Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Blue Fox

My weekend of reading those short books in translation is going apace, with two and a bit down. I also read possibly my first book by an author with only one name, since I've never read anything by Cher... oh, wait, no, there's Saki too. Anyway. It's definitely the first Icelandic book I've read, The Blue Fox by Sjon. Imagine the accent on the 'o', if you will - apparently this penname means 'sight'.

I'd heard about the novel (novella?) in a few places - first at dovegreyreader, methinks, then later when Scott Pack chose it as his first Blogger's Book of the Month - and Claire at Paperback Reader has also written about it - there you go, three reviews to read before I even get past a weak Cher joke. And they all liked it - you can add me to that pile.

Published in Icelandic in 2004, Victoria Cribb's translation was published by Telegram Books in 2008. I always make sure to credit translators, because it is one of the jobs which impresses me the most, being about as far away as possible from own (incredibly limited) skill set. And, though I cannot compare Cribb's translation with Sjon's original, I'm pretty certain that the atmosphere of the book has been carried across.

The Blue Fox takes place in January 1883, and the first section follows the priest Baldur Skuggason as he is on the trail of the elusive blue fox. Each page has a paragraph or two of text on it, slowing down the reading process and giving the words the form, as well as the language, of poetry. Not that it is overly full of imagery or anything like that - rather, the language is sparse and deceptively simple. And there is a subtle humour throughout. One page reads simply: 'The night was cold and of the longer variety.' We follow the slow and careful hunt, and even if (like me) you're willing the fox to escape, this is still beautiful writing. Completely unlike anything I've read before.

Just as the trigger is pulled on the gun, we jump back a few days, to the world of Fridrik B. Fridiksson and his charge Abba, who has Down's Syndrome. Apparently it was rare, in the mid-19th century in Iceland at least, for babies with Down's Syndrome to be left alive.
No witnesses were needed; before the child could utter its first wail, the midwife would close its nose and mouth, thereby returning its breath to the great cauldron of souls from which all mankind is served.
Once more the structure is strange, as it's going backgrounds. We meet characters before we know their histories; sometimes we are told they are dead before they even appear. It all lends a disorientating feeling, but fairy-tale-like rather than sinister. Perhaps it is the mediation of translation, or perhaps it is in Sjon's writing, but The Blue Fox feels almost mystical, as though it is read through a glass darkly.

I'll be honest - I wasn't *as* bowled over by the novella as Scott Pack was, but I am very glad that I've read it. The sections of the hunt, especially - which continue at the end of the book, increasingly and beautifully surreal - were haunting and mesmeric and so different from anything else I've read. For a taste of Icelandic literature, and a glimpse of a wholly different world and time, I suggest you pick up The Blue Fox - you're unlikely to read anything else similar this year.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

1.) The books - I'm cheating, as there are four this weekend... and they're all short (539 pages between the four of them!), and they're all in translation. That wasn't deliberate, but somehow it happened - and so I thought I'd collect them altogether. Two from the library (The Blue Fox by Sjon, from the Icelandic; Identity by Milan Kundera, from the French) and two review copies (Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord and Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi, both from the French). Look out for them on Stuck-in-a-Book over the following weeks, they look like they'll cover quite a range of styles and moods, but all sounds interesting... Since there are four, I don't think I have space to offer summaries or blurbs now, so we'll wait til I've read them...

2.) The blog post - is the very innovative Cate at Bookshelf Project with her Book Oscars 2010. You only have three days left to vote, so click on that link and choose amongst the nominations in categories including Best Cover Design, Best Fiction Novel, Best Book-to-Film Adaptation... and maybe more. She also made this rather fab banner:

3.) The link - I'm cheating again, because it's not really a link. I'm just copying and pasting from a recent email... it's a hard life, being a blogger. Said email was from a man named Peter, who runs Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations. Apparently he's looking to expand his offerings of book club books. Take a look at what he has and if you have some ideas as to a list you could contribute, get in touch with him at

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Jewish Book Week

I haven't been to many literary festivals, but next week I'll be adding another one to the small tally - Jewish Book Week, taking place in London 27th February - 7th March. I'm not Jewish myself, but I find so much of Jewish cultural history fascinating. And, of course, we share a Testament.. The people behind JBW very kindly got in touch with me and asked if there were any talks I fancied attending, and suggested the one on vegetarianism - sadly I can't make that, but I had a look at the wonderful variety of events (which you can see here) and put my name down for a couple...

So, on Wednesday I'll be attending Save The Children, in which Ruth Barnett, Susan Soyinka, and Karen Pollock will be talking about the evacuation of children during World War Two. I thought it would tie in interestingly with Terence Frisby's excellent memoir Kisses on a Postcard, which I wrote about a while ago.

And on Sunday, I'll be at Celebrating Irene Nemirovsky. I loved the powerful and compassionate Suite Francaise (as you'll see if you click here) and am looking forward to hearing more about her - an event at which her daughter will be speaking.

