Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Debs at War

More book-buying shenanigans today... was in Blackwells and my eye was caught by the title Debs at War, because I thought it might refer to my heroine, Deborah Mitford. It doesn't, but closer inspection didn't make the book look any less interesting - the full title is Debs at War: How Wartime Changed Their Lives 1939-1945, and it's about those who were debutantes shortly before war broke out. Anne de Courcy, the author of this book (and maybe known by some as a biography of Diana Mitford/Mosley), interviewed 47 women who were pre-war debs whose lives were dramatically changed by the war. They entered the Services, as Wrens, WAAFs, FANYs or ATS; they became nurses or VADs; some even started factory work and tried to hide their background.

As before, I'll try to give an overview of a book by its chapter headings. The difference, of course, being that I haven't read this one yet...

- Childhoods 'We were taken down to say good morning to our mother'

- A Question of Upbringing
'You won't need exams'

- Coming Out
'The whole point was to find a husband'

- The Approach of War
'I stood in the room that had been my nursery, listening to Chamberlain declaring war'

- Joining Up
'I wasn't going to get on with anything else until we'd finished with Hitler'

'Posh girls driving staff cars'

'We were the rough, tough ones'

- Fun in Wartime 'Boyfriends were more important than bombs'

- Factories
'We were working too hard to flirt...'

- Nursing
'Sometimes the ambulance bells never stopped'

- Love and Marriage
'...and then we got engaged. Crazy, really, wasn't it?'

- Bletchley
'How much German do you speak?'

- On the Land
'We don't want any bloody land girls here'

- The Class Barrier
'We'd never met girls like these before'

- Wrens
'We began to learn to do without sleep'

- The Air
'Why are you bringing up only half an aeroplane?'

- Afterwards
'The war made us feel capable of doing something'

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Read Subtle Science

Inspiration seems a little dry at the moment for Stuck-in-a-Book, possibly because my own pleasure-reading has been taking a back seat to my work (though, with Conrad and Kipling and Katherine Mansfield this week, that will make interesting writing when I'm finished with it) so I'm going to set a little activity which will quite possibly drive you a little insane over the next few hours/days/years...

And today's post title tells you what the task is. If you're feeling particularly intelligent, that is - because, no, I'm not suggesting that I've read subtle science, or that you should, but...

Sorry? What was that?

You at the back?

Yes! You've spotted it. 'Read', 'Subtle', and 'Science' each have a silent letter - 'a', 'b', 'c' respectively, in fact. Can you help me compile an alphabet of silent letters, as it were? I've only got about half the alphabet. I need your help. And I'm going to recycle a cartoon from my library days...

Monday, 27 October 2008

More Library Finds

I thought I was spoilt with all the exciting things I was shown in the Bodleian last year, but the treasures just don't end - the other day we students on the MSt course had a session looking at twentieth-century manuscripts. And what an exciting group of items they were, and quite a motley crew too. Handwritten manuscripts by C.S. Lewis and Thomas Hardy; some original drawings by J.R.R. Tolkein; mischevious cartoons by Philip Larkin; a snooty letter by Ezra Pound; a rather overly fond letter from Ernest Hemingway to his mother-in-law... all sorts.

And today I went to a talk on Jane Austen's Volume the First, one of three notebooks in which she wrote her juvenilia - none of the manuscripts of her novels remain, so this notebook is among the small amount which still exist. I've held one of her letters before, but this was Jane Austen in authorial mode, and thus even more exciting... I did worry about myself a little when I realised I considered the notebook as somewhat sacred... *Jane Austen was just a human* *Jane Austen was just a human*...

Sunday, 26 October 2008

More Mapp

There was a period earlier in the year when most of my posts seemed to be about how wonderful E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia books are. I might assume for this post that readers know everything about the series...(for those who don't, and indeed those who do, I came across a wonderful Mapp and Lucia Glossary site today). My first foray into eulogising was this post, and every now and then I remark on the sheer brilliance and wit and innocent charm of these novels - I paused after re-reading the first four, and have two left unread...

And then a bit later I interviewed Guy Fraser-Sampson (read the interview here), and he told me all about the new Mapp and Lucia book he'd written - Major Benjy, who, as fans will recall, is the local blustery military man in Tilling, and eventual husband of Miss Mapp. Major Benjy isn't a sequel (as Tom Holt's additions to the Mapp and Lu
cia canon were) but slips into Tilling history between Miss Mapp and Mapp and Lucia - in fact, the last few pages see Lucia's arrival at Mallards, Miss Mapp's house. Little did we know what took place mere hours before...

