Wednesday, 29 September 2010


A quick post today, as I want to curl up in bed with Wait for Me! As part of the Bloggers' Meet-Up, a few of us went around the Ashmolean (which, shamefully, I had not been to for almost six years). I headed straight for the paintings, because I've got to confess I'm not cultured enough to be all that interested in pots and things... but I do love art galleries.

This is probably my favourite painting on display:

I first encountered Stanley Spencer on the cover of Barbara Comyns' novel Who Was Changed and Who was Dead (see that image here), and he is now one of my favourite artists. I love the surreal domesticity he paints - similar to the sort of novels I love, in that respect. Since I know so little about art history, or art really, I can't explain what I love about this image - but I do love it, so thought I'd share it with you!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

One Bad Turn...

A few of you commented on my mention on The Turn of the Screw the other day, and I'm afraid this is confession time. I'm well aware that this almost certainly a case of wrong reader/wrong time, rather than wrong book, but... it didn't work for me at all.

I'd seen the production at Christmas (partly filmed in the graveyard of my church in Somerset, doncha know); I'd seen another production about a decade ago. I'm reading lots of fantasy theory books at the moment, and it keeps being mentioned as a famously ambiguous text. Simon, I said to myself, get over your dislike of Henry James (based entirely on one interminable 'short' story) and get The Turn of the Screw off the shelf.

So I did. The plot is well known. A governess is hired to look after a man's niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, the latter of whom has recently been expelled from school. The uncle puts her in charge, with only one stipulation: he is on no account to be disturbed. But it's the governess who is disturbed - she starts to see mysterious figures wandering the grounds, who don't seem to be seen by any other members of the household. And she learns that the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint, had died under curious circumstances... events come together to convince the governess that the figures she sees are their ghosts, and she suspects the children may not be as unaware and innocent as they seem... Even writing that synopsis, I am intrigued - I'm imagining it in the hands of Shirley Jackson, and am enthralled. I daresay she owes a lot to James. But...

The novella is one of those stories-within-a-story, and is framed by an unnamed narrator reading a manuscript account to a friend. This is just the first of the techniques which put the reader as a distance - the most strident being James' complex style. The tangle of his sentences means that the reader - or at least this reader - clambers along the surface of the text, never dipping below the words on the page to the caverns of images they should produce.
The day was grey enough, but the afternoon light still lingered, and it enabled me, on crossing the threshold, not only to recognise, on a chair near the wide window, then closed, the articles I wanted, but to become aware of a person on the other side of the window and looking straight in. One step into the room had sufficed; my vision was instantaneous; it was all there. The person looking straight in was the person who had already appeared to me. He appeared thus again with I won't say greater distinctness, for that was impossible, but with a nearness that represented a forward stride in our intercourse and made me, as I met him, catch my breath and turn cold. He was the same - he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window, though the dining-room was on the ground-floor, not going down to the terrace on which he stood.
I picked that section more or less at random, but it is actually one of the few moments which actually made an impression on me - but even now, re-reading it, his sentences are so convoluted and intricate that I am barely able to rescue a picture from the effort of disentangling his syntax. It's not because I'm unused to 19th century books - I've read a lot in the past, and quite a few recently. It's definitely James.

Is this all deliberate? Is it worthwhile? Did The Turn of the Screw flounder for me because I was so tired when I read it? I can admire James - I can certainly admire the imagination which structured the ambiguity of the novella's conclusion, but I cannot love or enjoy him. Worse, a lot of the time I can barely understand him. Please, counsel for the defence, step forward and tell me what I'm missing?

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Kindness of Friends

There were quite a few books that I wanted to buy whilst wandering around Oxford with the bloggers on Saturday (and one which I persuaded Becca to buy for herself, in lieu of me buying it) but I shouldn't grumble - because there are four which have arrived chez Stuck-in-a-Book in the past week, courtesy of various friends and family - thanks guys!

--First up is Benny & Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti, from Annabel aka Gaskella, who is having a bookcase clear-out. She described it as a 'bittersweet Swedish romance', and that sold me - I've been wanting to read more Scandinavian novels, and this seems quirky without being disturbing.

--People on a Bridge by Wislawa Szymborska (imagine some sort of slash through the 'l', and put on your best Polish accent, pronunciation here) translated by Adam Czeniawski was the book I won in the bloggers' book swap, from the very nice Peter. He is determined to drag me from my comfort zone, and Polish poetry seems as good a way as any to do that - I am genuinely excited about this one, though!

--The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien was sent to me by my dear friend Epsie (actual name Esther Phoebe), who knows my partiality for Viragos.

--The Bolter by Frances Osborne was sent by Our Vicar's Wife herself, who spotted it in the church bookshop coffee thingummy she runs in our garage (under the name 'Honeypot') and thought it sounded up my street - I have almost bought it many times in the past, so it just goes to show that, if you blog for long enough, people start to get the hint about your taste (heehee!)

