Sunday, 31 August 2008

Return! A plethora of books

I am back from a week in Northern Ireland and a weekend in Warwickshire, and hope some of you are still around - will try and pop into most of the blogs tomorrow to say hello and catch up, but too late to do that tonight. Instead, will give a round-up of three books I've read recently... that's right, leave me alone for a week and I have to burst with bookish things. None of these three books would make my top ten of the year, but each was worth writing about - and that might be where the connections end. We'll see if any more come up as I write...

Capuchin Classics kindly sent me another of their reprinted novels - Tom Stacey's The Man Who Knew Everything, which was published as Deadline in 1988. If you're thinking 'Oh, wasn
't that a film with John Hurt and Imogen Stubbs?' then I'll stop you there - Stacey's foreword to this slim novel makes it clear that he has no wish to be associated with that film. Despite talented actors, 'the director and editor went to ground for three months to emerge inexplicably with an edited version, not readily intelligible, which re-shaped the story as a tragedy of love'. So, if it is not a tragedy of love, what is it? Granville Jones is an aging newspaper correspondent in the 1950s Gulf, writing occasional dispatches and mostly idling towards the end of his life, reflecting on the two women who have played significant roles therein. He is there when a coup threatens the island's leader, also a personal friend, and must report on it - and must meet the journalistic deadline before anyone else gets there.

In some ways it's a pity Stacey had to lose the title, as it lends the narrative an urgency which can't always be felt by those who, like me, haven't lived the journalist's life. It doesn't help that Granville isn't a particularly likeable character (I felt more than a little sympathy for his abandoned family) but he does come into his own when in conversation with the island's leader, the Emir. 'We have grown old together, Jonas. You and I are too old t
o fear to die.' All in all, an interesting novel with some touching moments, but requires a mind with a greater political bent than mine possesses.

cadilly by Laurence Oliphant was also a reprint, but my copy is a 1928 reprint of the 1870 original. Victorian literature forms too large a gap in my reading, which I decided to rectify with the shortest Victorian novel I owned. Piccadilly is described as a satire on London politics of the 1870s - well, I'm not particularly clued up on the political scene of that era, or indeed any era. No matter, I continued regardless. The hero, Frank Vanecourt, decides to launch himself on a life of selfless charity, and to write a book:

'I shall tell of my aspirations and my failures - of my hopes and fears, of my friends and my enemies. I shall not shrink from alluding to the state of my affections; and if the still
unfulfilled story of my life becomes involved with the destiny of others, and entangles itself in an inextricable manner, that is no concern of mine'.

It might not astonish you to learn that the story of his life does become involved with the destiny of others - specifically his noble (and quite lovable) friend Grandon; the woman Grandon loves, Lady Ursula; and Ursula's mercenary mother Lady Broadhem. What unravels is a complex and often amusing plot of secrecy and blackmail and love and much introspection and expostulation from Vanecourt - presumably mocking a vogue for novels of this ilk. Some rather unsavoury, but perhaps inevitable, racism occasionally spoils what is quite a witty work, but I can't help feel I'd appreciate Piccadilly more if I'd read any of the sort of novels which it mimicks.

Finally, a collection of short stories by Mathias B. Freese, Down to a Sunless Sea, which I was sent to review. Full marks on the title - I do like quotations in titles, as I might have ment
ioned before. Vulpes Libris are kicking off a week on short stories over on their blog, and very interesting I'm sure it will prove to be - whilst they're at it, perhaps someone could answer a query. Why does the short story so often attract the macabre? I thought (and wrote!) quite a lot about the Victorian short story for a dissertation at university, but the macabre didn't pop up nearly so often... Freese's collection has large doses of it, and wasn't always my cup of tea, shall we say. I did want to mention one story, though, which seemed head and shoulders above the rest - 'Young Man'. It's a little like Virginia Woolf's The Waves in style, but communicates some sort of mental illness, in an atemporal confusion. If I could remember Genette's Narrative Discourse, then all sorts of terms would be appropriate. This is part of it:

One day his daughter asked him, "What's on TV for children tonight, Daddy?"
One day his wife said, "Someday it will be all right."

One day he asked himself, "Is this it?"

Again his daughter asked him, "What's on TV for children tonight, Daddy?"