I don't want to ruin the plot, so shall skirt about that and talk about the style instead - what is obvious throughout is that Guy loves the characters, and knows them inside out. He read the books as a child and has read them many times since, and all their foibles and peculiarities are in tact. For example, this paragraph about Susan Wyse (once Susan Poppit):
It was of course their second visit to the Wyses in two days and the only change appeared to be that Susan's M.B.E. has been inadvertently placed in an even more prominent position, this time on the hall table where it could hardly fail to be seen as people left their hats and gloves. Unfortunately Susan did not seem to notice this until after the last guest had arrived, whereupon she gave a little scream of horror and snatched it up, exclaiming "oh, what will those servants do next?" as she did so. ... Miss Mapp said sweetly "dear Susan, in all the many times I have admired your medal I have never seen it looking so impressive. A pity you are not wearing your furs tonight; it would set them off so nicely."

So the characters are all there - Miss Mapp, Major Benjy, the Wyses, Diva Plaistow, Quaint Irene... and Lucy. Like Elaine (see her lovely review here) I had only the smallest recollection of Irene's 'companion' Lucy, but she is rather brought to the fore in Major Benjy - and is symptomatic of the aspect of Fraser-Sampson's novel which I least liked. Tilling has been rather over-sexualised, sometimes quite shockingly so - yes, gentle in comparison to most novels, but still rather more than Benson's innocent, leave-it-to-the-imagination society warranted.

This aside, the novel is a joy - the incidents don't always have Benson's subtle touch, but there is a little storyline concerning a cake-baking competition which would be worthy of the original series. And mostly he has got the quiet back-stabbing, social-climbing, gossipy, cheerful and insouciant style just right - I can't see any excuse for a Mapp and Lucia fan not to own this book. If you like the series, or know anyone who likes the series, then I demand you go and get a copy - like Elaine I welcome any addition to the canon, and though not perfectly Bensonian, it's not far off.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

And the clocks go back...

The clocks go back tonight. Or is it forward? (Spring back / Fall forward... Spring forward / Fall back... that's no help at all). Anyway, the upshot is that I get an extra hour in bed tonight, and that is something to be cherished.

In honour of this event (which sees Merton Colleg hold a ceremony involving drinking whilst walking backwards around a quadrangle) I shall pose a literary/clock question... in which books are clocks important? Not necessarily time travel, just significant clocks.

I've got two, both children's books, off the top of my head... let's see if you can match those or find others... you've got an extra hour to think about it!

Friday, 24 October 2008

Bloomsbury Baby

I wasn't sure whether or not to introduce this book to my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, but the longer it is since I read it, the better it seems in my mind... so, step forward Deceived with Kindness by Angelica Garnett. In the end, I've included it because it's such a useful and captivating book about the Bloomsbury Group, whether or not you know anything about it before.

It's been months since I read it and, like The Brontes Went to Woolworths, I've been promising to review the book on here for simply ages... so forgive me if I repeat all the things I've already mentioned about it over the past weeks.

Deceived with Kindness is the seventh non-ficti
on book in the 50 Books, but like most of the others listed there, it is literary in nature - Angelica Garnett was the daughter of Vanessa Bell, and thus the niece of Virginia Woolf. She was also Duncan Grant's daughter, believed Clive Bell was her father for many years, and later married David Garnett (author of 50 Books entrant Lady Into Fox) - so she is well qualified to give her autobiography the subtitle A Bloomsbury Childhood. In fact, her book is less an autobiography than a focalised biography of the group - how could it be anything else with such fascinating people around her? They're all here - as well as those mentioned above are Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes...

I've read a few books about the people Angelica writes about, especially Virginia Woolf , but though others might put years into research and erudition, Angelica Garnett doesn't have to do all this because the material is right in front of her. Which means she can treat the topic without a scholarly reverence or a postmodern desire to re-evaluate the concept of being or anything like that - instead, there is an intriguing meld of affectionate childhood memoir and biography of the renowned. She sees them as her family and family friends, but also recognising their importance in literary history. We see her childhood relationship with Vanessa and Clive Bell, and later some moving chapters on discovering that Duncan Grant was her actual biological father. Before this, she reaches back into her mother's upbringing, and provides brief but well-drawn biography, imbued with filial feeling. Her encounters with 'The Woolves' were of particular interest to me - and the relationship between Virginia and Vanessa is viewed with understanding and compassion: 'Of Vanessa's love for Virginia there was no question: she simply wished that it could have been taken for granted.'

I'm not sure I've given an accurate impression of Deceived with Kindness - the greatest quality of Garnett's book is an intimacy which gives the reader greater access to the Bloomsbury group than any other biography I've read. For an introduction to the group, or something to add to your extant knowledge, this book is invaluable - and definitely one to read before starting Susan Sellers' excellent novel Vanessa and Virginia.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

I can't think of anything to write today...

... so I'll post a pretty picture instead.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Brontes and Woolies

I've been meaning to write a post about The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson for quite a long time, and somehow it never quite happened - perhaps it's the prospect of having to write 'Brontes' so often, without the necessary accents. I know *how* to find them, but to do it everytime... it's probably best just to pretend they don't exist.