Thank you to everyone who has made Project 24 a little easier - all of these look lovely. When I'll read them is anyone's guess... currently slowly, but delightedly, working my way through Wait for Me! by Deborah Devonshire.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Song for a Sunday

Yesterday was the second Book Bloggers' Meet-Up, and it was great fun. I must confess, I was feeling a little discouraged as the day approached, since so many people had to cancel. Not to blame anyone, of course, but you can't help feeling a little discouraged when you organise something and it doesn't go exactly to plan. BUT the eight of us who were able to attend had a great evening, and I really enjoyed it. We'll be trying another Meet-Up in spring sometime, and I'll be handing over to someone else to do the (very simple) organisation - let me know if you want to volunteer!

Oh, and I didn't buy any books - proud of me?

I think I will carry on with this Song for a Sunday idea, as variety is the spice of life and all that. Today's is by one of my favourite singers, Elin Ruth Sigvardsson (also known as Elin Ruth, or Elin Sigvardsson...) with the song Bang. I've chosen it partly because I like the song, but also because I love the story which runs through the video. Enjoy!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Today a few bloggers will be meeting up in Oxford, which should be great fun - not as many as we'd originally hoped, but we shall no doubt have a good, bookish time nonetheless, and will report back in due course. I do hope these Meet-Ups can be semi-regular (maybe every six months) and that as many people as possible can come to future ones! Part of the day includes a little trip around various bookshops and sights in Oxford, so it will strongly test Project 24...

But for now let's have a quick Weekend Miscellany!

1.) The link - is to a really interesting cardboard book project, mentioned on the blog of an equally interesting magazine. The magazine is called Oh Comely, and was set up by a friend of mine (amongst others) aiming to be a woman's magazine without the gossip. That's how she sold it to me, anyway! Click on the link above to see what happens when Jenna Forster had short stories made into individual recycled cardboard books (and I've 'recycled' the photo from them...)

2.) The blog post - is Hannah Stoneham's guest post at The Dabbler, with a review of Barbara Comyns' novel Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. That would be worth reading on its own merits, but it's part of a series at The Dabbler which is a fantastic idea - 1p book reviews. That is, they have a series of reviews of books which are available for a penny at I love that idea, and might well borrow it from them in a future post...

The book - I'm not sure how old the book is, but I only heard about it today (and a review copy is winging its way to me.) It's no secret that I love Frank Baker's novel Miss Hargreaves, and now Paul Newman has written a biography of Baker called Frank Baker: The Man Who Unleashed The Birds. Copies are available here, and hopefully I'll be writing about it before too long.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Books and Books and some more Books

I saw this quite a while ago at Thomas' blog, and thought it looked fun... Do give it a go yourself!

1. Favourite childhood book?

As a child I read little but Enid Blyton - so it was probably one of the St. Clare's books. If we look earlier than that, it'll be one of the Mr. Men books. Still classics...

2. What are you reading right now?
Wait for Me! - Deborah Devonshire
Stories of the Strange and Sinister - Frank Baker
The English - Jeremy Paxman
The Backward Shadow - Lynne Reid Banks
Joy Street - Mirren Barford & Jock Lewis

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
None at the moment....

4. Bad book habit?

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Loitering with Intent - Muriel Spark
Silent Playgrounds - Danuta Reah
If we're counting university libraries, then add another 20 or 30 titles to those...

6. Do you have an e-reader?
I don't, although I had a Sony Reader briefly. They very kindly gave it to me, even when I warned them that I probably wouldn't like it... well, it was better than I thought it would be, but I still gave it to my brother. Making it probably both the most expensive and cheapest gift I've ever given him...

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
See my list of current reads! I always have quite a few on the go.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
Definitely - I read more modern literature, and a far wider range of authors. Although I still have my own defined reading tastes, I'm more likely to sample things suggested by all the bloggers I trust.

9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far?)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if we're counting books I gave up on. Of those I finished, I was nonplussed by Turn of the Screw.

10. Favourite book you’ve read this year?
Nella Last's War. I can't see it being beaten this year.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
Quite often, since most of my book group reads and review books will be outside that zone - and they make up at least half my reading, it seems!

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
Literary fiction without violence, I suppose. It used to be a comfort zone of 1930s domesticity, but this has widened to encompass most literary fiction, especially when it comes with palatable dabs of the surreal.

13. Can you read on the bus?
Thankfully yes, but not cars. Especially when I'm driving.

14. Favourite place to read?
Curled up on my bed. Or sitting in a meadow by a river, if the weather is right.

15. What is your policy on book lending?
I am always surprisingly happy to lend books, even posting them around the world - despite loving books as objects as well as their contents, and immediately forgetting when I've lent someone a book. I would be incredibly easy to steal from.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
Oh, confession time... I did fold down a corner the other day, and felt awful... it was in the talk by F.C. Delius, and I didn't have a pencil to hand, and wanted to mark a page for review purposes. I feel a little better after confessing, but still awful.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
I do this increasingly, though only in pencil.