"Watch me, instead," he replied

Friday, 22 August 2008


Trying a little experiment just before I head off to Northern Ireland. When I posted about painting a while ago, someone said I should try selling things on Etsy - a place to sell amateur art. Well, thought I, perhaps I will - but I thought I'd test the water here. This might not be for the most regular visitors to Stuck-in-a-Book, who are literary-minded folk first and foremost, but perhaps I'll be able to point people in this direction.

Anyway, I'm going to try and sell this painting Woman with Orange Background (acrylic, 40x30 cm.):

It's going to be something of a silent auction, mostly because I haven't the smallest idea how much one should charge for these things - so, if you're interested, don't write in the comments, but email me at with an offer and your location, and I'll get back to people when I'm back on English shores! I'll find some college funding somehow...

Thursday, 21 August 2008


And I am now unemployed!

Thanks for your kind messages about
funding - I'm not thinking about it for the next week, and will instead enjoy a week in Northern Ireland... might be a little damp, I hear. Still, I get to spend Saturday at the wedding of two friends, so that will be wonderful.

This evening I had a meal out with my two closest friends at work, Clare and Lucy, as it was my last day in the Bodleian. We don't work in the same departments at the same time as each other, but always spend breaks and lunch together, and they are very, very dear to me. We've laughed our way through the year, and have dozens of in-jokes which would irritate everyone after moments. We all got each other parting gifts, and mine included two books: Mrs
Woolf & the Servants by Alison Light, which I've had my eye on for ages, and The Autobiography of Sir Thomas Bodley. He of the Bodleian, you understand. One of our most repeated private jokes - basically, if you say 'Sir Thomas... Bodley?' eight hundred times, you'll be a step closer to understanding why we laugh at the sound of his name.

So, off I go to Northern Ireland... with seven books. I probably will only finish one or two, but the idea of being stranded wit
hout books... doesn't bear thinking about.

I've packed them now, so have to try and remember them from the photo...
-They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell - a gift from Karen aka Cornflower
-A Passage to India by EM Forster - on my reading list for next term (have I updated you on reading lists yet? I fear not! More on't soon)
-Piccadilly Jim by PG Wodehouse - been meaning to read more Wodehouse for ages, and borrowed this from my aunt Jacq years ago
-The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald - a gift from Lynne aka dovegreyreader
-The Man Who Knew Everything by Tom Stacey - review copy
-(not in picture) The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton - borrowed from Mel, my housemate

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Flying Too Close To The Sun

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi has been on the peripherals of my mind since someone mentioned it here - in fact, taking a quick trip down blogmory lane, I find it was Nichola aka Lost In Translation, back when I was talking about The Love Child by Edith Olivier, in my 50 Books... but that was only January, and I'm sure I'd heard of it before that. No matter. When Stephanie at Bloomsbury asked what sort of books I'd like her to send me, The Icarus Girl instantly came to mind.

amy Harrison is an introverted, thoughtful and fanciful child, eight years old, with a fiery Nigerian mother and a softly spoken, slightly anxious, white English father. When she visits her mother's family in Nigeria (Jessamy et al live in England) she also meets Titiola, or TillyTilly, a ragged girl of her own age who seems to be living secretly in the compound. TillyTilly's friendship means a lot to Jessamy - but then TillyTilly also appears back in England, and grows more and more possessive in their friendship. What seemed to be an exciting but innocent friendship soon becomes a dangerous and terrifying one - both for Jessamy and for the reader.

I don't think any review of this book has been written without expressing astonishment that Oyeyemi wrote The Icarus Girl whilst she was studying for her A Levels. It is pretty darn amazing, but this book would be extremely impressive whoever had written it. I love narratives which introduce an element of fantasy into an otherwise domestic setting - it's what I hope to write a dissertation and possibly doctorate on - but Oyeyemi goes a step further than that, because the reader is constantly left uncertain. How much is real, how much is illness, how much is delusion? Jessamy is seeing a psychiatrist, but her sessions deliberately do not reveal much to the reader.

What starts as a novel about loneliness and isolation becomes infused with issues of obsession, possession, power and, most sophisticatedly, doubleness. I know 'duplicity' is probably the correct term, but doubleness is more to the point - even from TillyTilly's first appearance (and her name!) when she simply repeats everything Jessamy says. It seems a little like those pieces of voice-activated-typing software, where they have to listen to your voice for a while, to register and recognise it, before the programme will work. Doubleness and identity become increasingly important through the novel, very cleverly.

