Friday, 30 October 2009

I'm Dreaming of a Grey Christmas...

I know it's still October, and it feels too early to be talking about Christmas, but I had to tell you about the Persephone Secret Santa which Book Psmith is organising. Instead of typing out all the information here, I'm going to put a link to Book Psmith's post instead. Here it is, click here please. There you are, don't say I never give you anything. The general idea is a Persephone Books give-around, which I did with a group of friends earlier in the month too, receiving Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge - one of my favourite Persephones, but one I'd had from the library originally. For Book Psmith's Secret Santa you're *supposed* to send a list of the Persephones you already have... but I realised, discounting the 56 I already have, and all the cookbooks and gardening books and others that I don't particularly want, there are only a handful waiting to appear on my shelves. So I just sent an email about those instead...

I've spent today reading books with titles like Outside Modernism and Challening Modernism, and even Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual & the Public Sphere. So it'll be nice to spend the remainder of my evening curled up with a Richmal Crompton novel.

And, in territory far away from S-i-a-B norm, has anybody else seen the TV show Gavin and Stacey? Comedy or drama or dramedy, it's sometimes 'a bit near the knuckle', but it's also very funny and very, very sweet. My brother lent it to me months ago, and I only got around to watching it yesterday... and now I've seen five episodes. Out of a series of six. Always the way, but I'm sure I'll find something else to get addicted to soon...

Thursday, 29 October 2009


I saw this Wordle thingummy at Books Please, and it looked fun - and indeed it is! You can type in a blog address, or just paste in some text, and then customise further what arrives... This is what happened when I put my blog address in...

Have a go at making your own at! No real point to them, but fun, I think you'll agree?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

So Many Books

I know I've read Simon Savidge's post on Gabriel Zaid's So Many Books, because I commented on it, but when I saw the book in a local charity shop, I came upon as a new friend. Just goes to show - there must be hundreds of blog posts out there that I've written "Oh, I must keep an eye out for this!" - and I always mean it - but somehow the book slips from my mind. What I *did* note was that a) it was called So Many Books, and thus was likely to be my sort of book, and b) it was published by Sort of Books, the wonderful people behind the Tove Jansson translations. And so I bought it...

Like Simon S, I wasn't expecting quite what I got - I was in HEiotL-withdrawal mode, and was hoping Zaid had written something about his own book collection, and his relationship with it. What he *has* written is actually much more about books as commodities. I suppose this has the bonus that it can't deter anybody with unheard-of tastes and obscure favourites, but equally So Many Books can't rouse my love and affection much.

You can Simon S's thoughts, best bet, because he sums up so well the topics covered in Zaid's book. Zaid looks at the production of books - how people are reached, cost differentials, how it works as a commodity in the marketplace. He compares the book to speech, and wonders how a conversation can be had. He approaches the topics of electronic reader, public library, and ancient manuscript with the same investigative mind, facts falling out of his head onto the page, always keeping his love of reading peeping over the parapet of economics and functionality. And there are occasionally nice little phrases:
And how many college classes are no more than the tortuous reading of a text over the course of a year? Is anything more certain to make a book completely unintelligble than reading it slowly enough? It's like examining a mural from two centimetres away and scanning it at a rate of ten square centimetres every third day for a year, like a short-sighted slug.
Well, quite. The point Zaid returns to again and again is, in fact, the title - so many books. If no books were ever published again, it would take me 250,000 years to read all the ones already published. Even reading a list of the titles and authors would take fifteen years. He comes back to this point throughout the book, it seems to haunt his life. But not with the wry smile I expect of a bibliophile, as they cheerfully take Pride and Prejudice off the shelf to read again, but with some sort of panic that he can't get everything into his mind at the same time... it was a bit off-putting, to be honest.

And that sums up my lack of enthusiasm for So Many Books as a whole, actually. If all these topics I've touched on fill you with interest, then this might be the book for you - but I must confess, I found it a little dull. I don't think of books as commodities - I think of them as acquaintances and friends. I love the sort of bookish book which feels the same. And this wasn't it... So, a word of warning - before you spot the title and buy this for all your bibliophile friends, check first to see if they're the sort of person who also thrives on facts, figures, and ref. fig. 1-ing. If not, perhaps I can recommend Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Just what the doctor ordered

I'm am back in the land of the living! Sorry to abandon you for so long - I did mean to at least put up some photographs, but post-flu exhaustion left me feeling more or less dead in the evenings, which is when I usually do my blogging. But now I am fighting fit (relatively speaking) with only an annoying cough which seems disinclined to go away.

As I mentioned in the previous post, any sign of illness and I stop being able to read. Hugely irksome, as you can imagine. But I did manage to read one book last week - the font was sufficiently big, and the story adequately undemanding, while yet being rather wonderful - it was Joyce Dennys' Repeated Doses. As the title suggests, it is not the first in the series. And, using my last months of spontaneous book-buying, I scurried away to buy
Mrs. Dose the Doctor's Wife and The Over-Dose. These are, respectively, the first and third books in the series, published between 1930 and 1933.

I say series. These books are divided into various sections - not really short stories, but more like episodes in various lives. Like Henrietta in Joyce Dennys' now much-beloved Henrietta's War (wrote about it here), and Dennys herself, all the heroines are doctors' wives. Or rather, all the stories are about doctors and their families - usually with an instrumental wife. Though they all have different names, they have a shared characteristic running through (I believe) all three books - that of 'false nosery', in Dennys' words. Let me explain, by quoting the first book:

All Doctors' Wives wear False Noses. This fact is not generally known, except to Doctors and their Wives themselves. Even their children hardly ever realize, until they grow up and possibly become Doctors or Doctors' Wives, that their mother went through her married life with a False Nose firmly fixed to her face. There have been cases when even the Doctor himself has forgotten that the Nose he sees as breakfast is not the Nose he wooed. But these are exceptional cases, for Doctors are, as a rule, discerning and disillusioned people.