18. Not even with text books?
I don't think I've had a text book since A Level!

19. What is your favourite language to read in?
English. It's all I've got.

20. What makes you love a book?
Oh gosh! To make me really love a book, I would have to love the use of language, the delineation and interaction of characters, and there would have to be some humour in it, even if only momentary. And I'd have to share some vague sort of ethos with the author - or at least not be at loggerheads with them. But then some books will just knock down all my rules and be loved anyway.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
See above! That's for my blog - I assume my blog readers will be interested in recommendations - in 'real life' I am hesitant to recommend books, unless people ask. I wouldn't ever recommend something to people who say "But, of course, your taste will be too literary" - not because my taste is too literary, but because I know they don't really want any recommendations.

22. Favourite genre?
I don't really read specific genres... unless literary fiction is a genre?

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
Pop-psychology, oddly enough.

24. Favourite biography?
A. A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
No, I think I'm far too English and cynical. Plus I would probably turn to the Bible rather than something dreamed up in the late 90s. (If they do help people, that's fab - but I do wonder....?)

26. Favourite cookbook?
I almost never use cookbooks, because I'm not a very adventurous cook, but I do love Afternoon Teas, a baking cookbook my parents gave me.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
We're going back to Nella Last's War - such an astonishing book.

28. Favourite reading snack?
Bread and cheese - my favourite food anywhere, anytime.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
I've no idea, because I never read what they say! I rarely read newly published books anyway, and those I do tend to go under the radar of professional critics.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I wouldn't do it for a book an author had sent me, or a small publisher. If it's by a famous author, or the author is long dead, then I'm happy to be more critical! I figure that James Joyce probably isn't that bothered by what I think.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?

Something Scandinavian. (This reminds me, I was reading a theory book the other day, and the author faux-modestly wrote "I'm afraid I can only read works in English, Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Scandinavian, so any other books I have had to read in translation." Eurgh.)

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
Almost anything over 400pp.

35. Favourite Poet?
I don't really have one - hideously uncultured when it comes to poetry. My favourite poem is 'The Listeners' by Walter de la Mare, or Psalm 51.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
From the public library? Rarely more than one, and usually none. So many of my own books to read...

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
Since I tend to only take out books I really want, I do end up reading most of 'em.

38. Favourite fictional character?
Do people get bored of me answering Miss Hargreaves (from Miss Hargreaves) for these sorts of questions?

39. Favourite fictional villain?
Hmm... I tend to dislike even the villains we're supposed to love. Oo, actually I do have one - but if I told you who it was, it would spoil the plot of the novel.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on holiday?
I don't really differentiate between holiday-reading and non-holiday-reading, except I use holidays to read exclusively indulgent things (rather than university work or book group choices.)

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
When I'm ill, my eyes are the first things to go - so probably when I had flu; about a week. Horrible, horrible.

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
We Have to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
People told me it got better, but the first fifty pages were so badly written and irritating that I could get no further.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
Does accidentally falling asleep count?

44. Favourite film adaptation of a novel?

That's easy, as it's also my favourite film - The Hours.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
The 2005 Pride and Prejudice - although not that disappointing, since I had very low expectations.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
Erm... £50? Maybe a bit more... in the Bookbarn in Somerset. Not much really, considering that's what each of my driving lessons cost.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
Where is it that someone says "I've done some pretty dreadful things in my time, but I've never skipped to the end of a detective novel"?

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
It doesn't happen very often, but I'd have to be very bored, or repulsed, and just not be able to see any point in continuing.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
Yes, but mostly so my parents can find books to send me when I want them!

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
I beg your pardon? Keep of course! Sometimes I buy books I've borrowed and read, simply so I can own the books I've read.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
I don't really understand...?

52. Name a book that made you angry.
I do get annoyed by literary criticism which lazily assumes that you agree with their atheistic viewpoint.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier.

55. Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
I don't think any reading makes me feel guilty... but my pleasure reading, which I will return to time and again and always adore, is The Provincial Lady series by E. M. Delafield.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Stevenson Under the Palm Trees

Can you believe we're still talking about that weekend of novellas? Plenty of material yet! (And I'm already tentatively planning the next one...) Up today is Stevenson Under the Palm Trees by Alberto Manguel. If the name rings a bell, it might be because he earned his spurs in the blogosphere with the book A Reader on Reading - which is on my list of books to think about buying when Project 24 is over.