Do go and have a look at the list of events, and the blog Bagels and Books which they've set up, and maybe I'll even see you at one of those events... I'll be reporting back on them when I've been, of course - looking forward to it!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Miss Mole

It is nice to have someone in my book group who has very similar reading tastes to me. It means I needn't harp on about my choices all the time, I can sit back and let Miss Mole (1930) by EH Young be selected, without even having to suggest it myself. Thanks Ruth! This was my first EH Young (of the three or four which have found their way to my bookshelves) but it definitely won't be my last. AND Miss Mole won the James Tait Black Award, which is generally a better guide for good books than any of the other major book awards.

Miss Mole is a fairly mischievous forty-something who seeks work as a housekeeper. She embarrasses her cousin Lilla, who is from the 'better' side of the family, into finding her a position with a nonconformist minister Robert Corder, his daughters Ethel and Ruth, and their cousin Wilfred. Miss Mole's defence against the potential boredom of her life is concealing her lively and humorous character behind a facade of the dutiful, unintelligent housekeeper which is expected of her.

She could see herself clearly enough with other people's eyes: she was drab, she was nearing, if she had not reached, middle-age, she bore the stamp of a woman who had always worked against the grain[...] Who would suspect her of a sense of fun and irony, of a passionate love for beauty and the power to drag it from its hidden places?

This is the sort of family-orientated novel which Richmal Crompton sometimes does better, and sometimes rather worse. Young never falls into the pitfalls to which Crompton is occasionally prone - preciousness or being ever so slightly saccharine. Miss Mole is a fairy-tale, but without sentimentality. That is not to say the novel is remotely cynical or disillusioned - but rather that there is nothing which would be more appropriate in a book called Tales For Disconcerted Infants. But it is definitely in the fairy-tale mold - Miss Mole deals with the various dilemmas and quandaries facing the members of the Corder family, who all grow to depend upon her. And she has a few problems of her own, which are gradually revealed, though the family around her remains oblivious.

They were all too young or too self-absorbed to understand that her life was as important to her as theirs to them and had the same possibilities of adventure and romance; that, with her, to accept the present as the pattern of the future would have been to die.

it is as impossible to pity her as it is to envy her position, because she is so irrepressible. Though she teases everyone, especially her cousin Lilla (and all while pretending to be respectful, and subtle enough to evade retaliation) there is no malice in Miss Mole. There were a few bits which made me laugh out loud, and plenty which made me smile:
"This is a fine old city, Miss Mole," he said, "full of historic associations, and we have one of the finest parish churches in the country - if you are interested in architecture," he added, with a subtle suggestion that this was not likely.

Hannah longed to ask what effect her indifference would have on the building, but Mr. Corder did not wait for reassurance about its safety.

EH Young's strength is in dialogue - when Miss Mole is wittily dissecting other people's words, but in the guise of guileless innocence, Young crafts the exchanges so finely. The prose narrative is good, but sometimes drags a bit, and doesn't have the liveliness which Miss Mole injects into the dialogue. Perhaps this is why EH Young is a very good, but not a great, novelist - however, when it comes to drawing characters, she is really rather brilliant. Miss Mole is a creation of whom Jane Austen would be proud, and I think I'll remember her for some time.

As I said - my first EH Young, but not my last. Thank you, books, for being sturdy enough to last 80 years and allow me the enjoyment of all the wonderful novelists who are neglected by most of the publishing world today! EH Young is surely due a reprint from someone...

Monday, 22 February 2010

Through the Years...

Ok, I'll admit, I got halfway through a review of the latest book I read, and didn't find the energy to finish it... so I thought I'd try a little thing 'Through the Years', which could be fun to try if you've been blogging for a little while.

I've done a 'what was I reading on this date' meme before a few times, but I thought I'd bring blogging into it as well.

I'm going to look back at the posts I've done for a certain date over the past few years. Obviously this will work better post-May, as I started blogging in April 2007, but (to get the ball rolling) here's what February 22nd looked like in the past...

- in 2009, I was reading Making History by Brian Friel, and blogging about the idea of getting recommendations from other bloggers

- in 2008, I was reading Yes Man by Danny Wallace, and blogging about families of writers

- in 2007, I was reading The Philosophy of the Short Story by Brander Matthews

- in 2006, I was reading... nothing, it appears! Gosh, I only read one book in Feburary 2006, and that was a play by Aphra Behn.

- in 2005, I was reading The Collection by Harold Pinter

- in 2004, I was reading The Young Visiters [sic] by Daisy Ashford

- in 2003, I was reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

- in 2002, I was reading The Moody Man by John Milne

Have a go yourself!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

White is for Witching

You may remember that I was feeling all smug and public-service-using the other day, when I got White is for Witching out of the public library - my first public library book for about six years, I'd imagine. I *had* asked for it from Picador, but not heard from them for a few weeks, so off to the library I went... and, when I was halfway through the book, guess what came through the postbox? Thank you, Picador, I now own my very own copy. Sorry, library. But I did go and get another one out - Identity by Milan Kundera. Having decided not to read another Kundera for a while, I realised I was missing his writing, and that he'd written something nice and short...

Anyway. I was very impressed by The Icarus Girl - my first encounter with Helen Oyeyemi - back in August 2008. I was also a little sickened that she wrote it during her A Levels, got another novel out during her time studying at Cambridge, and now seems unstoppable. And then I read Eva's lovely review of White is for Witching, which (a) was very enthusiastic, and (b) mentioned Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle as a point of comparison. Yes, the very same novel which is in my 50 Books You Must Read list. I couldn't not read it, could I?