A Doctor's Wife must wear a False Nose to disguise herself, and thus persuade her husband's patients, and even more, the people who are not her husband's patients, but who might be, that she is like Caesar's Wife, above suspicion.

She must, if possible, however dark her thoughts and evil her intentions, persuade people that she is a model of wifely devotion, motherly love and womanly yearnings.
If she meets the Vicar being carried in at her front door with his throat cut, as she goes out to a Bridge party, she must not divulge this spicy bit of gossip to her friends, and if during the afternoon somebody comes rushing in to say that the Vicar has been hanged, she is denied the exquisite pleasure of saying, and it is at such times that the False Nose hangs most heavy, "Excuse me, but his throat was cut, I saw it; your deal, I think."

And so it goes. These are stories about the diplomacy of doctors' wives, the peculiarities of the medical profession, and the length to which the wives will go to secure patients for their husbands. (That sounds more macabre than I intended...) In many ways, I think being in a doctor's family must be quite similar to being in a vicar's family - certainly in terms of diplomacy, presenting the Public Face of the Profession, and keeping schtum on all sorts of topics.

Dennys' stories in Repeated Doses exaggerate a bit - a woman seeking treatment for a wart ends up in a Rest Home; a name mix up causes an international incident; baskets of fruit become the front line for deceit and intrigue. All great fun.

And, which is half the pleasure with Dennys' books, they are illustrated by Dennys too. I've scattered some of those illustrations throughout this post, and they might prove irresistible to you... They make a lovely set of books - really thick, chunky books, with thick paper, and a feel of luxury quite unexpected for the early-thirties. Obviously they got printed just before printers started economising... I'm so grateful to have heard of Joyce Dennys, and these are real treats to enjoy, return to, and treasure.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Casting pearls before...

I'm afraid I've had swine flu. Or at least flu of some variety, but since it's passing more quickly than normal flu, the consensus is that it's of the swine persuasion. So posts might not be forthcoming for a bit - I feel a lot better than I did yesterday (I was only awake for a few scattered hours throughout the day) but my brain resists doing much thinking. And, annoyingly, I don't seem able to read books... always the way when I get ill: hours in bed, and not able to use the time to lessen the tbr pile. Doh.

But this post is more to explain my absence (or at least the absence of any particularly well-thought-out posts for a bit) than for sympathy, so I shall leave you with a picture from my trip to the Lake District and Edinburgh... more of these soon, I think my brain's up to that. This is from Grasmere, home of Wordsworth and my friend Phoebe.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

24: The Challenge

The effects of Howards End is on the Landing continue apace... For the past couple years I've been on a book buying ban during Lent. I have hundreds of unread books, a limited budget, and love of a challenge... and so I'm rolling out a year-long restriction.

Restriction, not ban, I hasten to add. I toyed with a ban on book buying, but realised that going cold turkey would send me smashing the windows of Waterstones at 3am on January 3rd, grabbing handfuls of books, and collapsing in tears.

Or something like that.

So, instead, I thought I'd buy 24 books next year. Two a month. If I'm good one month, I can get more the next - on the other hand, if I go on a book-buying splurge, then I'll have to stay away from bookshops for a few weeks.

Let's put this into perspective. Two books a month coming into the house is probably rather more than your average person buys - but I would be surprised if I've bought fewer than 240 this year. I'm decimating my book buying, and then only keeping the bit that I've got rid of...

I should give you an idea of the response my friends have had to this, on Facebook and my online reading group:

  • 'GOOD LUCK, Simon! I wonder how many days you'll last? ;-)'
  • 'Is that IN 2010 or AT 20:10? I think the latter is more likely.'
  • 'Hilarious. I'll watch and laugh.'
  • 'I simply could not possibly do this. And I seriously wonder if you can.'
  • 'Madness!'
  • 'WOW. I look forward to seeing how this pans out.....'
  • 'I'm still speechless at Simon's decision to curtail book-buying, and if the resolution were made by anyone less sincere, I would suspect a Publicity Stunt! I can hardly imagine not buying books when you live in *England,* the *home* of books'
  • (and perhaps my favourite...) 'what evs!'
So you can see the faith my friends have in me. But I quote them in amusement, and shan't be insulted - far from it - if you happen to agree with them. I should add, to be just, that I'm not going to stop getting review copies, so more than 24 books will enter the house...

I think it'll lend a nice slant to the blog - as I unveil each of my acquisitions over the year, and at the end of the year can see which twenty-four made the grade... unless, of course, my friends are right and I crack mid-March...

Monday, 19 October 2009

How To Save A Life

There is a pile of books by one of my bookcases - actually, there are many piles of books by most of my bookcases - but there is one in particular which holds all the books I've recently read, but haven't yet blogged about. They go in that pile, waiting for me to exert myself enough to write a proper review, and I promptly forget nearly everything about them. Not an auspicious way to start a review, I know, but I like it when bloggers give little insights into the geography of their books...