But before I heard about that, I'd bought Stevenson Under the Palm Trees in Oxford's £2 shop. It appealed because (a) it was short, and (b) I love novels about writers and playing with their creations, etc. Plus I fancied throwing something a little postmodern and quirky into the mix. This is despite me never having read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson. Not even Treasure Island. Tut tut, Simon. [Edit: I have! I have! I've just remembered I've read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde]

Manguel's novella is about Stevenson's time in Samoa, amongst intense humidity, bright colours, and a place which captivated him without quite accepting him. He is still the white outsider amongst the close-knit Samoans, and hankers after his native Edinburgh. And then... well, here's the opening:
Robert Louis Stevenson left the house and walked the long trek down to the beach just as the day was setting. From the verandah the sea was hidden by the trees, six hundred feet below, filling the end of two vales of forest. To enjoy the last plunge of the sun before the clear darkness set in, the best observation-post was among the mangrove roots, in spite (he said bravely to himself) of the mosquitoes and the sand-flies. He did not immediately notice the figure because it appeared to be merely one more crouching shadow among the shadows, but then it turned and seemed for a moment to be watching him. The man was wearing a broad-rimmed hat not unlike Stevenson's own, and, even though he could see that the skin was white, he could not make out the man's features.

The man is Mr. Baker, a missionary from Scotland, and he remains a shadowy figure throughout. When a young Samoan woman is raped and murdered, things get all the more mysterious. Don't worry - it isn't done in a gory or gratuitous way, more as an interesting catalyst for the rest of the novel - as the reader cannot decide upon Stevenson's culpability or innocence.

Neither, it seems, can Stevenson - for nothing is quite certain or able to be grasped by the reader. Who is Mr. Baker? Is he a creation of Stevenson's; is he somehow Stevenson's double; is he simply the missionary he claims? Identities are complex, dreams and consciousness meld and the Samoan landscape is host to all manner of strange narratives and counter-narratives. Lest this seems completely baffling, I should add that Manguel sensibly keeps the curious and nebulous aspects of the novella to the plot and characters - never spilling over into unnecessarily elaborate style or language. Which is somehow even more disorientating - because, at first glimpse, Stevenson Under the Palm Trees reads as a traditional novella - only gradually does everything get complicated.

As I said, I haven't read any Stevenson - so I wasn't able to appreciate the (apparently) 'playful nod to Stevenson's life and work', including the real life Mr. Baker, but that didn't stop me appreciating Manguel's novella. As an interesting extra level, the book incorporates - at intervals - woodcuts which Stevenson made in Switzerland in 1881. They are very simple, and obviously not the work of a professional woodcut artist, but still heighten the atmosphere and have their own evocative mystery.

For anybody fancying a quick dabble into the world of quirky, quietly postmodern novels, this could be a really interesting place to start - I hope my thoughts haven't made this sound inaccessible or difficult, because it isn't; I'm simply finding it tricky to find the right way to describe this unusual novella. Certainly something different from the rest of my weekend of novellas, and - as much as I enjoyed those - this was a playful, intriguing breath of fresh air.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

I've replied to your comments now!

I feel so ashamed of myself - I've left comments unanswered for so long. Well, I've just spent much of the past four hours replying to the last sixteen posts - so if you were waiting for a reply, you've got one now! This is especially directed at Brigitte and her lovely first comment a while ago, which made my day, and I felt so bad that it hadn't had a reply...


Don't worry, I hadn't forgotten about the giveaway I promised a while ago - I asked people to recommend blogs they didn't think I'd know. Well, you were mostly successful - I'd only heard of two of the blogs mentioned. I've now gone and explored them - and they are lovely! - and I promised a book giveaway to the person who recommended my favourite new blog, AND to the blogger they recommended.

All completely subjective, of course, but *drum roll* please, the winners are...

Sasha (Sasha & the Silverfish)

for recommending

Carina (Book Report)

Congratulations Carina for your wonderful blog! Thank you Sasha for bringing this fab blog to my attention - I'm sure I'll be back often.

You can both choose any book you'd like from those listed so far in my 50 Books You Must Read list over in the right-hand column. (Unless they're somehow unavailable - please note many/most of them are only available secondhand, so I hope that's ok!) Let me know in the comments or by email which one you'd like, and I'll arrn

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Picture Perfect

On Friday I was at The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green (yes, I did pose proudly by my name on the Bloggers' Book of the Month stand) to hear Kim of Reading Matters interview both Friedrich Christian Delius, author of Peirene's latest book Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (2006), and Jamie Bulloch, the translator. Kim did a fantastic job; Herr Delius was very interesting; I confirmed what I already suspected - one year studying German in 1999 did not stand me in good stead when a section was read from the novella.

I've been promising a review for a while, and Meike from Peirene more or less threatened to stop sending me books, and start sending hate mail and letter bombs instead, if I didn't actually make good on my promise. She needn't have worried, because Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is my favourite of Peirene's titles so far, and possibly the most convincing narrative voice I have read for a very long time. I certainly can't think of a man-writing-a-woman or a woman-writing-a-man which has been more believable or evocative.