Now, I like novels which don't tell you everything - ambiguity is fine. My Cousin Rachel is an example from my recent reading. But I finished The Icarus Girl without a clue as to what was real, what the almost hallucinatory final chapter signified - but I also felt that the fault was mine. Someone who's read it - is it clear? Should I have been able to work things out? It doesn't alter my opinion of the novel, though - it is exceptional, and I look forward to reading more of Oyeyemi's work.

In less happy news, for those of you who've read this far, the Arts & Humanities Research Council decided not to give me any money for my Masters next year... the next step is college funding, and the step after that is bankruptcy! But I'm determined to do the course, and will keep praying.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Oxford Stories

I've been attending my very first book launch! Not for my book, you understand, but for The Lost College & other Oxford stories, a collection by OxPens, a group of writers in Oxford. Last year they very successfully published The Sixpenny Debt & other Oxford stories, which I've read *almost* all of, and most of the authors make a repeat performance the second time around - and, what's more, have secured the approval of Colin Dexter. He, who indirectly provides most of the University's funding through Morse filming, was at the launch, and gave a kind, unassuming and funny talk. Also suggested that a potential future short story title could be 'The Identity of the Second Dog Handler'...

Keen followers of Stuck-in-a-Book will recognise a few names from OxPens - Mary Cavanagh (The Crowded Bed), Margaret Pelling (Work For Four Hands... still haven't reviewed this, but it's very readable!) and Jane Gordon-Cumming (A Proper Family Christmas - now back in print! ) It was very nice to meet Jane and Margaret, and to see Mary again - this blog really has given me all sorts of lovely opportunities.

I can't review The Lost College etc. because I only bought it a few hours ago, but there were some very promising readings from the authors included. I especially like the sound of Sheila Costello's 'Rabbit Fenley and The Body in the Garden'. Having read The Sixpenny Debt etc., though, I'll chat about that, in the hope that I'll have read The Lost College etc. by the time the next anthology comes out... I always find it so difficult to find anything unifying to say about short story collections, so it is a blessing that OxPens have done this for me - all the stories in both collections are connected with Oxford. That can be quite far-ran
ging, I'll admit - from Tchiakovsky's posthumous visit to the Sheldonian through to the accidental stealing of a library book in the distant past, from the confusion arising when a child understands everything adults say entirely literally, to the dangers of cycling in Port Meadow. My two favourite stories, though, are both connected with the middle classes committing murder... what does that say about me? Jane Gordon-Cumming's Education in Action opens: 'Dulcie was the scourge of the evening class. Which one? No, I don't mean any class in particular. Dulcie was the Scourge of the Evening Class, generic. And I use the term loosely, to include day-time classes, weekend courses, summer schools - Dulcie was the scourge of the lot.' You know the sort... The Rising Price of Property by Laura King contains an ingenious motive for murder, and is wonderfully cynical.

For a taste of Oxford from its real residents, though with real life being something usually foreign to these collections, do seek out The Sixpenny Debt & other Oxford stories or, I'm sure, The Lost College & other Oxford stories. Me, I'm just excited about having been to a book launch.

Monday, 18 August 2008

I'm back! / Mockingbirds and Cousins

Hurray! The internet has arrived at Marlborough Road!

For those of you thinking "That's not news, you blogged on Saturday", I have to say - that wasn't me. Well, in a way it was, but it was a phantom post - I tried to link to the video on Youtube a couple of weeks ago, and failed. Obviously it was hanging around in the ether, waiting for som
eone to authorise it or something, and suddenly it appeared at the weekend. Strange.

I'm afraid my return to the blogosphere will be short-lived, since I'm
away on holiday on Friday, and back on 29th August - so more then. I do hope some people are still here, even with all the disruptions of late... blame the world of technology which eludes me. Thankfully one of my housemates has a very savvy boyfriend, who kindly tip-tip-tapped away at the keyboard and got everything sorted out. I am living proof that young + male doesn't necessarily = good at internetty things. In fact, if you use the word 'internetty', then you probably don't qualify. Though I once plugged an ethernet cable in upside down (no easy task), so I'm in a league of my own.

In the time I've been away from blogging, I've had quite a build-up of books to talk about, so that will probably take us up til I head off to Northern Ireland. Today I'm goin
g to write about the last two book group books I've read in recent weeks, both classics of the twentieth century.