I think Oxford University Press's A Very Short Introduction series is a great idea, though I must say it's not one I've investigated closely. They have these books, about A6 size, covering more or less every topic conceivable - Autism to Particle Physics; topics as wide as History and as specific as The Dead Sea Scrolls; Animal Rights, Machiavelli, Free Speech, Emotion... even, intriguingly, one called Nothing. You get the picture. I must admit, my only previous dalliance with this series was Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory, much bought by panicking finalists - and it wasn't particularly good. Too fuzzy, and asked a lot of questions rather than giving much of use. I suppose it depends how you interpret 'Introduction' - it should send you off to find out more, but I feel it should also give you an understanding of key terms and central ideas.

Which is pretty m
uch what A Very Short Introduction to Biography by Hermione Lee does, thankfully. In 140pp (plus thirty odd of notes and index) Lee gives a whistle-stop tour of biography's vogues, peaks, ideas, and stars. She kicks off by looking at various metaphors for biography, trying to understand the impulse for telling the stories of lives, and the ethics of it. Then by going through 'ten rules for biography' (The story should be true, the biographer should be objective, etc. etc.) she demonstrates how often the rules are broken, and ends the list with no concrete definition at all. Which is perhaps to be expected.

From here we look
at the various vogues biography has experienced - exemplary lives, from the Bible and before, through increasingly 'honest' (read: critical) biographies, to the type we expect today. Freud's influence is examined - even the most anti-Freudian is likely now to use his language of childhood trauma, dreams, and so forth. More or less every aspect of biography is touched upon - the attempts of the Dictionary of National Biography and others to collate biographical information; the aesthetic arguments against even attempting biography; even the ways in which Marilyn Monroe has been treated.

It's all there, then, or
at least it's introduced. It is, if you like, a biography of biography. So why did the book not really work? No, I need to phrase myself better, because the book did *work* to a large extent - why didn't I love it? What prevented all these fascinating facts and angles from making a captivating 'life'? I think, mostly, because it is quite dry. The style is teacher-y; the occasional verbal tricks felt like they'd work in a lecture, but perhaps not in a book. I wasn't counting, but I think 'V.S. Pritchett's fine short Life of Turgenev' might have been the only evaluative comment made. And Lee only elliptically mentions her own life as a biographer, which would surely have been of interest - it is after all, one presumes, the reason she was asked to write this. She states, for example, 'Biographers are often asked what effect the superseding of letters by email and texting will have on their work' - an interesting question, which I don't think she ever attempts to answer. A hundred other times I'd have loved to hear what *she* experienced as a biographer... but maybe that would be a very different sort of book, and most of her audience might have resented it.

Perhaps the problem is the comparison with what I was hoping for. If I had set out to get a pocket outline of the history of biography, then I'd be happy. Lee's research is vast, her selection of angles intelligent. What is missing (what can so often accidentally slip out of a biography, whatever the number of facts and stories) is humanity. A Very Short Introduction to Biography is a very good resource, an excellent introduction, but you won't find yourself curling up in bed with it.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Something Old, Something New...

The Paper House got me thinking... I know that Stuck-in-a-Book readers buy a lot of books, that's a given (yes Mum, Dad, Colin, Dark Puss - you are the exceptions!) but what sort of books do we buy? I'm considering everything about a book except its contents... so, not which authors or genres you buy, but how old are they and (if I may make so bold) how valuable?

In The Paper House, Carlos Brauer is very excited about all sorts of books, but particularly old, valuable ones - and the word 'incunable' seems to be nothing more nor less than magical for him. And, outside of this novel, there seems to be an unwritten rule that to be a book collector, one must seek valuable books - first editions, rare editions, old editions.

Well. I would class myself as a book collector, because I have a collection of books... and I love having my scattered library, and think of the collection as being some sort of whole. It's unlikely that any other individual has owned the exact same books that I do - even the Bodleian doesn't have all the books I have, cos I had to buy one or two of them when they weren't available there. If I weren't a book collector, then surely I wouldn't think of my books with such affection, or be such a completist or completionist or whatever word means I want everything an author wrote to be on my shelves....

But I don't like fancy editions. They scare me a bit. Even though I never scribble in my books, and feel actual physical pain if I see so
meone using a biro in a book, I still don't like the idea of having a book which will loose an enormous amount of value if it falls in the sink. The average value of each of my books is, say, £3... not such an investment issue if I accidentally leave one on a bus.

This all struck me when I was visiting the bookshops in and around Charing Cross Road the other day. Henry Pordes Books was lovely, as was Any Amount of Books - but there are those tiny ones which are hugely imposing to enter. I popped into the ones which looked like they might have books under a grand, and felt like I was being hounded out by the bookseller's eyes... One of the shops had an entire wall dedicated to expensive editions of PG Wodehouse. Now, if any author would have scorned and mocked the rare book business, it is our Pelham Grenville.

What do you think? Is a love of fine, rare, old books part and parcel of loving books (and I'm missing the point) - or is it an entirely different kettle of fish? And howsabout you - new books, old books, raggedy books, pristine books? Or all of the above, with a side helping of books?

Friday, 16 October 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

It's that time of the week again - it's so nice to have a little place on my blog to mention things which wouldn't fit in elsewhere, or books which are going to be read gradually, so that you don't have to wait months to hear about them. I'm getting rather fond of my weekly miscellany, and I hope you are too.

You find me in a house of sickness. I'm not ill (yet) but my housemates are suffering from colds in various stages of heaviness... but today I made a coconut cake to cheer everyone up. I indulge in coconut cakes quite a lot now, since Our Vicar and Colin are both firmly anti-coconut, and thus it would be unfair to make them at home. Mmm... coconut cake... This isn't it, but it is a nice picture I stole from Google Image Search...

Sorry, distracted there. I *should* be telling you about the link, book, and blog
post which have hoved onto my horizon this month...