I'd better kick off my thoughts by mentioning the 'gimmick' behind Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman - that it is all one sentence. All 125pp of it. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned that at all, because if you're anything like me it will make you a bit nervous. Especially if you were forced to read Ulysses in your first year of university, with its 100pp. at the end sans punctuation... and there's that hint of James Joyce in the title of Delius' book (in the English, at least) but wait! Somehow the absence of full stops along the way doesn't hinder the novel or make it difficult to read - rather, it enhances the beautiful flow and, with the structure of paragraphs and clauses, makes it feel a bit like a constant walking pace.

Which is precisely what it is. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman follows a young pregnant woman as she walks through the streets of Rome in January 1943. Indeed, the first line is "Walk, young lady, walk if you want to walk, the child will like it if you walk" - the advice given to the woman by a doctor. She certainly takes up his advice - in terms of plot, there is very little. Instead we follow her path through Rome, sometimes inside her mind and sometimes panning around her instead. It isn't really stream of consciousness or even in the first person, but it is still a novella entirely captivated by the woman's mind and personality. She is kind, perhaps naive, perhaps simply someone with very human and empathetic priorities - 'she prayed to be allowed to bring her child into the world during a night without sirens and without bombs falling on the world'. She misses her husband Gert who is in Africa; she looks towards the future as a wife and mother; she is interested in everything she passes by, without letting her curiosity hold her in one place for too long. The war is not something she feels keenly as an international affair - only where it crosses her path; where it interrupts her happy images of past, present, and future. Which is, I imagine, the most honest portrait of a young German woman's experience of war.

Most beautifully, to my mind, is her perspective as a young Christian woman. I don't know whether or not Delius has Christian faith (I don't like the word 'religious' because it covers so vast a territory, and is a barren, emotionless word) but he certainly knows how to portray the beauty of this woman's faith in its calmness and simple vitality. Especially moving is the conflict she feels between Christianity and her wartime national identity - complicated further, perhaps, by being in Rome.
the Fuhrer himself who, as her father and Gert sometimes cautiously hinted, made the mistake of placing himself above God, or practically allowing himself to be venerated as a god, and so exaggerated the belief in race and the superiority of the German national community,

You are nothing, your people is everything!, that the racial theories contradicted ever more sharply the obligations of humility and brotherly love, and repeatedly gave rise to fresh inner conflicts in young people like her,

without the Church and her devout parents and several courageous preachers she would not have been able to cope with the daily conflict between the cross of the Church and the crooked cross of the swastika

This woman, by the way, is not simply any mother - but is heavily based on Delius' mother. I had a bit of a oh-gosh moment at the talk when I realised that the baby she is carrying, thinking so much about, and planning for, is Delius himself.

As an exploration of a woman's life, this is a beautiful novella - but as an exploration of his mother's life, it somehow becomes even more beautiful. I feel that this might be a novella I will return to in a few years' time, and a few years after that - so much to glean from its pages. Jamie Bulloch is to be strongly commended for his translation - I can't read Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman in its original German, but the English has such a lovely lilt and continual flow to it that I can only assume nothing was lost in translation.

Books to get Stuck into:

Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
: this is the obvious comparison, I think, similarly taking place within one day (though not so short a timescale as Delius' novella). Her journey through London and this woman's through Rome are equally striking.

Stone in a Landslide - Maria Barbal: it might see lazy to mention another Peirene title, but I kept thinking about this novella as another moving account of a woman living through momentous times.

Songs for a Sunday

I've been in London for most of the weekend, from Friday afternoon, so no Weekend Miscellany this week - but I thought I would inaugurate Songs for a Sunday. Of course, there is no reason why shared book taste should lead to shared music taste, and I'm sure it won't for many of you - in which case, ignore the ensuing series! But I thought it would be fun to share a beautiful song on Sundays, being the day I usually don't post anything.

So, if you like folk-pop-alternative-easy listening mostly by female artists (which is how I'm going to rather nebulously describe the songs I'll pick) then you might enjoy the Songs for a Sunday. If you don't like that... then just wait for the next day, when the books come back!

Kicking off is my favourite track from Vienna Teng's Inland Territory - 'Antebellum'.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A-Z of Blogging

I thought the best way to round off a week of appreciating other blogs and neglecting my own (prizes to come, by the way, once I've examined all those new-to-me blogs you recommended - still time to join in if you've got a great one up your sleeve) is to give you an A-Z of blogging delight. Most of these relate to individual blogs, but not quite all... If you've not featured, it's probably owing to difficulties with the alphabet, rather than deficiencies in your blog! If you have the energy, why not have a go at this yourself, and spread the joy?