The novel follows Miranda, from her sixth-form to Cambridge - she has a twin brother [twinlit - check], has pica and thus eats chalk [quirky and original - check], and seems to be in tune with her dead ancestors and her very human house [weird houses - check]. All very Gothic and haunting. I'd love to explain more about the plot, and the characters, but I don't think I can... despite all those 'checks', I was disappointed by White is for Witching. Mostly because I hadn't got a clue what was going on.

I was a bit confused by the ending of The Icarus Girl, but I liked the ambiguity - the climax of Jessamy battling her double - but this seemed to seep through all of White is for Witching. Was this just me? Was it just because I was reading it while a bit tired, and later when I had a headache? Or did the novel give me a headache?

There are various narrators - Eliot, Miranda's twin brother; Ore, her friend and sometime-lover at Cambridge; a third-person narrator; the house; maybe her dead mother? But they were never announced. I was usually halfway through a narrative chunk before I'd identified the person who was speaking. It didn't help that I thought Eliot was a girl and Ore was a boy, when in fact it's the other way round. What I did like was that narratives would blur into each other, connected over a word that they both use, for example:

'I can only explain it in comparison to something mundane - my adjustment to Lily's ghost was sort of like when you're insanely thirsty, but for some reason you can't get the cap on your water bottle to open properly so you tussle at it with your teeth and hands until you can get a trickle of water to come through. A little water at a time, and you're trying to be less thirsty and more patient so that the water can be enough. The thing with having seen Lilly was just like that, a practical inner adjustment to meet a need. At least she is there, I'd thought, even if she is just a ghost and doesn't speak, at least she is
was a bird on the windowsill later in the afternoon. I looked up from Thus Spake Zarathustra and saw it sitting motionless. [etc.]'

But there was a little too much structural experiment for my liking - I love experimental writing, but doing it with the way words are laid out on the page always seems, somehow, like the laziest method.

And there are all sorts of unexplained things - or, at least, things I didn't find explained. The novel opens with Miranda disappearing completely, and tracks back to fin
d out why - which is deliberately not resolved. But what was the bizarre stabbing incident? Why does she not look like her old photographs? Why does she think she is dead? What was that bit about someone being kept in a walk-in closet for years? SO CONFUSED HEAD EXPLODING EYES POPPING OUT OF MY HEAD. Ahem.

I haven't read Oyeyemi's second novel yet, The Opposite House, but I'd be interested to see the progression. For me, White is for Witching took all the elements I really liked in The Icarus Girl, and then went too far with them.

I really wanted to like this novel, and so I'm waiting to be convinced... did I just read it in the wrong frame of mind? Or has Oyeyemi got too experimental for her boots?

Friday, 19 February 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm off for the weekend, to give a talk on Barbara Comyns to the Bidford History Society (argh! nervous!) and visit my brother in Bristol (not nervous...) so I'm typing out a couple of posts to appear whilst I'm away. First off, the Weekend Miscellany - which has a little bit extra this week. Don't worry, we'll still be looking at a book, a blog post, and a link - but before that...

UK Book Bloggers Meet-Up
I wrote about this quite a while ago, when it was in its very early stages of organisation - it's now a little nearer being organised which, let's face it, is as near as I'm likely to get, not being one of nature's organised people. Just ask my family, in whom hope springs eternal.

I don't want to put all the details up here, Just In Case (we don't want the wrong sort of internet-lurker turning up!) but I have booked a venue. We'll be meeting in the function room of a lovely, traditional English pub in
London (which comes recommended by Kim) on Saturday May 8th at 5.30pm. To get involved, give me an email at simondavidthomas [at] . I think everyone who got in touch before has had an email from me - let me know if I've missed you! The room dooes have a restriction of 35 - I shouldn't think we'll have more than that, but just in case, it's first-come first-served... so get emailing!

The book - Thought I'd mention something which came through the postbox this week - Croc Attack! by Assaf Gavron. Sounds like an edgier David Attenborough, doesn't it, but no - the novel is about Eitan Enoch, known as Croc, and his survival of various terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv. He inadvertently becomes a national celebrity, but thus also becomes a target... To be honest, it sounds more violent than my usual choice of book, but is also apparently 'blackly funny' and might appeal to the more politically minded amongst you? In fact, let me know if you fancy reviewing it for this blog and (if you live in the UK), I'll pop it in the post to you...

2.) The blog post - it's always great when bloggers come fresh to my favourite books, so I was delighted to see Thomas at My Porch review EM Delafield's The Diary of a
Provincial Lady; Lisa at BlueStalking Reader write about The Love Child by Edith Olivier, and that Miss Hargreaves has paid a visit to Nicola at Back-to-Books. All are books on my 50 Books list, and though not all the blog posts are from this week, I'll confess, they're recent... that's good enough, isn't it? OH, and see Jenny's review of Lucia in London too. So many great posts!

The link - If you're like me, then the words 'free' and 'book' in the same sentence won't go amiss. That's just what train company First Capital Connect are intending to do, with their own book club - more info here, please excuse the ad agency's rather bizarre logo.