1) The book(s) - I've been meaning to read George Orwell's essays for a while, or at least dip into them, and when I spotted that Harvill Secker had just published two collections in rather fetching paperbacks (cover illustration a very good job by John Spencer) I wrote an email wondering whether they'd like to send copies to Oxford... which they did, hurrah! They are companion volumes - Narrative Essays and Critical Essays. The former has things like 'Bookshop Memories', 'Some Thoughts on the Common Toad', and 'A Nice Cup of Tea' - though also 'Looking Back on the Spanish War' which, if his excellent Homage to Catalonia is anything to go on, probably isn't very cosy. Critical Essays, as might be expected, investigates individual authors - T.S. Eliot, Rudyard Kipling - and literary topics, like 'Good Bad Books', which sounds fascinating. I'm looking forward to dipping into these, and might well report back later - but I think they're a safe bet for books worth having on the shelves, and there is no author who makes great writing seem more effortless than Orwell does.

2) The link - a while ago I reviewed Michael Greenberg's Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's
Life (which I thought captivating and very well-written, despite being out of my reading comfort zone). Do check out his website,, which is intended to be an interactive site meant to recreate the spirit and experience of the book visually. And do get hold of the book if you can, it's quite a find.

Another link? Oh, why not - Picador emailed to say that they'll be giving away a box set of the excellent Paris Review Interviews vols.1-4 - follow them on Twitter to find out more. (Incidentally, do many of you use Twitter? It baffles me. I do have an account, but have yet to use it properly...)

3) The blog post - well, there's been so much buzz about Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing, why not pop along to Bloomsbury Bell's blog and see what she has to say about the book which inspired the title, EM Forster's Howards End? I haven't read this novel yet, though I bought it a couple of months ago, and
Bloomsbury Bell's thoughtful review has intrigued me afresh. You can read it here.

That's all for this weekend, I'll see you on the other side...

Thursday, 15 October 2009

A quick reminder...

It's too late for me to sort out the post I was *going* to write, so instead I'm going - as promised - to remind everyone that we're halfway through October, and thus halfway to Manservant and Maidservant posting time! I must confess, this reminder is for me as well as you, as I haven't started it yet... but I'm hoping Ivy Compton-Burnett is working her magic with some of you. I'm delighted that quite a few of you have got hold of a copy... let's do the next thing and read it. I will start it properly this weekend, I think...

And, just to bulk out this post a bit, I thought you might be interested to see what my book group are reading over the next few months. We usually decide a couple in advance, but this time we really got excited, and have planned months and months... It's a lovely, friendly, small book group - which, I'm delighted to say, Harriet of Harriet Devine's Blog joined yesterday - and we just put down whichever books people suggest, a nice mixture of new and old.

November: Impassioned Clay - Stevie Davies
December: Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
January: Immortality - Milan Kundera
February: An Equal Music - Vikram Seth
March: Miss Mole - EH Young
April: A Long, Long Way - Sebastian Barry
May: Miss Ranskill Comes Home - Barbara Euphan Todd
June: The Debt to Pleasure - John Lanchester

As always, comments?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Paper House

Wow, thanks everyone for your great comments on yesterday's post - it's such an interesting concept, the book that started the transition into a world where, as Hayley so wonderfully put it in the comments, classics were no longer 'worthy books that I thought I should read rather than living things I wanted to read.'

A book like Howards End is on the Landing (yes, it's becoming second only to Miss Hargreaves in ho
w often I'll mention it... everyone got their copies of Miss Hargreaves by the way, since she happened to come up?) - sorry, as I was saying, a book like Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill doesn't just finish when you close it. Rather it sends you off in all other sorts of directions, and one of those was The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez. (With some Argentinian accents which apparently aren't compatible with Blogger's HTML, sorry...) Hill wrote that it was 'a charming novella about the perils and dangers of books and book owning [...] about a man who has many thousands of books which not only take on personalities of their own but come to replace people in his life.' And she also quoted this excerpt: was unthinkable to put a book by Borges next to one by Garcia Lorca, whom the Argentine author once described as a 'professional Andalusian'. And given the dreadful accusation of plaigarism between the two of them, he could not put something by Shakespeare next to a work by Marlowe, even though this meant not respecting the volume numbers of the sets in his collections. Nor, of course, could he place a book by Martin Amis next to one by Julian Barnes after the two friends had fallen out, or leave Vargas Llosa with Garcia Marquez.

Lazy blogging on my part, I realise, but I thought I should share something which made me leap to A Certain Website to buy The Paper House. If you can resist a description and a quotation like that, then you don't have the same relationship with books that I have (does 'relationship' sound more or less healthy than 'obsession'? Hard to say.) The novel follows the narrator as he tries to track down Carlos Brauer, a bibliophile who has mysteriously sent a cement-damaged copy of Conrad's The Shadow-Line to one of the narrator's colleagues, recently deceased. Hit by a car, in fact, whilst she was reading Emily Dickinson's poems. The narrator sets off on a journey to find out who Brauer is, and why he's sent the book...

But the plot is only half the book's point: this is a novella for those who love the sight, feel, idea of books. (Incidentally, the illustrations by Peter Sis - which include the cover image, and the image reproduced below - are bizarre and yet fitting... certainly unique.)

I love reading bibliocentric books, because it makes me feel a lot more sane in my book addiction. Which of us won't nod in empathy at the following sentences (except perhaps the bit about giving books away...):

Every year I give away at least fifty of [my books] to students, yet I still cannot avoid putting in another double row of shelves; the books are advancing silently, innocently through my house. There is no way I can stop them.