Anyway, it's now been so long since I read the novel that I can't remember all that much about it. What's more, most of the blogosphere appear to have been read it this year - Danielle's review; Lady Bug's Books'; Cornflower's; dovegreyreader's. Sorry if I've missed some people out, and I'm sure I have, but those are the ones I could lay my hands on - in the unlikely event that anyone hasn't heard about this book, I advise clicking on one those links for a proper summary of the book! Mine will be brief...

"How I loathe that kind of novel which is about a lot of sisters", is how this novel about sisters begins. They're all rather mad, and I can't remember any of their names, but their important characteristic is that they create fantasy personalities, which cluster around them. Not their own personalities, nor other fantasy people
- but rather they choose people (sometimes a doll, sometimes - centrally - a judge they've encountered only in the newspaper) and have conversations about and with these people. Which all becomes rather complicated when the judge in question becomes an acquaintance, and has to learn how to act the part he has already been given.

And it's all rather dizzying. But in a quite brilliant way. As reviews of Edward Carey's Alva & Irva recently, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns a while ago (see the 50 Books...) demonstrate, I'm rather a fan of the quirky and surreal, and Rachel Ferguson dishes this up with abandon. So I can only add further endorsement to the recommendations others have already given - The Brontes Went To Woolworths is charming and zany and I can remember the feeling of reading it, even if all the other details escape me.

The other thing I can bring to the party is a different picture, since my copy is an old hardback. What an odd cover. More intriguing, Rachel Ferguson (known to many of us as author of Persephone Books title Alas, Poor Lady) is also '"Rachel" of Punch' - hmm, wonder what she wrote there... might have to get a copy up in the Bodleian and have an investigation...

Monday, 20 October 2008

Humble Pie

I mentioned briefly, in that Booking Through Thursday quiz, that I'd bought Nicola Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s but I couldn't just leave it at that, could I? I'll warn you now, it's not cheap (paperback about £28, hardback much more) so get onto your local library... because for those whose reading tastes are most aligned with mine, or at least overlap significantly, that book title must sound like manna from Heaven - and, figuratively, it is. Literally, it's just a book title... Ahem.

I read Humble's book when writing my thesis on the topic as an undergraduate, and got rather peeved because she'd said all sorts of things I was hoping were original to me - but don't hold that against her. She writes about all sorts of authors close to the Stuck-in-a-Book heart: EF Benson, Elizabeth Bowen, Agatha Christie, Ivy Compton-Burnett, EM Delafield, Monica Dickens, Rachel Ferguson, Stel
la Gibbons, Rosamund Lehmann, Rose Macaulay, Nancy Mitford, Dodie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Thirkell, Virginia Woolf. What a list. Even if you haven't read all those authors (I'll confess, there are two listed whom I've not read), you'll probably still be interested in their spheres and their ethos. Do see what Danielle had to say about it on her blog.

The chapter headings are:
1. 'Books Do Furnish A Room': Readers and Reading
2. 'Not Our Sort': The Re-Formation of Middle-Class Identities
3. Imagining the Home
4. The Eccentric Family
5. A Crisis of Gender?

All such fascinating topics - and Humble writes with a style and verve which makes everything completely accessible without 'dumbing down'. All rather middlebrow, now I come to think of it. EM Delafield would be proud to be included, and I can think of no higher, nor more apposite, praise than that.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

The Good Life

As promised, another book to add to my (in no order) 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About - and the sixth non-fiction book to make the list. White Cargo by Felicity Kendal was a book I picked up 20p in a local charity shop years ago, on the strength of loving her performance in The Good Life. For those who don't know it (the programme was called Good Neighbors in the US) it was a 1970s sitcom about self-sufficiency in Suburbia. Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers kept chickens and a goat in their suburban back garden, much to the displeasure of their decidedly upper-class (and hilarious) neighbours, played by Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington.

So, I assumed Felicity Kendal's autobiography might focus on this sitcom, and the British acting scene of the 1970s. I couldn't have been much further from the truth. What I didn't know about Felicity Kendal was that she was born and brought up in India, as part of an acting troupe led by her father Geoffrey Kendal - they toured from place to place, performing everything from (lots of) Shakespeare to (hurray!) A. A. Milne. These recollections are leant poignancy by the fact that Kendal writes her autobiography at the bedside of father Geoffrey, who is in a coma and slowly dying. It would be mawkish in fiction, but in non-fiction it is courageous and moving and gives Felicity Kendal a real drive to write her history.

And a compelling history it is. Having her father so near death doesn't affect the honesty of her narrative - the loving/warring relationship between the two is represented with great truthfulness, and comes to a head when she decides to move to England to pursue her acting career. Before that decision is made, she describes a childhood surrounded by hand-to-mouth actors with a love of their trade - as well as a firsthand guide to living in India in 'the long twilight of the British Empire', as the Evening Standard described it.