My Cousin Rachel is the third novel I've read by Daphne du Maurier - I wrote about The Flight of the Falcon here, having not been overwhelmed, but Rebecca is one of my favourite novels. My Cousi
n Rachel probably fell between the two. (There are some spoilers here, but not too many...) It tells the story of Ambrose and Philip Ashley, cousins who are more or less father and son, living in Cornish rural simplicity, away from women and contentedly reliant upon one another. Ambrose is taken off to Italy, and it is here that he meets and marries Rachel - and dies. Rachel comes to see Philip in England, and he is prepared to hate her - but their relationship becomes increasingly complicated, as does the readers' thoughts about Rachel's potential culpability.

The novel has a lot in common with Rebecca - and not just t
he setting. The same intrigue, power, and issues about what is left unspoken in relationships. Though not as successful as Rebecca - I found the first 80 pages dragged a little, in fact until Rachel arrived - My Cousin Rachel is brilliantly successful in the sense that I have never left a novel so uncertain as to a character's guilt or lack of it - and either interpretation seems quite valid. Brilliantly done. There are such sophisticated themes of obsession and attracting obsession without being aware of it, the cyclical nature of the men's experiences... The group discussing the novel were divided from absolute loathing to absolute loving, and thus an 'interesting' meeting was held!

My other book group were rather more agreed on To Kill A Mockingbird. This is one The Carbon Copy has been telling me to read for years, and I've continually meant to, so was glad when someone recommended it for book group and spurred me on. What a great book. I don't think there's any point in me giving a synopsis, since almost everyone has read th
is novel before me, but having seen the film I was surprised that so little of the book was concerned with the trial of Tom Robinson. To Kill A Mockingbird is much more a depiction of Southern life for the Finch family, and a portrait of a daughter's relationship with her father - and a beautiful portrait at that. When I did the Booking Through Thursday about heroes, Colin put forward Atticus Finch, and I have to agree. The man is incredible - a very worthy father, a moralistic lawyer and a humble citizen, a combination which is tricky to write without seeming unrealistic or irritating. Atticus, though, remains wholly admirable and likeable throughout, and is one of the great male characters in literature, I'd say. I could eulogise about him, and this novel, for ages - but I won't. I want to hear what you think.

There, written about two books without quoting from either of them. Tsk. Here's one I like: "If I didn't take this case (Scout) then I wouldn't be able to hold my head up, I wouldn't be about to tell anyone what to do, not even you and Jem." Or this:

"I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system - that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty."

Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer

You may remember I eulogised about Mary Ann Shaffer's epistolary novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - in fact, it's had rave reviews from more or less everyone. Elaine at Random Jottings pointed me in the right direction, and the latest fan is Our Vicar's Wife, who took it to Cornwall with her last week.

Anyway - it's now on the shelves, published and ready to be read, so do go and get yourselves a copy! Bloomsbury have made this YouTube trailer for it - enticing!

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Just a quick note to say...

...I am still alive!

Still don't have internet access at our new house - was supposed to come yesterday, but trouble at t' mill. Will hopefully right itself soon, and I'll have lots to tell you about!

As a taster, I just finished The O'Sullivan Twins by Enid Blyton... who said Stuck-in-a-Book wasn't a highbrow place to be?

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Last Days of Regency

I'm in the final throes of packing, and tomorrow I shall be living in Marlborough Road, Oxford, rather than Regent Street, Oxford. Last time I moved, I didn't have the internet for a few weeks - I do hope the same won't be true this time, but I thought I'd write and warn you all that any silence is probably involuntary.

This photo might be horribly familiar to those of you who have moved house recently. I've only been here a year, and have accumulated an enormous amount of rubbish. Having 'almost finished' packing yesterday, I filled three boxes tonight with what can only be described as 'assorted tat'. How does it happen? Can't imagine. Oddly enough, when we moved from Worcestershire to Somerset in 2005 (my only major move, since I was shipped off to friends for the 1992 move from Merseyside to Worcestershire) it didn't seem to take too long or reveal too much unwanted junk. Curious.

What am I up to over the next week or so? This weekend I'm off to London - that was quite a last minute decision, as I have been invited to my friend's 'stag party'. I wish there were a less repellent term for that... Marital Preparation Celebration, perhaps. The guy in question is a Christian, as is his brother who is organising it, so I have no qualms on the ethical front - but I don't really know what to expect. We'll see. On more familiar ground, I shall be spending the following week attending Book Groups - well, two of 'em. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The Carbon Copy has been asking me to read the latter ever since he read it at school, and I have been meaning to. So far, wonderful (about 100 pages in) and unmistakably Southern American. Something in the style and characterisation, more than the topics or dialect. I'll report back on those two in further detail in the future, no doubt, and haven't forgotten that I owe you a review of The Brontes Went To Woolworths...

