Monday, 14 April 2014

Confession time...

I have a number of books to review, a play to talk about, a haul to reveal, and plenty of Shiny New Books links to give... but I couldn't resist doing as Susan D suggests and putting up a post about confusing authors.

Not as in I-find-Gertrude-Stein-confusing-to-read, but as in I-get-Gertrude-Stein-mixed-up-with-Gertrude-Jekyll (as it may be).

We had a nice cathartic, collective confession of confusion when it came to the many and various Penelopes, and I'd love to know who else has caused you angst in this way.  Almost invariably, I find, it all becomes clear once I've read one or both (or all) of the authors in question, but beforehand all is lost.  For instance, I used to be unable to disentangle George Orwell and H.G. Wells (that 'well' in both their names threw me) until I started reading them.

Well, I confessed some yesterday, but didn't mention these, whom I used to get confused:

  • Anita Brookner / Anita Shreve
  • Naomi Mitchison / Naomi Jacob
  • Edith Wharton / Eudora Welty

Over to you... c'mon, don't be shy. And remember, this is a safe space... so confess, don't judge ;)

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Thank you for all your lovely birthday greetings!  I will do the prize draw soon, and today bought the book I'm intending to send... it's very good, by one of my favourite authors, and not all that easy to find.

Now onto another Shiny New Books review for my Century of Books - Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West.  I volunteered to read the very beautiful new edition from Daunt Books, and was surprised by the date and description.  And after a bit of digging realised that, yet again, two authors with vaguely similar minds had become amalgamated in my mind - this was another case of the Penelopes (or V.S. Naipaul and V.S. Pritchett, etc. etc.) - Nathanael West was, of course, not the same as Nathaniel Hawthorne... embarrassing.

Anyway, enough preamble, do go over to Shiny New Books and read my thoughts on Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) - and don't forget to check out Oliver's Five Fascinating Facts about Nathanael West while you're there.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Happy birthday to Stuck-in-a-Book!

Yes, today is seven years since I started blogging.  Each year seems to come around quicker than the last - but you, dear readers, aren't looking a day older.  A hearty thank you to everyone - from those who have been there since day one to those who came here today accidentally, looking for an online bookies. You're all wonderful, and I truly appreciate you!

It's been an exciting year, blog-wise, and it feels oddly appropriate that as I come to the end of seven years, the shiny new Shiny New Books initiative is kicking off (incidentally I wrote a sort of 'behind the scenes' post for Vulpes Libris today).  Not that Stuck-in-a-Book is going anywhere, fear not.  I'm hoping for at least another seven years.

To celebrate, I'd like to run a book giveaway.  I haven't actually decided what the prize will be yet, but it may well be secondhand and lovely... so don't enter if you only love shiny new books (if that's you, there's a website I think you might like...)

If you would like to enter, just pop your name in the comments and, out of interest and because I'm feeling the egotism of the birthday boy, tell me how long you've been reading Stuck-in-a-Book.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

As For Me And My House - Sinclair Ross

Well, I hope you'll still be having a wander around Shiny New Books, but that won't (of course) stop me writing reviews here on Stuck-in-a-Book - although they may quieten down a bit when Issue 2 starts to loom!  (Incidentally, we're keen to get lots of bloggers writing pieces for us - contact me on simondavidthomas[at], or all of us at info[at] if you're interested.)

And onto a book that I've been reading for about six months - As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross, kindly given to me by... someone.  I think Thomas at My Porch - certainly he is a huge fan.  Am I?  Hmm.  I don't know.  This is one of those cases where I know the book is very good... but I didn't very much enjoy reading it.

As For Me and My House (1941) takes the form of a woman's diary from provincial Canada - but Diary of a Provincial Lady this is not.  True, Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife are the central characters - Philip Bentley and his (anonymous?) narrator wife - but that's where the similarities end.  Basically, the narrator's life is miserable.  The small town is rude and ungrateful for the hard work her husband does.  He, in turn, has lost his faith and wishes he were a painter.  They are poor, their marriage is rocky, and dissatisfaction soaks every word of the novel.
He's a failure now, a preacher instead of a painter, and every minute of the day he's mindful of it.  I'm a failure too, a small-town preacher's wife instead of what I so faithfully set out to be - but I have to stop deliberately like this to remember.  To have him notice me, speak to me as if I really mattered in his life, after twelve years with him that's all I want or need.  It arranges my world for me, strengthens and quickens it, makes it immune to all worlds.
Well, as you can see, the writing is beautiful.  There is a deep and emotional richness to the way Ross writes.  I'm not sure it benefited from being in the diary format - it would have worked equally well, and probably rather more convincingly, simply as a first person narrative - but he certainly offers a fully-realised voice.  Just as convincing are the husband and (later) sort-of-adopted son, although I wonder if Ross intends us to believe the narrator to be as perceptive as she seems.

Here's another beautiful, dispiriting passage:
The sand and dust drifts everywhere.  It's in the food, the bed-clothes, a film on the book you're reading before you can turn the page.  In the morning it's half an inch deep on the window sills.  Half an inch again by noon. Half an inch again by evening.  It begins to make an important place for itself in the routine of the day.  I watch the little drifts form.  If at dusting time they're not quite high enough I'm disappointed, put off the dusting sometimes half an hour to let them grow.  But if the wind has been high and they have outdrifted themselves, then I look at them incredulous, and feel a strange kind of satisfaction, as if such height were an achievement for which credit was coming to me.
That rather aptly describes how it felt reading the novel.  Melancholy piled on melancholy.  It swept through all the pages, in every sentence, almost in every word.  The more I read, the more I felt outdrifted by it.  I don't demand novels of unswerving cheeriness, but... surely life isn't as bad as all this?  ("But a man's tragedy is himself, not the events that overtake him.")  It was wearying.  Beautiful, but wearying.