(by the by, anyone who used to use the 'Home...' link in the left-hand column, I've now deleted it - but clicking on the picture in the top left-hand corner will take you back to the main page)

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Not a Bucket in Sight

It's always nice to feel oneself in like-minded company, so I was pleased (and not entirely surprised) to see that a lot of you felt the same way that I do about Catcher in the Rye. I rather think today's book will be more up your street...

Although I read Keeping Up Appearances (1928) by Rose Macaulay back in December (around the time I reviewed Crewe Train) I've recently been using it as part of an essay, so hopefully it'll be fresh in my mind... Those of you familiar with a certain BBC sitcom of the same name may recognise the reference in today's subject title - but while Hyacinth doesn't make an appearance, Macaulay's novel has similar ideas of class and how pretending to be above one's station will only end in complications...

The central characters of the novel are half-sisters Daisy and Daphne, who are worlds apart in character. Daphne is 25, a cultured intellectual who is never put-off by any situations, and moves through high society with ease and grace. Daisy, 30, is plagued by self-doubt and comes from rather commoner stock. Though she tries to engage in the same social circles as Daphne, and is far more snobbish and class-conscious, she has none of Daphne's confidence, bravery, and charm. She also lives in constant fear that her secret life as popular novelist Marjorie Wynne will be unearthed by the highbrows and intellectuals amongst whom she moves. But she realises that this isn't likely, as (when she tests the water) they seem completely unaware of Marjorie Wynne's existence. Macaulay uses these bits to satirise her own position as popular novelist (though one read by middlebrow and highbrow alike, I believe). In fact, throughout Macaulay's writings (including the novel of hers I've recently started, Staying With Relations) she is very teasing of novelists, and quite amusingly so. This, for instance, is in a collection of her essays called A Casual Commentary:
Novels are among the queerest things in a queer world. Chunks out of the imagined life of a set of imagined persons, set down for others to read. For this is what you have to produce if you are a novelist. You will find it quite easy. Anyone can write novels, and most people, at one time or another, do so. One novel is much like another, so you need not worry very much about what kind of novel to write.[…] The great advantage of writing novels is that some people read novels. They are not, on the whole, very clever people, so yours need not be clever novels, and, indeed, had better not be.

I read the Keeping Up Appearances as part of my research about the development of the concept of 'middlebrow', and it is a very interesting look at the interaction of different social strata, especially when it comes to literary circles and their inability to understand each other. It's also a lot about perspective - for example, Daisy considers her role from two different vantages:
Mother’s clever girl, earning her living by writing for the London papers, writing such bright, clever pieces, that people always liked to read. One of those vulgar little journalists who write popular feminine chit-chat in that kind of paper that caters for mob taste. Oh, what matter? She was either, according to her environment. Go to East Sheen, be Mother’s clever girl, petted and admired; go to the newspaper office, be one of the smart young women journalists, writing good live articles; move along Folyots and highbrows, and be as one not realised by nice highbrows, and only recognised by less nice highbrows as a target for unkindly jests.

Though Keeping Up Appearances isn't as funny as Crewe Train, nor quite as
memorable, it does present a clever idea. Because, dear reader, I haven't told you the central concept which surprises the reader and twists the interpretation completely, which comes about halfway through the novel. And I'm not going to, you'll have to read it yourself (carefully avoiding reading the blurb on the inside, if you have my edition - which is that pictured above. I don't know about you, but it reminded me of Picasso's The Three Dancers, left.)

Without giving that away, I can say little more - except that Rose Macaulay deserves a wider audience. Capuchin Classics have recently republished one of her novels, I believe, and perhaps other publishers will take up the baton. But there are plenty of secondhand copies available of Keeping Up Appearances and Crewe Train, and I daresay that libraries will have them - for a funny, clever, and well-written view of 1920s class issues and literary society, you can do no better.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

X is the new Y

My book group has just discussed The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (thanks for lending it to me, Becca) - I don't have enough to say about it to make a whole blog post. Basically it's trying to be Catcher in the Rye for the late'90s - and it more or less succeeds, but is rather less annoying than Catcher in the Rye (does ANYBODY here actually like the book, or did you have to be a disaffected youth in the 1950s? Or stoned?). I'd love to hear from anyone who has read The Perks of Being a Wallflower...

Anyway, the point of this post was my strong feeling that TPoBaW was trying to be an updating of CitR. I do think it's lazy criticism to just compare novels or writers, but I felt that Chbosky was deliberately trying to take on this mantle... do you ever feel like about a book? Other than obvious sequels, of course. Examples, please! Lots to give your feedback to there... c'mon, someone, defend the Great Disaffected American Novel.

Monday, 15 February 2010


Project 24 - #5

I'm really running through them like wildfire now... halfway through March's allowance and we're only just halfway through February. Perhaps the naysayers were right... anyway, enough self-flagellation, you'll want to know what the book is.

My favourite shop in Oxford, Arcadia, is a lovely little place which is great for gifty things. I always buy my greetings cards and wrapping paper there, and to top it all they sell secondhand books. They specialise in Penguin paperbacks, and when I walked past today, they seemed to have even more than usual. Inside there were rows and rows of them, each individually wrapped in cellophane. But it was outside that I spotted Strange Glory by L H Myers. I can't remember where I heard of it, but it was in connection with my research, and I wanted to track down a copy... so when I walked past one, I couldn't leave it there - right?

