletcher, my lady."

"Daisy, darling," Lucy said languidly, not rising from the Empire chaise longue where she reclined. Her slender figure was draped in a peach silk negligée adorned with a froth of lace, oddly incongruous with her dark, sleek bob."

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Remarks on Recent Reads: A Look Back at June


June was an exceptional reading month for me, and as I've seen on book blogs, Instagram, and Twitter, other bloggers had a great reading month as well.  Here is a rundown of my selections:


Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2004) is the first of Atkinson's series about world weary private detective, Jackson Brodie. His clients are quirky and have compelling stories. Also, Jackson leads a complicated private life. This is the first novel I've read by Atkinson, and it won't be the last.


The Squire by Enid Bagnold (1938) details the life of a woman who is about to give birth to her fifth child. The title refers not to a man but to the upper middle class wife who is in charge of the household and all decisions while her husband is in India on business. Much of the novel deals with thoughts on being a wife and a mother and recalling some regrets. The Squire has some lovely writing, and I loved the depictions of the children.  


I have several biographies about Eudora Welty, but A Daring Life: A Biography of Eudora Welty by Carolyn J. Brown (2012) is the first I've read. It's a fascinating short biography. I loved the anecdotes about Eudora Welty's childhood, and I also enjoyed the wonderful photographs. This book gives a good overview of Welty's life and makes me look forward to delving more deeply into one of the more detailed biographies.


Tell Me No Secrets by Julie Corbin (2009) is a psychological thriller that takes place in a small village in Scotland. The story deals with childhood friends (who are now adults), memories, secrets, and what may or may not have been a murder. It's a tightly constructed story and a true page turner. 


The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes (2018), based on actual events, is the story of a young woman, found murdered on November 7, 1843. Haynes has taken Harriet's story and filled in missing details and created a compelling story of a young woman who finds herself in difficult circumstances. Told through surviving documents, a diary, and chapters devoted to the point of view of various characters, Haynes has created a gripping story. The novel's also a sad reminder of how little power a young woman with no prospects had over her future.


Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd (1946) is an inventive novel about a woman who, having fallen off a cruise ship before World War II starts, has spent the first part of the war marooned on an island. She manages to return to an England she doesn't recognize--a world of ration books, shortages of food and clothing, and friends constantly on the lookout or the infiltration of the enemy. Much of the novel deals with Miss Ranskill's quest to find a way to fit into this England she doesn't know. I loved this novel and highly recommend it.


Mr. Wu & Mrs. Stitch: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh & Diana Cooper (1991) has a title that refers to the nicknames that Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper had for one another, but of course, there were other nicknames as well. Reading the letters which span thirty years made me feel like I was eavesdropping on a wonderful conversation. The lively letters highlight Diana Cooper's glamorous life, and both she and Waugh have such a witty way of communicating. The letters also show how challenging Waugh could be as in the later years when he seems happy just to stay at home when Diana wants to do something fun. He also talks about his children in a horrible way. The introduction contains an interesting story that would make a good book about how Waugh's letters to Cooper became lost and then were finally recovered. I love reading letters, and this book did not disappoint.

I've been trying to decide which of these seven books of June was my favorite, but I loved them all.

What are you reading this weekend?

Friday, July 5, 2019

Wishing You A Lovely Weekend.

Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927), A Family Picnic, date unknown

Happy Friday, Bookish Friends! 

If you celebrated July 4, I hope it was wonderful and that you're enjoying the holiday weekend.

Mr. MBL and I made a quick trip to Austin this past week to spend time with family. Although I haven't had the time lately to devote to reading, I have four books on the go, and they are vastly different from one another. I've delved into A Buyer's Market by Anthony Powell; The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling, about the wife of George Orwell; Where Memories Lie by Deborah Crombie; and Roseborough: A Novel by the fantastic Texas writer, Jane Roberts Wood.

All of these books have gotten my attention, but it's been frustrating not to have enough time to read. With the temperatures forecast in the mid-nineties for the weekend, I plan to stay out of the heat and enjoy reading. 

What are your weekend plans? As always, I wish you happy reading!

Friday, June 28, 2019

Wishing You A Lovely Weekend.


Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, The Beach Afternoon, ca. 1910
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Summer Reading Plans


I've been thinking about my summer reading plans. So many books, so little time! I managed to whittle my list down to a smaller number of reads that I want to concentrate on. Who knows? Maybe I can squeeze in some more books along the way.

In no particular order, here are my selections:



If there's one thing I love more than books, it's reading about books and the book business. I've had a peek though Diary of a Bookseller, and it looks fun.


On a recent trip to Paris, we stayed in an apartment close to the neighborhood where Simone de Beauvoir lived. Walking in her footsteps made me realize that I needed to read some of her work. She Came to Stay (1943), based on de Beauvoir's relationship with Jean Paul Sartre, seems like a good place to start.



I listened to the Backlisted Podcast episode awhile back about Anthony Powell. The sheer enthusiasm about Powell and the twelve novels that make up Dance to the Music of Time made me want to read them. My plan was to read a novel a month, but I'm way behind. I started the second novel, A Buyer's Market, on the weekend, and I'm enjoying it.



I've only read one of Elizabeth Von Arnim's books, Enchanted April. It has such evocative writing about flowers and gardens. Other than reading about books, I also love reading about gardening, and Elizabeth and Her German Garden looks like it's right up my alley. And it's an epistolary novel. 



I've chosen Middlemarch as the long novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I haven't read any of Eliot's work, but I'm excited to read this novel in her bicentenary year.



I talked about Old Baggage in Tuesday's post. It looks like an interesting story about a former suffragette.



I love Deborah Crombie's mystery series featuring Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid and have been working my way through the books. Where Memories Lie is number 12. I've read a couple of chapters, and its story with a link to World War II looks intriguing.

Are you familiar with any of these titles? What's on your list to read this summer?

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans


Happy Tuesday! I've been away from the blog longer than I'd planned, but I'm jumping in to take part in First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, originally hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea, and now hosted by I'd Rather Be at the Beach. Each Tuesday, bloggers share the first paragraph of a book they're reading or about to read.

At the top of my TBR pile is Old Baggage by Lissa Evans (2018). 

Here's the opening:

Part 1
1928

"Mattie always carried a club in her handbag--just a small one, of polished ash. That was the most infuriating aspect of the whole episode: she'd actually been armed when it happened."

Here's a bit about the novel:

"Mattie Simpkin is a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present. During the Women's Suffrage Campaign she was a militant. Jailed five times, she marched, sang, gave speeches, smashed windows and heckled Winston Churchill, and nothing--nothing--since then has had the same depth, the same excitement.

Now in middle age, she is still looking for a fresh mould into which to pour her energies. Giving the wooden club she still keeps in her handbag a thoughtful twirl, she is struck by an idea. But what starts as a brilliantly idealistic plan is derailed by a connection with Mattie's militant past, one which begins to threaten every principle that she stands for." 

What to you think? Would you keep reading?

I hope that you're having a great summer, and I wish you a wonderful week of reading!