The rather awesome alphabet come courtesy of Bygg, for more info click here.

is for Annabel
- whose blog Gaskella is friendly, eclectic and geeky in the best sort of way, also shared my first ever blurb mention. More on that below...

is for Bloomsbury Group
- the wonderful series of reprint novels, many of which were initially recommended to Bloomsbury by bloggers. Case in point, one of my all-time favourite novels, and almost certainly the one which gets mentioned here the most -
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker.

is for Captive Reader
- amongst the many and manifold Claires of the blogosphere, Claire can claim 'C' for her name, her blog's name, and her country of residence Canada. Her lovely blog feels like wandering through a meadow in spring, and finding a secondhand bookshop and tearoom serendipitously.

is for Darlene
- and her lovely blog Roses Over A Cottage Door. Darlene chooses her reading wisely, and if there ever was a blogger to award honorary British status to, Darlene is that blogger.
is for Elaine
- as I commented yesterday, Elaine's blog Random Jottings was the first bookish blog I ever read, and my acquaintance with this doyenne of novels and opera has even led to the phrase 'doing an Elaine' - when you first encounter an author and immediately devour all their books.

is for Farm Lane Books
- which is Jackie's blog, and consistently features books I've never heard of - always a delight when it comes to blogging, isn't it?

is for Gatherings
- I love that blogging has spilled over into real life encounters. Whenever I head around the country, I pop in to see various blogging folk - and there's a second mass meet-up on Saturday 25th September (and still room to join us if you're interested!)

is for Hayley
- who writes the blog Desperate Reader, and shares my love of sidelined gems, as well as knowing more about whisky than anyone I know (or should that be whiskey, Hayley?)

is for Illustrations
- I love blogs for the books and words, of course, but I especially appreciate bloggers who go the extra mile and throw in beautiful or creative images. Step forward Claire of Kiss A Cloud and Janice of Janice's Reading Diary (especially if you scroll back to her scrapbook-based entries) - visually at the top of the tree, I'd say.

is for Jodie
- who puts my favourite animal into her blog title, at Geranium Cat's Bookshelf. Once I stop staring at the cat, and whispering "Here, kitty kitty!" under my breath, I'll read the excellent posts...

is for Karen
- the sort of blogger who makes you prepare yourself to say "Oh, of course, I knew Karen before she was famous." Karen - aka Cornflower - writes about a wonderful mix of books, always in a charming, friendly, and generally lovely way - and she is equally lovely in person. AND she hosts a monthly book group on her blog. AND she writes a whole other domestic arts blog - a woman to be admired, indeed.

is for Lyn
- the lady who has most influenced my reading choices, by introducing me to an email discussion list which, in turn, accompanied me through university, and continues to do so. The only Australian blogger I know, you'll still find few more knowledgable about English fiction.
L could equally have been for Librarian, for that is the hat Lyn wears by day.

is for Margaret
- who is the blogger behind Books Please, one of the first blogs I started reading, not least because Margaret started writing hers a mere two days after I started mine. Both still going strong!

is for Novel Insights
- so novel are Polly's insights that I'll forgive her for me accidentally pressing Ctrl N, rather than Ctrl B, and having a new window leap out of nowhere... Polly's reviews are often delightfully enthused, and she is another blogger who is just as nice in person as on the (web)page.

is for Oxfordians
- which is my cunning way of including Becca (Oxford Reaer), Naomi (Bloomsbury Bell), Sophie (Embarrassment of Frivolities), Verity (Cardigan Girl Verity), Kirsty (Other Stories) and Harriet (Harriet Devine) - and me! - under the same heading. Oxfordshire and London seem to be the blogging centres of the UK, which meant I could organise the next meet-up in Oxford and not feel too selfish.

is for Paperback Reader
- since a different Claire had already nabbed 'C'. Claire's blog is another of my absolute favourites with a very identifiable cheery tone. Claire's also one of the bloggers I've met most in real life, and it's always a great pleasure to do so.

is for quilts
- and other similar crafty things... as someone who has two left hands when it comes to crafty activities, I am in constant admiration of the talents which so many bloggers - such as Ruth - bring to the table.

is for Rachel
- known to the world as Book Snob, and one of those blogs I've enjoyed watching deservedly escalate in popularity. Rachel's reviews are always thoughtful and thorough, as well as radiating her warmth and kindness. It doesn't hurt that we love the same sorts of novels - I can usually expect to either agree or anticipate a new delight. Even if we've lost her to New York for the year - look after her, U.S.!

is for Simon
- but in this case, not me! It's for Simon S. - the arrival to the blogosphere of the very witty and incredibly popular Savidge Reads has meant that I'm Simon T rather than just plain old Simon - and there's noone more fun and bookish to have as a namessake. (I have to say that, I'm sleeping at his house this weekend!)