Adieu, hopefully not for long!

Guernsey Literary etc.

You may remember I eulogised about Mary Ann Shaffer's epistolary novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - in fact, it's had rave reviews from more or less everyone. Elaine at Random Jottings pointed me in the right direction, and the latest fan is Our Vicar's Wife, who took it to Cornwall with her last week.

Anyway - it's now on the shelves, published and ready to be read, so do go and get yourselves a copy! Bloomsbury have made a YouTube trailer for it - I tried to embed it in this post, but the technical wizardy flumoxed me - this is the link.

Sunday, 3 August 2008


So, the Booker longlist is out. Here it is:

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold Girl in a Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture
John Berger From A to X
Michelle de Kretser The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs
Mohammed Hanif A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency
Joseph O'Neill Netherland
Salman Rushdie The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith Child 44
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole

Guess what? I've not read any of them, though I do have Tolz's book (well, three books, isn't it?) I turned down a chance to read Child 44 because it sound
ed like the absolute opposite of my cup of tea, and I haven't heard of the others. Actually, I think someone mentioned the Mangoes one at Book Group a while ago... anyway, I have little intention of seeking out the rest.

Turns out I have read two Booker prize winners - Possession by AS Byatt, which was very good, and The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which was not. Throwing in all the shortlisted books, I've read another five: A Month in the Country by JL Carr; The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; Atonement and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan; Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. That's seven, out of over 200 possible titles... So you can see that I'm not a particuarly frenetic follower of the prize - though it's nice to keep half an eye on it, just out of interest.

What I find rather more interesting is the judges - I have a personal interest in this, since a tutor turned down working with me on a thesis, one of the reasons being her commitments as Booker judge - but what an interesting group they make. Do go and have a look on the Wikipedia page. They seem to get some pretty reputable writers, some who have been nominated before, the odd celebrity (Nigella Lawson, anyone?) but generally groups who have stood the test of time far more than the books nominated. And more in my line, as it happens. Of the judges, not all of whom are authors, I've read books by:

Frank Kermode
Richard Hoggart
AS Byatt
Susan Hill
Claire Tomalin
Hermione Lee
Fay Weldon
Libby Purves
Sebastian Faulks
Penelope Fitzgerald
Gillian Beer
John Sutherland

and have books by quite a few of the others. In fact, from this year on, I'm going to be watching out for the chosen judges, rather than the chosen books. A far more lastingly interesting indication of the literary world, I reckon.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Mrs. Hat

There are a few books I've finished over the last month, and not blogged about, but they're now all in boxes... I'm moving house on Wednesday, to the other side of Oxford, and my bookcase is moving tomorrow - thus I had to empty it, and consign all my books to boxes. I did, however, see my new bedroom for the first time today, and it has lots of shelves already there! Hurray! My books need no longer be in piles by my bed. I'm sure they will be, but at least it will be out of volition rather than necessity.

I can just about remember the book I finished early this morning, without fishing it out of the box, and it strays a little from normal Stuck-in-a-Book territory: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks. I started reading this two or three years ago, simply because the title captured me, somehow it got shelved (I think termtime and essays got in the way) and now I've finished. For those who don't know, it's non-fiction, described by Wikipedia thus: "
The book comprises 24 essays split into 4 sections which each deal with a particular aspect of brain function such as deficits and excesses in the first two sections (with particular emphasis on the right hemisphere of the brain) while the third and fourth describe phenomenological manifestations with reference to spontaneous reminiscences, altered perceptions, and extraordinary qualities of mind found in "retardates"

Gosh, doesn't that sound dull. Well, it isn't. Each chapter looks at certain patients/clients (as they were called, though Sacks rather disparages the term) and their medical predicaments - Sacks documents his interaction with these people, and his discovering why their conditions occur, without being too blinding-with-science. A woman who can only see the left-hand side of any object; twins who can identify the day of the week for any date over a span of 8000 years; the man, indeed, who mistook his wife for a hat. What makes this book interesting is twofold - the amazing things which the brain can do or cease to do, or ways in which illness can manifest itself, but secondly, and more importantly, the compassion and humanity with which Sacks describes the cases under consideration. One feels he was bucking a trend in his field of medicine in 1985, when the book was published, and has hopefully led the way. A unique compendium, perhaps, and one which is sometimes upsetting, often enlightening, and always fascinating.