I should point out how close I came to buying Love by Elizabeth von Arnim yesterday - and I resisted. I'm doing well, honest...

So there it is, no.5. I've not read any of the first four yet, I must confess. Maybe I should see how many of the 24 I've read by the end of the year... but this week I'm going to immerse myself in Rose Macaulay novels.

Anybody heard of/read any L H Myers? And how are fellow Project 24-ers going? (Project Zero people, keep quiet! You'll just make me feel worse.)

Sunday, 14 February 2010

So Good They Named It Twice

A bit of fun to kick off the week, but something which might also have you banging your head against the wall...

The idea is simple. Think of books with titles which repeat the same word, or set of words, exactly. A made up example - Stuck, Stuck by Ina Book. There can be commas or exclamation marks or dashes, but no other words. No 'and', 'with', 'The' - unless, of course, they're repeated as well. I had to strike O, These Men, These Men by Angela Thirkell off my list, once I remembered about that 'O' at the beginning...

I daresay this would be quite easy to cheat at, but that's no fun - see which ones you can remember without having recourse to the internet or your bookshelves (checking suspicions is fine). I've been pondering it for a couple of days, and have come up with ten... In order to allow you to play along, I've put my answers in white text - so you can highlight them and have a look, but only when you've put your answers in the comment box...!

Enjoy, and don't blame me if it drives you a little bit crazy...

Faster! Faster! - EM Delafield
Author, Author - David Lodge
The Sea, The Sea - Iris Murdoch
Lucia, Lucia - Adriana Trigiani
Kiss Kiss - Roald Dahl
Absalom, Absalom! - William Faulkner
Speech! Speech! - Geoffrey Hill
Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett
Red Dog, Red Dog - Patrick Lane
Promises Promises - Adam Phillips

Highlight the text above to see which ones I came up with!

Saturday, 13 February 2010


A quick post with the prize draw for Brixton Beach, which goes to... Ann P!

Congratulations Ann, could you email me your address, please, and I'll get the book in the post to you asap!

Friday, 12 February 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

These weeks do come around quickly, don't they? Hope you're all ready for a fun Valentine's Weekend - that's right, I'm one of those few single people who finds Valentine's Day rather sweet. Not the commercial bit of it, no, but the fact that it makes people take time out to celebrate their relationships. Awww.....

But I haven't availed myself of the opportunity to make this a themed Weekend Miscellany, you'll be pleased to hear. Instead, we have our usual mixture of interesting link, blog post, and book. Here goes...

1.) The blog post - I have my friend Barbara to thank for bringing this to my attention: anyone interested in old Penguin paperbacks should go and check out this lovely post on a blog called Spitalfields Life.

2.) The book - is, sadly, not one which has landed on my doormat. I spotted it mentioned on Claire's (aka The Captive Reader) blog, and - unusually? - it's a great book which is available in the US and not the UK. Well, available in Canada too, presumably, if Claire has a copy - my other deductions come courtesy of Amazon snooping! Enough preamble - the book is A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Gre
at Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen. I confess I was a little dubious - would this be a collection of modern 'great writers' of whom I'd never heard? Or, worse, Danielle Steele informing me that Elinor Dashwood is, essentially, the same as the heroine of her latest novel. But no - this appears to be a collection of essays spanning the years, and the writers in question include Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, W. Somerset Maugham, Fay Weldon, CS Lewis, David Lodge, Harold Bloom, the director of Clueless... and, yes, quite a few people I wouldn't know from Adam - but enough there to make me hanker rather a lot for this collection.

3.) The link - if you ignore the unbookish caption to this video, and close your mind to the destruction of a book or two, then this link is rather fun, and very inventive...

Thursday, 11 February 2010

No One Now Will Know...

Project 24 - #4

Book no.4 has found its way into my house, helped (as with the Richmal Crompton Roofs Off!, Book no.1) by my abebooks 'want' alert. I love EM Delafield (you can read my thoughts about three of her books here) and have amassed quite a collection of her novels - quite a few unread, but nice to know that the store is there for a bit of indulgence now and then, the most recent being Nothing is Safe, which I'll write about before too long. One I didn't have is No One Now Will Know - and, consequently, it is one I *do* now have!

I don't know a lot about the novel, but this wonderful and reliable EMD website says "A decidedly bleak book in which Fred and Lucian (Lucy) both love Rosalie. The title is a quotation from the Irish poem 'The Glens of Antrim" No one now will know, which of them loved her the most". He hasn't actually read this one, if I interpret the asterisk correctly, so perhaps his information comes from Violet Powell's occasionally underwhelming biography The Life of a Provincial Lady. And I can't really imagine that EM Delafield could be completely bleak if she tried - even in her bleakest novels, like Consequences, there are flashes of humour.

So, there you have it - book number four, and one of the most melodic titles I've ever come across.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Brixton Beach

It's not been long since our last giveaway, and A Winter Book is still making its way on a slow boat to Texas - but its time for another!

HarperPress sent me two copies of Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne - one for me, and one to give away. Now, I've not read it yet, but it will soon be featuring on The TV Book Club, and I thought I should get it out to a reader before the programme is on...