is for Thomas
- who, along with Simon, makes up my name... but is also my other favourite male blogger with his erudite and friendly blog My Porch. As well as sharing his favourite reads, Thomas often puts up beautiful paintings - and has given me a chronic case of Shelf Envy.

is for Unknown Bloggers
- which sounds a bit like 'The Unknown Soldier', but isn't meant to. What I mean is - as you've all shown me with the post earlier this week - the fun of blogging is that there are always unknown wonderful bloggers to encounter, as well as people joining the blogosphere for the first time.

is for Vintage Reads
- this blog is Nicola's fairly occasional, but always delightful, journey through exactly the sort of books I love, showing that vintage need never mean dated.

is for Work in Progress
- another one of the first I ever read, this blog is the work of Danielle, and is dizzying in its depth and breadth, as well as boasting the most thorough list of blog links I've ever seen.

is for eggs (ahem)
- you try thinking of something for X! This is a celebration of the baking side of bookishness. Here at Stuck-in-a-Book we love a cup of tea and piece of cake while reading, and I love baking - even more than that, I love encouraging non-bakers to give it a go, and reading about other people's baking exploits (and, most amusingly, disasters - I'm never shy to share mine!)

is for Young, Angela
- the author of Speaking of Love, one of the first books I was sent to review, the first I was quoted on the back of, and one of myvery favourite modern novels - this superb book represents many of the things I love about blogging, and the opportunities it brings about!

is for Zero to pay
- another rather weak link, I'm afraid, and the astute amongst you will notice that this 'Z' is in fact just the N turned sideways. Apologies... but I just wanted to finish with a celebration of the fact that all the joy we get from blogging and reading blogs is entirely free! Sure, it takes time, but all this fun and it doesn't cost a penny.... not directly, of course, but I doubt I'm the only one who's spent a great deal more on books since he started blogging....

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Another blog question

Thanks for your suggestions on the previous post, do keep them coming - only one suggestion so far that is actually already in my links on this page, so you're doing well (!)
I'm afraid this week has not had much blogging time so far (I was power-reading Villette more or less every spare moment I got, so more on that another day.) As usual when time is scarce, I'm going to put forward a question for your delectation... (and, before that, a completely irrelevant piccie of some books I bought about a year ago... only one of which I've read in that time.)

I've asked about favourite blogs and blogs I might not know about, but I'm interested as to the blog you first read - where did you first find out about blogging and, if you keep your own blog, what made you start?

The first one blog I read was my brother's, but the first specifically bookish blog I read was Elaine's - Random Jottings. A few of us were in a book discussion email list, which has brought the world a dizzying number of bloggers old and new. After about a year, I decided to take a step into the blogging world myself...

Monday, 13 September 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week!

spotted over at Shelf Love that it was Book Blogger Appreciation Week - I hear the cry that "Every week is book blogger appreciation week!" Well, yes, I'm sure you'll agree - we book bloggers are pretty fab people. Stylish, suave, and generally brilliant. (Did I ever tell you about the time I offered to carry a bunch of box lids for a woman with a pram, only to immediately drop them all on the floor? I couldn't work out whether pity or disdain showed more clearly in her eyes.)

But, that aside, it's nice to take a step back every now and then and applaud the work that people put into their blogs. So I'm going to be doing some of that this week (and maybe even finishing writing about some more of those novellas I read, you never know.)

To kick things off, please tell me about a book blog you don't think I'll know, but think I'll like. Obviously I know and love so many, but there must be a hundred times more that I don't know. So... let me know!

And (here's the clever bit) I'll be offering a free book to both the person who suggests the new-to-me blog I like best and the blogger they recommend! (But you can't recommend yourself, I'm afraid, and nab two prizes!!)

Friday, 10 September 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy Weekend, one and all! Colin is coming to visit this weekend, and will be roped into all manner of baking tomorrow, as we prepare for our housewarming on Sunday. Should be fun - but will not conducive to me finishing Villette by next Wednesday. Oh well, fingers are crossed...

The Weekend Mis
cellany is a bit more disorganised this week, as there were so many things I wanted to mention, and I thought I'd forget about them if I decided to wait til next week. They'll all be a bit of a jumble...

Elizabeth Jenkins died this week, aged 104 - she wrote novels and biographies including Cornflower Book Group choice The Tortoise and the Hare. Nicola Beauman (of Persephone Books) wrote her obituary, a link brought to my attention by Lyn.

Hannah Stoneham alerted me to Dorothy, a publishing project. They have a website and a Facebook page, and describe themselves as publishing 'works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women.' The reason I'm excited is that one of their first books (in November) will be a reprint of Barbara Comyns' incredibly good Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead with fantastic cover art by Yelena Bryksenkova. Bad news for me - and good for a lot of you - is that they're based in the US.