It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to acquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is part of us.[...] Nobody wants to mislay a book. We prefer to lose a ring, a watch, our umbrella, rather than a book whose pages we will never read again, but which retains, just in the sound of its title, remote and perhaps long-lost emotion.

To build up a library is to create a life. It's never just a random collection of books.
This is a very quick read, but a magically bookish one, which will make you feel a little saner about your own book collection. I'll think I'll revisit it over the years.... and anticipate quite a few of you doing the same?

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Classics Revisited

One of my book groups (yes, I'm in several, who'd have thought) has quite a democratic way of choosing the books we read. So do some of the others, but not quite so well organised. Every other month we pick a genre (and every other month we just go with general fiction) and then make a longlist... and then make a shortlist... and then vote on the title online... and finally we have a winner! By the time you read this, we'll have discussed this month's choice of Miss Hargreaves (now WHO do you think could have suggested this?) but I want to write about next month's choice. The genre was 'alternative worlds' and the winning book is George Orwell's 1984 - or, as I should say, Nineteen Eighty-four.

Which spawns two questions for you to answer. I read Nineteen Eighty-four when I was about 13, and it was the first 'classic' novel I read, excepting children's classics. I don't intend to launch into a discussion of what constitutes a classic, unless Frank Kermode is sitting in the back row, but I know that it felt different - like I'd entered a new world of reading. First question, then, is can you remember what the first 'classic' you read was? And what prompted you to choose this title?

Now, that was about a decade ago (and, if you're doing the sums, yes - that means the supposedly futuristic-sounding Nineteen Eighty-four actually takes place a year before I was born). I haven't re-read the book in that time, and I'm a little nervous... I thought, when I was 13, that the book was brilliant. Will I still think that? Having read a fair number of books since then (maybe around a thousand, which doesn't seem like many at all, come to think of it) and having read quite a lot of classic novels, how will I react when I re-read my first? That's the second question - have you re-read that first classic novel, and if so, what was the experience like?

I'm all ears - get commenting.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Hilly Region

As you'll have read, I'm rather a fan of Howards End is on the Landing - and it sent me off in pursuit of other Susan Hill books. I had read The Battle for Gullywith, which was ok, but nothing to set my reading pulse into overdrive... but now I want more and more. Spotting that The Beacon was just coming into paperback, I gave Vintage Press an email... well, they didn't reply, and I gave up the idea, but then the book arrived so somebody must have read the email... thank you Mysterious Lovely Person at Vintage Press.

I'd had my eye on The Beacon for a while, mostly because of the stunning cover (Susan Hill does have some good fortune with these, does she not?) and because the premise sounds interesting. Essentially, it's a response to the vogue for childhood misery memoirs. Made famous by David Pelzer and his A Child Called It, the genre has seemingly thousands o
f titles, all with more or less the same cover - a white background with a sepia-child on it. Three were written by people from a family who grew up in my village, in fact. Frankly, I haven't the smallest idea why anybody publishes or reads these. I completely understand why people write them - it must be a great catharsis - but my only experience, with Pelzer's first book, left me feeling voyeuristic. Many of them have been written, but I think Susan Hill's novelistic response is unusual, maybe even unique.

The Prime family live in a small North Country village, in an old farmhouse called The Beacon. The narrative moves between two time frames - we see Colin, May, Frank, and Berenice as they grow up - and we see May, still living at The Beacon years later, dealing with the death of their mother. As one strand follows the childre
n's gradual maturing, moving away from home to marriage or college or the city, the other strand shows the same family on the other side of a life-changing event. Not the death of their mother Bertha - that is simply the catalyst for the novel's action - but the book Frank published about their childhood. The Cupboard Under The Stairs tells of his childhood or neglect, torture, and misery - at the hands of his parents, and even his siblings.

Except none of it is true... or is it? Though the other children - now grown-up - come together in horror and denial, yet the doubt which spreads throughout their
community is also planted in all of their minds. A very faint doubt, but doubt nonetheless. But for the most part, when the doubt does not assail them, they cannot understand the motives their brother had:

How can you grow up with someone from birth and know nothing about them, she thought, share parents and brother and sister with them, share a house, rooms, a table, holidays, play, illnesses, games and not know them?

The Beacon is a very clever, subtle novella. Like many short books, it packs a more powerful punch than a longer book could have done. The emotions of the characters are never over the top, but understated and quietly devastating. Hill wisely doesn't ruin the effect by dwelling on Frank's imagined torture - it is not that kind of book. Instead it is a novella driven by characters' relationships with one another, and how much in them is unvoiced and unvoiceable. Hill also has the power to make the final few pages of a book - indeed, final few words - make you gasp out loud, and want to start the book all over again. Though I don't love this book in the way that I love Howards End is on the Landing, that is because The Beacon is a book to be admired and appreciated, rather than loved - I'm definitely pleased I revisited Susan Hill, as I feel there's a lot more for me to discover. Next up is In the Springtime of the Year.

Suggestions for more, please?

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Now where was it....

29. Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill

I've teased you long enough, and now I am going to write ab
out Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I'm not sure of the exact publication date, but apparently it's already being shipped by some, er, depositories of books. So will be hitting shelves soon, if it's not there already. As you can see, it's gone straight into my list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About - though I suspect *everyone* will have heard about it before long. It's just too good not to put into the list.

To set the tone: this is my favourite book of the year so far. It's everything bookish and literary that you could possibly ask for - basically, if you sigh happily when glancing at the cover (which Hill herself thinks is the best one she's ever been given) then this is the book for you.