Utterly fascinating, moving, witty and with a writerly skill which makes one wonder if the stage's gain was the book's loss. Certainly the best autobiography I've read by someone whose profession isn't writing. Even if you've never heard of Felicity Kendal, this is a captivating account of an experience both extraordinary, and representative of a type of acting group whose story is seldom told, and which doesn't seem to exist anymore.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Waiting for Carrot Cake

Karen at Cornflower, when she does her Cornflower Book Group, always tries to bake something appropriate for the book in question. Inadvertently (or was it?) I did the same thing today - I spent the evening reading Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot... and then I made Carrot Cake Muffins. Those with good memories will recall that carrots feature in Waiting for Godot, along with turnips and radishes. I decided not to put turnips or radishes into the muffins...

My housemate has a rather exciting looking recipe book, which has 50 different muffin recipes (it's
called 1 Mix, 50 Muffins). She's made Jam Doughnut Muffins, and I thought I'd give these a whirl - in fact, most of the recipes in the book look wonderful. Think I'll give Crispy Bacon Muffins a miss, and will definitely avoid Crunchy Peanut Butter Muffins (yeuch) but plenty of other exciting ones to try.

The Carrot Cake
Muffins came out very nicely, since you ask, but I'm not so sure about the icing - I followed their directions of 75g cream cheese, 40g butter, 35g icing sugar... but it still tastes rather like I just spread cheese on them. Hmm... how to improve?

Oh, and Waiting for Godot? Utterly baffling, of course, but not in an irritating way. Even as I read it and realise I understand nothing and have to give a presentation on it, still I get a feeling for the feeling of the play, as it were. Something pretty special there, and a sacred cow which I will leave happily grazing in the field.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Lady Into Fox Into Hesperus

A quick post for those who think of little other than my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About... well, look out for another title to be added soon, but more excitingly one of the titles (completely coincidentally, I must say) has been reprinted by one of my favourite reprint publishers - Hesperus Press. You might remember Hesperus Week taking place here a while ago, which was rather fun (you could do a search through the Year One: Book Reviews, if you like, for the titles featured that week - Simonetta Perkins by L. P. Hartely, Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell, and The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dosteovsky).

The book which Hesperus have recently issued is, as today's post title suggests, Lady Into Fox by David Garnett - a link to my review can be found at no.13 in the not-in-any-particular-order list of 50 Books (22 so far, actually) on the left. Or go and buy it at the Hesperus website -, currently under construction but hopefully fully operable soon! Or, indeed, read it on Project Gutenberg, if you can - but the Hesperus edition is beautiful.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Alva & Irva

There were two books I bought as a result of working in the Bodleian and happening upon them - one was Yellow by Janni Visman (which I reviewed earlier in the year), and the other was Alva & Irva by Edward Carey. The former drew me by its cover; the latter by its concept and the fact that it is about twins. Tonight my book group met up to discuss Alva & Irva, as I thought I probably wouldn't get around to reading it unless I suggested it there.

Alva & Irva is a deliciously quirky novel - it takes the form of a (fake) travel guide/history to the city Entralla (fictional city, I should s
ay) and the autobiographical writings of Alva Dapps. She describes her upbringing and closeness to Irva - and later her longings for separation and exploration. At the same time, Irva becomes more and more withdrawn, quiet and reclusive. (I'd quote some of this to you, but I let someone else borrow my copy.) As Irva refuses to leave the house, and Alva wishes both to explore and to tempt her away, they start a joint project: Alva walks through all the streets of Entralla taking measurements, photos, drawings - from which Irva makes a plasticine model of the city.

It all sounds faintly ridiculous, I daresay, but somehow the book really works - it is a novel filled with grotesque characters (in the sense of exaggerated and strange) - the father who is obsessed with stamps, for example. The novel is actually, in many ways, about obsession - whether with objects or people or tasks. Obsession and exaggeration - the events I've described are amongst the more normal. Wait til you find out what Alva gets tattooed on herself.

In amongst all the glorious absurdity, I discovered a very moving narrative. Perhaps my love of twin-lit made me read a little too much into it, but I found the breaking of Alva and Irva's close bond incredibly touching, as Alva sought others and Irva couldn't understand why, and their responses to this.

It's so difficult to suggest which readers might like Alva & Irva because Carey's novel is so utterly unlike anything else I've read. Sometimes the black humour is a little Saki-esque, and the cover quotation claims it has similarities with Kafka, but I've not read any. Anyone who enjoys the quirky and unusual, and of course anyone with my love of twin-lit, would enjoy a wander into Carey's world. It's not a journey you'll take anywhere else.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Booking Through Thursday... sort of

Yes, I know it's not Thursday, but I saw this on Becca's blog earlier in the week, and thought I'd wait until I couldn't think of anything else to say... It's been a while since I did a 'Booking Through Thursday', and they're always fun. Do feel extremely free to do this little quiz yourself on your own blog or in the comments here...