So - this one is for UK readers only, I'm afraid, because that's where the programme is shown (and I'm counting my pennies...) so, any Brits, please pop your name in the comments to get a copy! I'll be doing the draw at the weekend, probably. Good luck!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010


A little while ago I mentioned that I was reading Immortality by Milan Kundera for my book group. I can't remember what stage we were at then, whether the mutiny had taken place... well, tomorrow we're meeting to discuss Immortality and/or An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, since people were either unable or unwilling to read one or other of these... so, a compromise, we've done both and can read either! If you're not confused by now, then you're doing better than me. ANYWAY, I have read Immortality - finished this morning - and I hardly know how to respond. It is completely different from anything else I have ever read. That's a bit of a cliche, I daresay, but for this book it's true - because Kundera has more or less reinvented the novel. (This is the only Kundera book I've read - he might have done this before Immortality, maybe I'll wait for Claire to pop by, because I know she's a big Kundera fan.)

It's very postmodern, that's the first thing to say. In that, we get bits of narrative from Kundera's perspective - he mentions his own previous novels, he tells us what he's going to write in later chapters. The novel (I'm going to use the word, even though it's not really a novel... or is it?) opens with him seeing a woman making a gesture - he then names her Agnes and invents a story around her, around that gesture. And then weaves it into a literary, historical intertextuality that darts all over the place, including Rubens, Goethe, Hemingway, Beethoven... So many lives intersect and reflect on each other - the real, the fictional, the metafictional. And yet it isn't formless or baggy - there is a definite feeling of wholeness, a structure - just a very unorthodox one. I haven't read any reviews of Immortality, but I expect all of them mention this excerpt at some point, from the point of view of Milan Kundera-within-the-novel (who may or may not be the same as Milan Kundera the author, let's face it):
I regret that almost all novels ever written are much too obedient to the rules of unity of action. What I mean to say is that at their core is one single chain of causality related acts and events. These novels are like a narrow street along which someone drives his characters with a whip. Dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms everything, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution, in which the meaning of everything that preceded it is concentrated. The novel is consumed in the fire of its own tension like a bale of straw.
I don't blame you if you're rolling your eyes, and reaching out for the nearest Agatha Christie novel - but please don't be put off straight away. I don't know why postmodern stuff is so often annoying (it's less the 'shock of the
new' as the irksome nature of those who want to cause that shock) but, with Kundera, it isn't annoying at all. He completely disrupts the novel form, and throws the reading experience into a whole new category, but it isn't self-indulgent. His writing is so good, he is so very, very perceptive, that it works. It's as I wrote after the first few pages - he notices things about human behaviour, or perceptions of the self, and finds beautiful or unusual images to demonstrate this. Nothing is overwritten, and nothing is carelessly written. There's nothing worse than an author thinking they're being profound, when they are actually writing truisms - I believe Kundera doesn't fall into this trap. (The only trap he does fall into is being rather too obsessed with sex). But, of course, I haven't read any philosophers, so...

Now I look at it, the excerpt I wanted to quote isn't the most original thought in the book - that's because the most original ones are connected to the tiny things individuals do, his perceptions being mostly filmic - like visual leitmotifs running through the book, through different characters and periods. But here's a bit, to give you a small idea:
I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that's alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.

This isn't my normal reading territory at all, and early feedback from my book group suggests some definite disdain for Kundera - but I am fascinated, admiring, and rather captivated... at the same time, it will be a while before I read another book by this author. I'm rather bowled over, and need to keep him to dip into now and then. But Immortality is an amazing achievement - just not one to curl up with in front of the fire.

Monday, 8 February 2010


I set up a LibraryThing account back in September 2005, added ninety or so books to it, and promptly abandoned the whole thing... For some reason, a couple of weeks ago I decided to give it another go. In the interrim I have made card catalogue lists of all my books (very handy for taking to Hay-on-Wye and preventing me buying books I already own) which made putting them on LibraryThing a HECK of a lot easier.

And so here I am. If you've ever wanted to scout through my library, now you have the opportunity - and I even have a sassy widget in the left-hand column which will show you some of the books every four seconds. It's a bit weighted to authors beginning G-Z, because for the A-F authors I was scrupulously choosing the editions I owned, and after that I just chose the ones which had cover pictures included.

To be honest, I'm not sure what else to do with it now - I know that FleurFisher is the person who has the highest percentage of her books in common with me, and it's fun to see how many books I own that nobody else on LibraryThing does, but I don't really see myself having the time to enter into the (doubtless bustling) community. My bookish online community time is already taken up twofold!

But there you are, thought you might be interested. How's about you - are you a LibraryThing user? Or any other online library service?

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Nella Last

30. Nella Last's War

I've mentioned a couple of times on here about Nella Last's War, which I've been reading gradually for a few months. I knew that I was one of the last (no pun intended) to pick this up, but hadn't realised that it was first published back in 1981 - before I was born! So it's taken me my whole life so far, but I'm delighted to have finally come upon this - I'll be very surprised if it doesn't feature in my favourite books of 2010.