The premise is that Susan Hill will spend a year reading only books she has on her shelves. Not just unread books, but revisiting those from the past - much-read favourites alongside ones she's always meant to read. As she beautifully writes: 'a book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.'

And so the year begins. Hill avoids spending much time on the internet - explaining the sudden disappearance of her blog - since it can 'have a pernicious influence on reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time that should be spent actually paying close, careful attention to the books themselves.' I find this chatter wonderful, of course (for what is Stuck-in-a-Book but book-related chatter?) and a great resource for finding more books - but I think Hill's decision is a dream a lot of us have. Wouldn't it be lovely to retreat into our bookshelves, finally tackling those tbr piles, having everything spontaneous and undecided?

In truth, most of Howards End is on the Landing is speculative, wondering which books might be read, and remembering her experiences with them, rather than reappraisals of the re-reads and newly reads. Is this an autobiography through reading? In a way, perhaps. But it is much more embracing than that - personal anecdotes, yes (her meeting with Iris Murdoch is quietly heart-breaking), but also chapte
rs on how books can be shelved, whether or not to write in them, what constitutes a funny book... It's a bit like a very well-edited, and selective, blog. And I mean that as a compliment. Individual authors treated to their own chapter include Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, WG Sebald, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anthony Trollope... a huge range, for Susan Hill is no book snob. How cheering to hear her say:

Adults may say what they like - parents, teachers and other know-alls. Enid Blyton excited us, took us into worlds of mystery, magic, adventure and fun. Yes, her prose is bland, yes, the vocabulary is not particularly stretching. But Blyton had the secret, the knack.
There are sections on diaries, e-readers (not a fan), detective fiction, and how she doesn't like Jane Austen (intake of breath, but she keeps trying to see what's what with Jane, and at least she's honest...) Oh, and lots more.

Towards the end, Hill tries to decide upon the 40 books she'd read for the rest of her life, if she could have no others. I shan't spoil her list, for the book builds up to it, but it's a great idea for a gradual, contemplative exercise.

Above all - and I am aware that I haven't done justice to Howards End is on the Landing, for it is impossible to put across her tone - Susan Hill has written something delightfully, wisely, enchantingly bookish. I feel I have been around her old farmhouse, with its rooms full of bookcases - I feel her surprise when she happens upon an unexpected old friend on her uncategorised shelves. Mostly, I have fallen even more deeply in love with my own books - with those which have lingered for years unread; with my own personal library as a whole.

She picks and chooses, yet is also somehow comprehensive. She writes subjectively, but - whether or not I agree with her - it feels like the last word has been spoken; the whole spectrum of opinion addressed. And Hill can be sweeping ('Girls read more than boys, always have, always will. That's a known fact.') and naive ('if [some listed Elizabethan plays] were any good we would have heard of them') but that doesn't seem to matter a jot. Perhaps it is her sheer love of books that make her the everywoman - or at least everyreader -
even whilst having a determined set of views.

There are some books which are read reluctantly; others so addictive that they are read walking down the street. Then there are those - and this is a rare, wonderful category - that are laid aside often, because the thought of finishing them, of having no more to read, is awful. Howards End is on the Landing is in this category - what higher praise can I offer? This might only truly delight those of us who have hundreds of unread books, lists everywhere of books we intend to read. For us (and if you've read this far, that includes you) this is a treasure, from the pen of a like-minded friend, to which we will often, happily, joyfully, return.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

1.) The link: Well, there it is above. This weekend I'm feeling quite silly, and those much-promised book reviews will have to take a back seat for... a video of a kitten discovering a mirror. When people feel low they might eat chocolate, watch a favourite film, have Prozac... I go to YouTube and search for 'kitten' and 'mirror'. Not that I'm feeling down at the moment - I just thought it would be a good 'link' to choose for the link, book, and blog post... Ok, I wanted any excuse. This is something you don't get in The Telegraph.

That's the link, then... now for the others.

2.) The blog post: Hayley at Desperate Reader has written a rather lovely post today, which covers all the wonderful bases of blogging - good news to share, a good book, a good recipe. And she links back to my blog too, so what more could you *possibly* ask for? Go along and enjoy all three... and enjoy the beautiful pictures she has along the side column, too.

3.) The book: I try to write about something interesting which is in the backlog... so step forward Lord Lucan: My Story 'edited' by William Coles. You might remember Coles from the Othello-meets-Notes-on-a-Scandal and rather good novel The Well-Tempered Clavier, which I wrote about here. And, what do you know, he's happened to stumble across the secret memoir of Lord Lucan, the peer who disappeared in 1974... (In case you don't know who the real Lord Lucan is, have a shufty here. Don't you love Wikipedia.) Coles is very amusing and this could prove a quirky, interesting, and unique read... I'll let you know what I think one day, but for now there's a heads-up in case you're interested!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


So, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel has won the Booker. This could have led into my thoughts about the Booker Prize, musings on Mantel's suitability to win, thoughts about the use of history in fiction.

Instead, it reminded me of this post I wrote a couple of years ago, where I asked you to think of books with animals in the title.


Sorry, proper reviews soon, promise. I do have a pile of ten books I've finished, and am going to write about... maybe I'll just blitz them all one night. But not tonight.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Badly done... or not?

Have any of you seen the first part of Emma, the BBC's latest costume drama? And last for a while, if reports are to be believed. There hasn't been a big production of Emma for over a decade, so Romola Garai has rooted through the bonnet cupboard, and a four part series started last weekend.

I've watched the first episode, and I enjoyed it a lot, though am still more or less straddling the fence. I love Romola Garai in everything she does - mostly I Capture the Castle, but also Amazing Grace, Elizabeth Taylor's Angel, and Atonement. She makes a feisty, self-confident Emma, and could turn out to be rather great.