I’ve seen this series of questions floating around the ‘net the last few days, and thought it looked like a good one for us!

What was the last book you bought?

I bought two yesterday, which I'll write about more soon... They are The Feminine Middlebrow Novel by Nicola Humble, and Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Name a book you have read MORE than once

Oo, lots. To make it more interesting, I'll go for a book I've read four times, as it might be the only one - The Provincial Lady Goes Further.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

The Bible, of course, but aside from that... none spring to mind. Quite a few have changed the way I choose books and the type of books I read, but haven't had fundamental effects beyond that.

How do you choose a book? eg. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews

I usually, now, only read books I already own, or have been chosen by book groups I'm in, or if I know about the author already, or it's linked in some way... Actually, thinking about it, most avenues of my reading started with AA Milne - after that, they've all somehow led from one to another and spread and spread. If I ever do a book on impulse, it will be because of the 'feel' of it - its age, cover, layout.

Do you prefer Fiction or Non-Fiction?

Definitely fiction, but have been reading more non-fiction of late. I had a real hankering for some non-fiction when I finished my degree, and sometimes it's just the right thing. Usually non-fiction associated with literature, though... Deceived with Kindness by Angelica Garnett springs to mind, which I STILL owe you a review of.

What’s more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

Has to be beautiful writing. Plot and character are great (The Time Traveler's Wife got by on these two, for the most part) but for a novel to be truly loved by me, it has to have beautiful writing. I've re-read a little bit of Woolf today, and realised once more just how she's head and shoulders above of everyone else I've read, for this quality.

Most loved/memorable character (character/book)

Miss Hargreaves (from Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker) always comes up here... but I do love her so. Eeyore is another. If I had to choose one to come to dinner it would be Jane Bingley.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

Let's have a look... The Penguin Complete Saki (for my recent thoughts on Saki, see this post), What's So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey, and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee (more here).

What was the last book you’ve read, and when was it?

Orientalism by Edward Said, which I finished a couple of days ago. For class, I hasten to add... I hope to finish Alva & Irva by Edward Carey tomorrow - as book group is tomorrow evening!

Have you ever given up on a book half way in?

A few times at university I had to stop because the essay was due in... aside from that, very rarely. Somehow I never got around to finishing The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, so perhaps I should dig it out again...

Monday, 13 October 2008

End of an era

Yesterday I attended the last ever service at St. Cross Church, Oxford. I say last ever - it may still be used for the occasional service, but it was more or less the last one to be held there. St. Cross was my church between 2004-6, and I've been back to visit a few times since then - it's a beautiful old Anglican church (some parts 800 years old) which has a very villagesque feel to it, and a similarly rural-feeling graveyard and cemetery which (not to sound too morbid...) I quite often go and sit in. Had my lunch there today, actually. It's one of my favourite places in Oxford.

Anyway - the area around St. Cross is now almost entirely offices and businesses, with very few residential properties, and the congregation for the church had shrunk to the point where double figures for a service was an achievement. But despite, or perhaps because, of this, it has the warmest welcome and friendliest congregation of any church I've ever been to - it was a very difficult decision when I moved to the larger, more student-orientated, much less attractive Oxford Community Church, but even with two years' absence I welled up during the farewell service. It was lovely to see fifty people there, saying goodbye - and, as the vicar pointed out, the church is not a building, it is a group of people. Even so, as the small attendance numbers made the running of St. Cross unfeasible and expensive, it was sad to think that people have been meeting there to worship God for centuries, and that was coming to an end. Its next incarnation (if plans go ahead) will be as an archival space and reading room for Balliol College - who will restore the chancel and do much-needed work throughout the church.

As I sat there, I thought of all the people who had encountered Jesus and praised God in that room, some perhaps for the first time, some spending their whole lives attending St. Cross, and I was pleased that I could join them all in a long line of people who have loved St. Cross Church.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Theatre question... and Alpha Male

Quick question for UK-readers of this blog who might be more culturally-minded than I am... any idea how you find out about who's doing what in the theatre? Obviously I can find the 'what's on' sections on theatre's individual websites, and there are mountains of sites advertising tickets for the perpetual musicals, but where do I find out what Felicity Kendal and Penelope Wilton and Jennifer Ehle are up to? How does one know? Nothing like for theatre, is there?

And now I'm going to wander into filmic territory, which is something of an unusual move for this book-orientated blog. I did wander through all my literary films back in the early days of this blog, but the one I wanted to mention tonight doesn't even come under that category - except that I came to it by route of Pride and Prejudice. More particularly, the sublime Jennifer Ehle and her unmatchable portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet - since that day I have been keeping my eye out for Jennifer Ehle's other roles. There haven't been many. And when they exist, she tends to get shunted to a minor role (for example, the upcoming film Pride and Glory). BUT there is a gem, one which gives Jennifer Ehle a lead role, and which is beautiful and thoughtful and delicately touching. And that film is Alpha Male.