For those not in the know (or thought it was Nella's Last War - or, like me, confused Nella Last with Nella Larsen) this diary is taken from a Mass Observation diary compiled by 'Housewife, 49' Nella Last during World War Two. She documents the war from the perspective of a mother in Northern England, with solider-age sons (Cliff and Arthur), living a fairly ordinary life with an ordinary husband in an ordinary neighbourhood.

But this diary is anything but ordinary. Though Nella did not think herself a clever woman, nor believe that she had fulfilled her half-held ambition to be a writer, she has a quite astonishing gift. I've read quite a few diaries and letters and similar, but only Virginia Woolf compares - they both have an intelligent voice, a way of describing everyday events with unusual images or perceptive insights which reveal so much about them. Unlike most people's diaries (certainly unlike mine) there is little repetition, no undue introspection, no references to unknown people who appear and disappear. True, these may have been edited (I don't know how substantially) but had Nella Last intended to write a novel, the structure, and precision in her language, couldn't be bettered.

And of course, the period was not uneventful. I find reading about major events from an individual's perspective so illuminating.

Wednesday night, 5 June, 1940
This morning I lingered over my breakfast, reading and re-reading the accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation. I felt as if deep inside me was a harp that vibrated and sang - like the feeling on a hillside of gorse in the hot bright sun, or seeing suddenly, as you walked through a park, a big bed of clear, thin red poppies in all their brave splendour. I forgot I was a middle-aged woman who often got up tired and who had backache. The story made me feel part of something that was undying and never old - like a flame to light or warm, but strong enough to burn and destroy trash and rubbish. It was a very hot morning and work was slowed a little, but somehow I felt everything to be worthwhile, and I felt glad I was of the same race as the rescuers and rescued.
I could quote so much from this book, but I'm just going to give you another - one of my favourite excerpts, a beautiful passage, all the more beautiful because it is from true experience, and not a honed image from a novel.
Saturday, 6th November, 1943
How swiftly time has flown since the first Armistice. I stood talking to my next-door neighbour, in a garden in the Hampshire cottage where I lived for two years during the last war. I felt so dreadfully weary and ill, for it was only a month before Cliff was born. I admired a lovely bush of yellow roses, which my old neighbour covered each night with an old lace curtain, to try and keep them nice so that I could have them when I was ill. Suddenly, across Southampton water, every ship's siren hooted and bells sounded, and we knew the rumours that had been going round were true - the war was over. I stood before that lovely bush of yellow roses, and a feeling of dread I could not explain shook me. I felt the tears roll down my cheeks, no wild joy, little thankfulness. Oddly enough, Cliff has never liked yellow roses. When he was small, he once said they made him feel funny, and his remark recalled my little Hampshire garden and the first Armistice. Now Cliff is in another war - and we called it the 'war to end all war.'

A year or so ago Nella Last's Peace was published, which carries on her diaries until 1965 - Our Vicar's Wife has a copy, so I'll borrow it from her at some point. I didn't see the TV programme Housewife, 49, based on Nella Last's War, with the rather wonderful Victoria Wood - but apparently it was rather good. Which is only fitting for a book, and a woman, so exceptional as Nella Last. As a diary, it can scarcely be bettered - and as a perspective on the Second World War from the home front, this book is invaluable and should be read for many years to come.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you've all had a good week - doesn't it go quickly? - here we are again with a book, a blog post, and a link to amuse and bedazzle you this weekend. (NB: bedazzlement not guaranteed.)

1.) The book - I've been meaning to read Grace by Alex Pheby for ages, ever since Two Ravens Press sent it to me... and that was quite some while ago. I'm still keen to read it, but it looks like it might not be in the very near future, and I think some of your lovers of quirky literature might quite like this, judging on the blurb. Peterman escapes a secure hospital, and wanders, half-delirious, into a nearby forest. Here he stays with an old woman and a young girl, and an extraordinary relationship develops between them. And so on.... Unreliable narrators, madness, apparently 'luminous, lyrical prose' - could be a winner. Having done a scout around, I see that almost exactly a year ago Lizzy Siddal reviewed Grace and interviewed Alex Pheby... It'll still probably be a while before I get to this book, but I'd love to hear from anyone who has read it, or plans to.

2.) The blog post - I don't usually pick straightforward reviews for this, as usually something a bit different has caught my attention, but I was rather struck by Harriet's review of My Lover's Lover by Maggie O'Farrell - find it here - and thought I'd make a change. I've only read one O'Farrell novel (The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox) but I will probably be spurred on to more now...

3.) The link - isn't remotely literary this week, but if (like me) you can't quite see the point of Twitter, and are quite fond of English eccentricity, then you could do worse than clicking on this link...

Thursday, 4 February 2010

A Game of Hide and Seek

I promised a Virago Modern Classic, and a Virago Modern Classic I will deliver. I've already read a couple Elizabeth Taylor novels, Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (click on the titles if you fancy reading my thoughts on them, but to summarise - they're very good) and Nicola Beauman's biography of Elizabeth Taylor, but there's plenty of way to go - and when my supervisor told me I should take a look at A Game of Hide and Seek, how could I resist?