Michael Gambon is a wonderful hypochondriac as Mr. Woodhouse, wrapped in scarves and uncertainty. Tamsin Greig wasn't quite as funny as I know she can be, but perhaps her Miss Bates is played more for pathos than humour.

My issues? Their Mr. Knightley (Johnny Lee Miller) was young and handsome and everything a modern film hero should be, but not remotely like Mr. Knightley is. Miller is much too young, and the match is much too suitable... on the page, I found it a little creepy, since they are much more brother and sister than anything else... Still, Miller may do for Knightley was Alan Rickman appears to have done for Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, and made a rather bizarre, unromantic match seem like a dream come true.

And the other thing... the language was so often too modern. I found myself muttering to the television, 'is there no historical advisor?' When the credits rolled, I saw that there was... and he is my tutor at Magdalen! Well, there you go.

All in all, fun and fresh way to 'do' Emma, and only slight misgivings. I'll certainly be watching the rest. (Any UK readers who missed it, the programme is available through BBC i-Player.)

Monday, 5 October 2009

London Books...

Some would say that I don't absolutely, definitely, incontrovertibly *need* any more books, especially after my recent haul in Edinburgh, but going through two of the cheapest bookshops in London left me with quite a few, then a trip to Charing Cross Road revealed a couple of gems which it would have been foolish to leave behind... I'm going to start with them, in fact.

Like a lot of us, I loved Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys, recently republished in the much-beloved Bloomsbury Group series. When in Henry Pordes Books, on Charing Cross Road, I spotted the name 'Joyce Dennys'... only true book-lovers will recognise that leap in your stomach you get, when you spot a book you never expected to find. And there were two of 'em... Repeated Doses (a sequel to a book I don't have, Mrs. Dose the Doctor's Wife) and the sublimely titled Economy Must Be Our Watchword. They were both *quite* pricey, but - in an unprecedented act of technological capability - I crept into a corner of the bookshop and used my mobile 'phone to check whether or not Amazon and Abebooks had cheaper copies. They didn't - in fact Economy Must Be Our Watchword doesn't seem even to be available anywhere - and these beautiful 1930s books, complete with Dennys' quirky illustrations, were quickly mine.

Less exciting, but still great, were my other finds:

In the Springtime of the Year - Susan Hill
A Bit of Singing and Dancing - Susan Hill
- I will write about Howards End is on the Landing soon, promise, but it's already sent me away to find more of her work. The first of these is one I really want to read.

Saraband - Eliot Bliss
Cousin Rosamund - Rebecca West
Beyond the Glass - Antonia White
- Three Virago Modern Classics which I couldn't leave behind. Never heard of the Eliot Bliss or her/his book, but it charts the emotional life of a girl in the 1930s, so the blurb says. The other two are sequels to books I haven't read, so might be on the back burner for a while... but were found in the wonderful Book & Comic Exchange in Notting Hill Gate, which has a large three-room basement of books for 50p each.

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
- a friend recommended this to me, but now several others have told me not to bother... what do you think?

The Lottery and other stories - Shirley Jackson
- this beautiful new edition, already secondhand! You'll have realised by now that I think Jackson is great - looking forward to delving into these. I have read 'The Lottery' online, and it is beyond chilling... you can do the same, here.

The House in Paris - Elizabeth Bowen
- I struggled with The Last September a while ago, and took great encouragement from your similar tales of woe. But Susan Hill says this is her best, and at 40p for a rather nice paperback, I thought I could give Lizzie another shot...

Family and Friends - Anita Brookner
- Susan Hill has a lot to answer for. HEioTL has sent me off in Anita B's direction...

And I also came away with three lovely gifts, celebrating our fifth birthday:

Hostages to Fortune - Elizabeth Cambridge
- my second favourite Persephone book, after Richmal Crompton's, but somehow I didn't own a copy... thank you Nichola!

Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Anthology
- everything Woolf is good in my book - thanks Barbara!

The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac - Eugene Field
- a late-19th Century book with a rather apt title - many thanks Sherry!

As always, any comments and thoughts on my new arrivals? Thanks everyone!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Ready Stead... Ivy!

Ok, have you got your copies of Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett? Or perhaps you have it under the original American title, Bullivant and the Lambs. Either way, there is still sometime to get prepared, even though I'm shouting GO! at the top of my voice. Because I don't think we can all agree to read the novel in the same week, I'm decreeing the whole of October as your time limit.... I AM excited!

So, over October, secure your copy, and get reading. The beautiful New York Review of Books Classics edition is
available in the US, but also from some bookshops in England - I spotted two copies in the Kensington Persephone Bookshop, for example. Otherwise, plenty of secondhand editions to find. It was first published in 1947, but has been reprinted a fair number of times.

And, in the first w
eek of November, I'll encourage everyone involved to post on their experiences with the novel - either in comments on my blog, or - of course - on your own blogs. You're welcome to post before then, obviously you can do as you like, but it might be fun to all write about Manservant and Maidservant at the same time.

This experience might well be giving up on page two, or it might be sheer delight and ordering all of her novels - or, of course, something in between. I've not read it yet, I don't know how I'll react. But it will be exciting to know that we're all reading ICB together - I'll remind everyone about halfway through October, and see how you're going...