Of course, I read As For Me and My House as someone who has lived in a vicarage for many years, and whose father is still a working vicar (and mother a working vicar's wife).  I am well aware that it isn't always easy - that some parishioners can be difficult or aggressive or ungrateful.  In this novel it is the purportedly faith-filled whose hypocrisy stands out; in real life, it is just as likely to be the thoughtless atheist who tells you he'd like the church to burn down, or the teenager who thinks the vicar's sons are fair game to shout abuse at in the street.  But Ross gives only the tiniest mention (in Mrs Bird) of the positivity that comes with the profession.  The strangers who are kind to you as soon as you arrive in a new village, the people who selflessly give up their time to help with kids' events and so forth.  There is a world of literature bemoaning the claustrophobia of the small town - which needs to be balanced by how really lovely it is when people all know each other, care for each other, and let nobody go lonely.

Part of this seems like I just wish that Ross had written a different book.  But I think I could have really loved this one if there were a bit more balance - something more to alleviate the melancholy and hopelessness.  As it is, I do admire As or Me and My House.  Ross is unarguably a brilliant writer.  One I'd definitely recommend to sturdier souls.  And maybe my soul will be sturdier next time I try this one.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Shirley Jackson - The Sundial, Hangsaman, and The Bird's Nest

Oh, this has been a difficult bunch of books to keep quiet about.  And I haven't really managed it, looking back, but I could have been much less restrained.  Now that Shiny New Books is unveiled, I can finally start linking to my Century of Books reviews - and I have to kick off with the Penguin Classics reprints of Shirley Jackson's novels. (Incidentally, they tick two dates on my Century of Books list.)

Best among them is The Sundial.  If I didn't already have a Shirley Jackson title in my 50 Books You Must Read list, then this would be on it.  Annoyingly (and these are the sorts of things I keep quiet from Shiny New Books, but can't hide from you, dear friends) I'd spent a mini fortune on a copy of The Sundial three years ago, back when it was very scarce... and yet hadn't got around to reading it until the reprints came out.  Oops.

So this is what I'll do with my links to SNB reviews.  A little bit of intro, and then the first line or two of the review, to hook you in... click on the link to read my review of Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, and The Sundial.

"You can more or less divide readers’ familiarity with Shirley Jackson’s works into separate levels"...

Monday, 7 April 2014

Shiny New Books is LIVE!

The four editors (Annabel, Victoria, Harriet, and me) have just had our final Skype conversation, playing around with menus and links to reveal all the pages that lay hidden on the Shiny New Books site, and (enormous drum roll please) SHINY NEW BOOKS IS NOW LIVE!

Please head on over and start to enjoy!  You don't have to read it all in one go, of course - we're hoping it'll be the equivalent of the quarterly review magazine in print - that you dip in now and then over the course of three months (although we will have updates before the next issue in full).

I hate to sound like an overly proud parent, but we really are proud of it.  It's been such fun putting it together, as well as quite a lot of hard work, but all our discussions about the logo and the site and... everything - they definitely all feel worth it now.

Over the coming weeks I'll be linking to some of the reviews, particularly the ones I've written which qualify for A Century of Books (!) so I hope that's ok with everyone.  First things first, I'll mention that there's a competition in the first issue (on the homepage) which I'd love to enter if I could...

If you wrote for us, or sent us a book which we've reviewed, we'll be in touch as soon as we can be - and we'd love to hear from other bloggers who'd like to write for us (see our Review For Us page).  For now, I'm off to work... and I hope you enjoy it all!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor by Gertrude Stein

If Swallows and Amazons is a great book to be reading while the brain is a bit confuzzled, then Blood on the Dining-Room Floor (1948) probably isn't.  But it came to mind the other day when Dorothy Richardson was mentioned - simply because I'd mixed up who wrote it - but by then I'd pulled it off the shelf, and the fab Picasso cover, combined with the book's brevity, meant I thought I'd give it a whirl.

Every great writer has, I imagine, been called a fraud - and many frauds have been called great writers.  Which is Gertrude Stein?  I haven't read anything else by her, and the introduction to this edition more or less says that Blood on the Dining-Room Floor wasn't a success, but I spent the whole time thinking 'Emperor's New Clothes'.  But then I thought... there are plenty of people who say that about Virginia Woolf's fiction, which I think is sublimely brilliant - so it's just as likely that this novella is brilliant and I simply don't get it.  Here's a sample sentence:
A little come they which they can they will they can be married to a man, a young enough man an old man and a young enough man.
Well, sure, Gertrude, why not?  Not all the novella is that obfuscatory, but it's also far from unique in the narrative.  In theory, I'm not anti experimental writing - but as I get further and further from my undergraduate days, my tolerance for unconventional grammar and deliberately cloaked meaning gets lower and lower.

And what's it about?  Well, the writer of the blurb optimistically calls Blood on the Dining-Room Floor a detective novel, but since it's more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor (a more prominent death in the book is the maybe-sleepwalker who fell out a window), then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.

An interesting experiment to read, and it's always possible that my cold-ridden delirium played its part, but... I can't call myself a Stein fan as of yet.  Anybody read this, or any of Stein's more famous work?  Could I be yet persuaded?