The 'game' in question is both literal and metaphorical. The novel opens with Harriet and Vesey (query: is this actually a name?) playing a game of hide-and-seek - and this game follows them throughout the rest of their lives... they chase each other, misunderstanding each other's emotions and failing to say the right thing at the right times, and often saying the wrong thing. Vesey goes to Oxford; Harriet remains behind - and marries somebody else. Later, of course, Vesey reappears - and the same old feelings reappear as well.

I didn't really want to write out the plot of A Game of Hide and Seek because, like so many of the best novels, the plot isn't that important. A thousand novelists have written novels with this plot (for another good one, see EM Delafield's Late and Soon) and explored the emotions that such a recrudescence can have. But few of them will have Elizabeth Taylor's talent.

Confession time: I read the first half of this on the bus to and from London, and wasn't very excited about it. I was tired, I had a headache, I was reading the words but not really getting anything out of it. It was only when I returned, busless, to my reading that I understood what an exceptionally well written novel A Game of Hide and Seek was. Taylor excels at the metaphor which is unusual and yet exactly conveys an image. One of my favourites was this:
Harriet tried to put on a polite and considering look. She loved the music, but could not allow herself to enjoy it among strangers. Sunk too far back in her too large chair, she felt helpless, like a beetle turned on its back; and as if she could never rise again, nor find the right phrases of appreciation.

How many authors would think of that image, of a beetle turned on its back? And yet it works so very well. That is, to my mind, what sets Taylor apart from other authors - and makes it hard to explain exactly why - that she writes the sort of novel that many could write, but concentrates so much on avoiding cliche and finding new life in her characters, that she is on another level. Another example? It's always difficult to 'show' good writing, isn't it? But this is a paragraph I highlighted as being representative - the sort of writing which one has to read slowly, to enjoy it fully.
The fog lay close to the windows. The train seemed to be grovelling its way towards London, but the banks on either side were obscured. Harriet wondered if they were passing open fields or the backs of factories, and she cleaned a space on the window with her glove, but all she could see reflected were her own frightened eyes.
You can just tell that every word is carefully chosen, can't you? This is all sounding a bit earnest, so I'm also going to quote my favourite line from the novel, which is often humorous as well as serious:
"The meat has over-excited them," Harriet thought. She had always heard that it inflamed the baser instincts.
Quite so, Elizabeth, quite so.

I won't go over the top, this isn't the best novel I've ever read - but it is some of the best writing that I've read for a while. If you chose novels for their plot, you might not think too much of A Game of Hide and Seek. If you chose novels for their writing style and characterisation, this may well be something you'll love - and admire. Not often that those two can go hand in hand - but Elizabeth Taylor is the woman for the job.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


Hope you enjoyed that, and well done ramblingfancy, who more or less got the right answer - Return of the Native is the odd one out, for reasons which will become clear when you see the books' opening lines...

'Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote' - The Canterbury Tales

'A Saturday afternoon in November[...]' - The Return of the Native

'April is the cruellest month' - The Waste Land

'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen' - Ninety Eighty-Four

Thanks for all your ingenious guesses!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Answer me do

Oh dear, it's another night when I'm feeling too sleepy to write out my planned book review (and it's a Virago Modern Classic... there, that's whetted your appetite).

Instead, I'm going to break all sorts of BBC confidentiality thingummies, and offer a quiz question which I heard whilst seeing Radio 4 programme 'The Write Stuff' being recorded on Sunday. It won't be broadcast for a few weeks, I don't think, so when it's on you can pretend you always knew the answer...

It's an odd-one-out question. They gave characters from these books, and people had to work out what the book was, but I can't remember the character names and I'm skipping that bit. Seeing The Write Stuff made me realise how little I really know about books... but, once they'd got as far as the book titles, I cottoned on to this one. And it's rather nice.

So, without further ado - which is the Odd One Out from this list? And why, of course...
The Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer
The Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
The Waste Land - T S Eliot
Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell

Bonne chance! (And no cheating, now)

Monday, 1 February 2010

Books and Bloggers and Winners

I don't think I've thanked you for all your fascinating comments on my What's In A Name? post - I haven't done much replying there, but I so enjoyed reading your comments. If you haven't had a look yet at the thoughts behind the blog names, do go and have a look at the comments here...

And now, drum roll please, time to announce the winner for The Winter Book by Tove Jansson - my friend Mel stepped in to play the role of bit-of-paper-selector (having excelled in her role as bits-of-paper-folder) - and the winner is....

Congratulations, Susan! Email me your address, and I'll get the book off to you - hope you like it. Susan was also, coincidentally, the first person to put her name in the comments. Just to prove that I wasn't lazy and cheated, here are all the other bits of paper with names on...

In other, rather exciting, news - the good people of The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, North London have set up a great initiative - Bloggers' Book of the Month. They've asked ten bloggers to put forward a book they love every month, with a review, and will have a bookcase of these choice delights to offer the public (and those buying online). And they asked me to be one of the bloggers! See more about it here, including the illustrious company I am in, and the book I have chosen for February. Not unrelated to the beginning of this post, actually... Oh, and even more info here.

I haven't made my list for the year yet, I thought it would be more fun to think them up month by month. We're allowed to choose anything old or new, popular or obscure, so long as it's in print... what a privilege, and I do hope the initiative is a success for them - pop along and see what you think.