Feel free to comment now, to reassure me that I'm not reading all on my own, and let the festivities begin!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

A bit later than usual this week, mea culpa, but I hope you've all settled into a nice weekend. I had fun this week, going up to London for a celebratory meet-up of an online reading group I'm in: five years together. Actually a bit longer than that, but five years since we changed our name. A lovely tea at the Orangery at Kensington, and some, ahem, moderate book-buying... I'll treat you to a list later in the week. Whilst I London I also met up with Simon S (Savidge Reads) and Claire (Paperback Reader) for a quick coffee - which was good fun. We chatted and gossiped about blogs, I mentioned Miss Hargreaves two or six times, and a good time was had by all.

Without any further ado... the link, the book, and the blog post. A bit like the good, the bad, and the ugly - except instead it's the goo
d, the good, and the good.

1.) The link - You might remember that I'm a fan of the gals behind 3191. Two ladies have been inspired by 3191 to start their own daily comparative photograph site - but one showing the charity work of SOS Children. The charity works on a huge scale, securing homes for millions of children and helping thousands of families stay together - but when we hear 'millions' it all seems too vast to understand. Using photography, they can show the detail and the individuals affected.

Every day two new photographs will appear side by side, as well as a few paragraphs on what the photograph represents, and what the charity is doing. It's a great idea, do have a look - the website is

2.) The blog post - Kirsty at Other Stories writes about secondhand bookshops, following the Guardian's list of the ten best in the UK. Might inspire me to write something similar soon... I was pleased and surprised to see my local bookshop in Somerset, Gresham Books of Crewkerne, make the list. And, with Kirsty, I mourn the absence of any great independent secondhand bookshop in Oxford, since Waterfield's closed. We just have charity bookshops, and the hugely overpriced secondhand department of Blackwell's.

3.) The book - I told, or warned, readers about a new Winnie the Pooh book, back in January. Well, it's coming out on Monday. The Telegraph printed the first story, about Christopher Robin coming back from school, and you can read it by clicking here. I have surprised myself by liking both David
Benedictus, the author, and his story. He's obviously done a lot of research (he even tried to use the word convolvulus in another story, which might be a reference to the novel-within-a-novel 'Bindweed', in AA Milne's Two People) and the story has a good tone. It makes more in-references than Milne ever did, and it's obviously not from Milne's pen, but I don't think an imitation could be much better. Of course, it's still up for debate whether a sequel is wanted, but given that one's being written... I think it might be ok. Doubtless forgotten in a decade, but fun for the moment. Though I'm still worrying about the illustrations by Mark Burgess... the one accompanying the story is ok, but has nothing of EH Shepard's wonderful spirit. Well, we'll see.

Friday, 2 October 2009

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

28. We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson

Well done to those who correctly guessed We Have Always Lived in the Castle from the image I shared
the other day - and well done to those with the foresight to have bought the book already. As well as being my favourite ever book title (doesn't it make you want to read the book, without reading a word more about it?) this is a quite brilliant novel. Initially published in 1962, this great image is from the new Penguin reprint in the UK. I first read the novel in 2006, I think, and re-read it yesterday, just to make sure it was still great... a second read removed some of the suspense, of course, because the questions were no longer unanswered - but it actually brought a new dimension to the tale, too, as I shall explain...

I'm going to do my best to write about this book sans-spoilers, since it has so many wonderful twists and turns. I'm going to give away much less than most reviews do, so if you want to try We Have Always Lived in the Castle from the same starting point I did, perhaps don't follow the links at the bottom...

The opening paragraph gives a few important bits of information:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

The first chapter shows Mary Katherine - also known as Merricat - walking through the local town, seeing the trip like a board game; she 'misses turns' if she crosses the street, for example. 'The people of the village have always hated us.' What a stunning first chapter Shirley Jackson has written - without knowing why the Blackwood family are pariahs, we feel such tension, such awkwardness and fear as Merricat makes her way through the village. And she is the victim of childish chants:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Once home, she is not in a world of normality.
Merricat believes she can protect her family and her house through nailing books to trees, burying marbles on the land, and storing away words - melody, Gloucester, Pegasus - which, so long as they aren't spoken aloud, will prevent danger. Because the novel is from Merricat's first person perspective, these superstitions are spoken without any defensiveness or recognition of a lack of logic. Which transports the reader into a surreal, unsettling viewpoint... Constance is more normal, though agoraphobic, unable to move beyond the perimetres of Blackwood land. Uncle Julian, the other remaining Blackwood, is obsessively creating a history of what happened to the family, especially the night they died. He is also mentally disintegrating, every bit as unsettling as Merricat's bizarre internal logic. Oh, and then there's the rather wonderful cat, Jonas, the only truly sane member of the family.

Though a short novel, Jackson packs a huge amount in. Not only the readers' curiosity to discover what happen
ed to the rest of the Blackwood family, but also a consuming tension in the atmosphere of the novel. This was Jackson's last novel, and (of the three I've read) the best - suffering from agoraphobia herself whilst writing it, she perfectly creates the joint security and terror of the home. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Gothic from the title onwards, but Jackson also writes a fascinating psychological study - this slim book has everything, and on re-reading is all the more impressive, for the clues and presentiments scattered throughout. The pace quickens, the events escalate, but the tone never eases and Merricat's unique angle on the world never lessens.

When I first read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I hadn't heard of either the book or the author - it was in a postal book group, sent by Lisa from Bluestalking Reader. I feel a bit bad including it in a 'books you might not have heard of' list, since it's been all over the blogosphere since then, but just maybe you've missed one of the following reviews (I've only included blogs I know and like - a search reveals dozens and dozens more! Search via Fyrefly's Blog Search Engine, linked to the left, under People To See):

Books Please (spoiler-free)
The Bookling
The Asylum
A Striped Armchair
Books and Cooks
Things Mean A Lot