Yes, I know. It sounds like it's about stock-car racing, but I promise it's not. Jennifer Ehle plays Alice, mother of Jack and Elyssa, and newly widowed. The film plays out between her first marriage and her second relationship, several years later as Jack turns 21, moving back and forth between these time periods (you do have to rather rely on Ehle's hairstyle to work out which time period you're watching, as Danny Huston and Patrick Valli look incredibly similar). Neither child reacts well to the changes - Elyssa gently sinking into a hallucinatory illness and Jack estranging himself from the family he blames - but it is Ehle's sophisticated, reserved, bereaved and slightly helpless Alice who stands out. Jennifer Ehle could act a three act play with just her eyes, which are endlessly expressive, and Alpha Male gives her the scope to do more or less that - though apparently there was an even better director's cut. The DVD I have was supposedly altered in an attempt to make it 'more commercial' - which I imagine failed. Not much plot happens here, it is rather about beautiful cinemtography, refined, sensitive performances and an undefinable atmospheric quality. Only one other person I know has seen this film, and she found it quite dull (be warned, I might be alone!) - it's not packed with action, but it is one of the best films I've seen in the last few years. And anything with Jennifer Ehle at the helm can't be bad, now, can it?

Well Well Well(s)

Once, in our GCSE English class, we did a Weakest Link style game. My question was 'Who wrote The Time Machine', and I said George Orwell, and felt rather stupid. The same thing happened tonight at the latest drinks to welcome English Masters students...

Well, not quite
the same thing, obviously. But an eminent and doubtless redoubtable fellow of St John's College was asking me about my dissertation topic, and I mentioned middlebrow domestic literature and got the customary recoil - but it got worse when I started talking about the use of the word 'middlebrow', saying that George Orwell coined the term, but Virginia Woolf refined it. Perfectly possible, I suppose, since he was born 38 years before she died. But, of course, I had made the same mistake again, and meant H.G. Wells. And then felt very stupid while the said eminent and doubtless redoubtable fellow laughed at me and started talking to someone else...

What made matters WORSE was that I was standing next to a group which included Hermione Lee, and very much wanted to go and say hello, but didn't want to be rude... and then she left quite early. I do hope I have the chance to see her later in the year...

Also amusing quite how many of the English doctorate students recognised me from my days behind the desk in the Bodleian.

So! Another day in the world of a new Oxford graduate. Another drinks party next Monday... Please make me feel better by sharing any similar incidents from your lives.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

It was just an Occident...

First things first, your guesses on my book total have left me feeling quite inadequately stocked! Peter was closest with his guess - the actual total is 1347. To put that in perspective, it's rather more than one a week since I was born. Eeps.

I've spent large chunks of today embroiled in Edward Said's Orientalism... gosh.

Don't know what to write about it, as it's not going to be the sort of thing I'd read for pleasure, though perhaps I underestimate the stamina of my blog readers - perhaps theoretical history is your bedtime reading. All fairly interesting - the history of Orientalism as an acedemic pursuit, as a Western colonial concept, and as an Eastern voice. Lots of springboard topics for my Literature of Empire and Nation module, but also set for Week 1 of the core course for my Masters. Which apparently will look at the differences between modernity and Modernism, as well as at colonialism and so forth - seems quite a lot to handle in a two hour session, so will keep you posted. The modernity/modernism has some interesting avenues into the middlebrow area which interests me so much, and how this enormous section of literature can be studied to nuance an understanding of the period, rather than seeing it just as High Modernism.

Speaking of which, it won't be very long before I have to start thinking about my Doctorate Application... gosh. In fact, I'll have to submit my proposal before I've started my Masters dissertation... which seems quite silly, but there you go. Not reasoning why, and so forth. But I'm sure you'll all come along for the ride (!)

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Tigers and Time Travelling

I was waiting for Colin to reveal the answer to the Tiger puzzle on his blog, and he hasn't... so I shall tell you... well, I'll let newcomers have a look first. Can you spot the hidden tiger.....


well... look at the stripes of the tiger in the foreground. Look realllly carefully. And you'll spot the hidden tiger. Or should I say 'The Hidden Tiger'. Now you've seen it, isn't it obvious? I know!

Onto completely different territory, I've just finished The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, for my book group. Yes, how did I manage to fit 500+ pages into my reading schedule... I wasn't sure I was going to make it, but thankfully Niffenegger's novel was such addictive reading (coupled with not being able to sleep for large portions of a couple of nights) that it took a matter of days.

The Time Traveler's Wife [oh how my British blood boils at having to use only one 'l' in traveller] has been on my shelves for a few years, I think I bought it a few months after it was published, but the size of the thing put me off. As did, more recently, this review on Vulpes Libris. And this, rather pithy, review on Lizzy Siddal's blog. Two bloggers I res
pect hated it a lot. So why did I love it?

Ok. Best to acknowledge the faults first.
Wait. Before that, I suppose some of you won't know the plot, though it seems more or less everyone in the world has read this before me. Henry has a disorder which sends him, involuntary, back or forth in time - usually back. He can't change the future, but he can interact with everyone around him (oh boy can he interact), and will spend minutes or days there before popping back to his present, where any amount of time (usually minutes) will have passed. The first 100 pages or so mostly follow a chronology of Clare's youth - Clare being the time traveller's wife in question. Henry comes to see her through most of her life, up to 18... when she is 20, they meet again... except for him it's the first time. "Hey, I'm your wife". More or less. And it's a love story between these two; the difficulties of l
iving with the condition, and of living with a husband with this condition.

So, those faults I was talking about.
Too much sex... there is a lotttt of sex. Some of it being Henry with himself (the part in the Vulpes Libris review which *almost* made me vow never to read the book). Whenever he shifts in time, he appears naked... Some reviews find the idea of Henry meeting his 8 year old future-wife rather disturbing, but there is, thankfully, nothing sexual about those encounters.
Erm... well, apart from that... the secondary characters were all more or less unnecessary (ex-girlfriends; ex-girlfriends new lovers; friends) but Henry's father is a welcome addition to the ensemble.

That's it, I'm afraid I can't think of anything more negative to say - I think Niffenegger has achieved something incredible with The Time Traveler's Wife. Usually books or films with time travel baffle and irritate me - either there is no consistency in whether or not characters can affect the future, or no method in the time shifting, or it all just confuses me no end. In The Time Traveler's Wife, despite there being two characters to keep track of (only one changing time, but still) it was never difficult to follow. Each segment has the date and year, and the ages of Henry and Clare in that scene, printed at the top - a very canny device. And Niffenegger uses the idea so well - plot points are hinted at early on, the idea of Clare meeting Henry when he's never met her, and the sudden reversal of knowledge in their relationship works brilliantly. More than anything, Niffenegger writes a convincing and moving love story. The Vulpes Libris review found both characters irksome to say the least, and I don't think I'd be Co-founder of the Henry Fan Club, but Clare is great. Artistic and expressive, she is also patient and loving whilst still feeling jealousy and anxiety and grief. She is the novel's main strength, I think, and Niffenegger was wise to give her the title.

What else to say? Thoroughly involving, the ending is unutterably moving, the structure and plot are flawless, and... let's just hope the film (currently in post-production) has wafted an editing pen over the frequent sex scenes.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

And back to the English Department

I spent today getting reacquainted with the English Faculty, and having all sorts of talks about the faculty in general and my course in particular. All the people on the course (well, those I got to speak to) seem really nice, and I think we'll get along. As before, I am hopelessly outnumbered by women (14 girls; 4 boys) and rather outnumbered as an Englishman too.

Somehow I managed to volunteer myself to open a class on Theatre and Revolution, but also managed to snare Katherine Mansfield in the Literatures of Empire and Nation 1880-1930 module. We each had to pick one or two authors from the list to open a discussion about, and whilst I could have coped with Anand or Schreiner, both mentioned here recently I think, it is Katherine Mansfield whom I've loved for some years now. In fact, I was the only person in Oxford to write about her in my first year, according to the examiners' report...

So. My reading will now take a swerve away from primary and fun novels and the like, into secondary. Might be rather more prosaic, but perhaps a few gems to share with you nonetheless. Tomorrow's tomes are both by Edward Said - Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. I'll have to get over my dislike of Said, which is based entirely on the fact that he (I daresay inadvertently) started the silliest and least rational school of Jane Austen criticism. But I imagine he has rather more pertinent things to say about the texts for this term... (for the full list, see this post). And I have about five weeks to think about my coursework topic here... I'm thinking something about visiting... outstaying welcome... visiting vs. occupying... visitors without hosts... I just think the concept of visitors and visiting could be fruitful. I'll keep you posted...

Monday, 6 October 2008

Back to Magdalen

I am now officially a student again!

Not that I have the correct Student Card or a working college email address yet... spent this morning writing emails to the computing department and the student registration department, who were friendly but didn't find a solution to any of the above... so here's hoping that my new tutors aren't hoping to contact me. Doh.

So far my only activity as a graduate fresher has been attending the welcome dinner, which was pleasant, where I chatted to two tutors from my undergraduate days, and didn't really speak to the other English Masters student. That's right, there's only one other English Masters student at Magdalen... gosh. Tomorrow I'll meet the whole rabble, and hopefully lots of new Englishy friends to wave at in the library... (I also mentioned this blog to one of my tutors, but I rather hope he doesn't come by today, as this must be the least intelligent post I've written for some months.... back to more literary matters soon, promise.)

The most exciting news of the evening, I reckon, was that each Graduate Fresher gets book tokens. Guess how much? More. More than that. Oo, close. £120. !!!
I've never understood how people can hold onto book tokens for months or years, as mine tend to last until I'm next within running distance of a bookshop - but even I might have my work cut out in spending £120 immediately.

Speaking of book totals... I counted my books over the Summer, while doing the 'cataloguing'. Guess how many... go on, in the comments, and we'll see who's closest...

Saturday, 4 October 2008


My Masters starts on Monday, and I'm scurrying through my reading list - so today I'll mention another one. Would have read more this evening, if it weren't for a rather exciting interlude when a cat decided to make our house her home. She (I think she) was very reluctant to leave, and I was very reluctant for her to leave, so she stayed for a while. And I fell a little in love...
ANYWAY. The novel I'm going to mention today is the most recent one on my reading list, being published in 1935 (not sure how this gets into Literature and Empire 1880-1930, but no matter) - Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand. Anand takes the position of one of the 'untouchables' as the focalisation for his novel - a member of the lowest strand in the caste system. One of the outcastes, in fact: Bahka. He is a latrine-cleaner, but one with aspirations to become a 'sahib' - an aristocrat.

Anand's decision to use Bahka as his protagonist (though not narrator) was controversial at the time, but demonstrates the unfairness and idiocy of the creation of 'untouchables' - wherever he goes he must shout out, to alert others to his arrival. If they touch him or are touched by him, they must wash. Imagine people screaming "Polluted! Polluted!" if they come into contact with you - and imagine becoming resigned to the supposed justice of this? Anand writes Untouchable fuelled by the injustice of this system, and his anger at it, but is wise enough to let the narrative do the work, rather than scream and shout. We see Bakha, a kind, sensitive and aspirational boy being gradually worn down by the caste stigma - which also relates to something I read yesterday in E. M. Forster's A Passage To India, about an Adonis-like 'untouchable' seen in the street:

'He had the strength and beauty that sometimes come to flower in Indians of low birth. When that strange race nears the dust and is condemned as untouchable, then nature remembers the physical perfection that she accomplished elsewhere, and throws out a god - not many, but one here and there, to prove to society how little its categories impress her.'

Untouchable is quite short, but a powerful narrative which tells me an awful lot about something of which I was almost wholly ignorant. It's also very readable and interesting, and I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Tyger, Tyger...

P.S. Go to Colin's blog today for a fun pictoral riddle thing! I failed...

Volumes Received

'Volumes Received' was how newspapers used to (perhaps still?) round up the books they hadn't had time to review, but had been sent for review. I'm afraid the pressures of my Masters have meant that I'm going to do the same thing - some of these books have been on my reviewing shelf for months, and I was feeling guilty. This might not be the last time you see them, because I hope still to read some or all of them, but if I tell you a little bit about the books, you can make your own mind up...

War on the Margins: a margin - Libby Cone
This one I definitely will read before too long, but thought I'd mention it whilst the excitement is still raring re:The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. Libby sent me her novel after reading my review of the Guernsey book, and it looks like it would make an excellent companion read - Occupation Guernsey through the eyes of those living there.

Castle in the Clouds - Monica Janssens

'It's midnight she's in a nuthouse, and one of the inmates has tried to top herself. Just when she's convinced the night can't get much weirder, in walks one of the world's most controversial supermodels' - five separate and diverse (fictional) viewpoints of a rehabilitation clinic.

The Pornographer of Vienna - Lewis Crofts
One of those which I thought was a spam email at first... but no! Egon Schiele, a passionate painter all his life, leaves home at sixteen determined to establish himself as an artist in Vienna. Along the way he meets Gustav Klimt. Looks a mix of fun and disturbing...

What if...? - Steve N. Lee
A suspense narrative about a man who claims to be able to end poverty and disease and bring prosperity and peace - is he telling the truth? Are the government right to fear him? 'If you knew you were right, would you let any one or any thing stand in your way?'. A twist on the good vs. evil narrative.

The Storms of Acias - Dominic Took
'A violent Storm hits the castle where Graciou lives with his father and his extended family. After becoming separated from his father because of The Storm, Graciou now finds himself in his eighteenth year, wanting to answer so many questions that have haunted him since that day.' He journeys home, and 'meets a seemingly mad old woman, who starts to reveal what happened all those years ago, but as she begins to tell her story, is all as it would seem?'

29 Ways to Drown - Niki Aguirre
Short story collection, spanning three continents but more often a virtual landscape - one review says 'Niki Aguirre breathes new energy into the short story with a dark orginality that makes hers compulsive reading while illuminating our kind and the crooked ways people live, fight and dream'