3.) Several people alerted me to an interview with Debo Devonshire on Radio 4 this morning - if you happened to miss it, you can listen to the interview here. It's rather wonderful, and has me chomping at the bit to read Wait for Me.

4.) A book that sounds fun is Matthew J. Dick's Pistols for Two - Breakfast for One. Hugo Hammersley is formerly of the HM diplomatic service, and is investgating the murder of a notable British citizen in Italy, and the disappearance of the priceless gold coin he had carried. That's before the Mafia get involved...

5.) Other people who know me well have alerted me to these videos - the first is the latest Ikea advert; the second is the 'Making of' that advert. Ikea and cats are two of my favourite things (along with, of course, brown paper packages tied up with string) so I am naturally besotted.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


It's for times like this that we have the phrase EEKINGTON SQUEAKINGTON!

It arrived today, and once I've finished Villette, there will be no stopping me...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


One of the books which snuck into my novella weekend was in fact (gasp!) not a novella, but a screenplay - I read The Hours by David Hare.

I'm a bit of an addict of The Hours. It's how I first encountered Virginia Woolf. I've seen the film maybe eight or nine times; I have two versions of the soundtrack (one normal; one piano version); I have the piano music. Naturally I've read Michael Cunningham's brilliant novel - twice, in fact. So it was only logical that (at least until they invent some sort of The Hours computer game - fall out of a window for ten points! Throw a cake in the bin for 20!) I should read David Hare's screenplay.

Do you read screenplays? We talked about reading plays a while ago, and quite a few of us did, but not that often. I love reading plays, and although I haven't read many recently, I devoured all of A.A. Milne's many plays back in 2002/3. The Hours, on the other hand, is the first screenplay I've ever read.

I suppose there are a few reasons for this. Chief amongst them is that not many are published. With most films there will be a team of writers, I suppose, and it is only the aficionado who'll have a clue who wrote the screenplay. Think through your favourite films... do you know the writer? (I always find this is a useful comparison when wondering how 16th & 17th century playgoers could be indifferent to the fact that they were witnessing Shakespeare's handiwork.) And of course Hare was a 'name' before he put pen to paper for The Hours.

I did enjoy reading it, but if I didn't love The Hours so much, I doubt I would have. It felt more or less like watching the film again. When reading a play, unless I've recently seen a version of it, I am able to have it enacted in my mind based entirely on the text. With a film - which will almost always only have one definitive version - it is that which plays out in my head. Luckily I am always happy to re-watch The Hours, even mentally... Oh, and the printed version comes with a nice little introduction by Hare, written when only a handful of people had had access to the film.

So... do you ever read screenplays, or is it something which wouldn't cross your mind? Is it a step too far away from literature as we understand it? Do you think a screenplay could stand on its own as literature, away from the film? Even if you never even saw the film? I'd love to hear your thoughts...

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Travelling Light

I still have a small pile of novellas to talk about (I've realised that it doesn't necessarily take any less time to write posts on short books) but I haven't yet written about Tove Jansson's Travelling Light - which has leapt, as I rather assumed it would, onto my list of favourite books this year.

Regular readers of S-i-a-B will know that Tove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, and a new translation of her work (this one by Silvester Mazzarella, with another brilliant introduction by Ali Smith) will get me into the literary equivalent of a tizzy. I have to be in the right mood for reading short stories usually, but when they come from the pen of Tove J, they race to the top of the reading pile. And these were no exception.

Unlike Jansson's best known adult work, The Summer Book, these stories don't share the same sorts of settings and characters. We range from familiar Scandinavian islands to mysterious woods to the cabin of a ship to - most innovatively - an almost post-apocalyptic town. Though the scenarios vary wildly, each is clearly the work of the same writer, for Jansson brings to each and every story a stirring and extraordinary insight in the workings of the human mind and - more especially - the interaction of people. These people often covertly clash with each other, or don't let on everything they are thinking; they feel awkward, distrustful, inadequate. Characters often say things which are disconcerting because they are so unexpected, but also because they are so perceptive and true.
"Anyway, solitary people interest me. There are so many different ways of being solitary."

"I know just what you mean," said X. "I know exactly what you're going to say. Different kinds of solitude. Enforced solitude and voluntary solitude."

"Quite," said Viktoria. "There's no need to go into it further. But when people understand one another without speaking, it can often leave them with very little to talk about, don't you think?"

That comes from 'The Garden of Eden', one of the longest and one of my favourite stories in the collection. The mid-length story is so difficult to get right - it doesn't have the quick impact of a five page story, but also shouldn't meander too much. 'The Garden of Eden' gets it just right in its depiction of Professor Viktoria arriving in a mountain village west of Alicante, and trying to create a truce between two warring women. There are so many layers to the story, none of them overblown, and the whole piece is wonderfully more than the sum of its parts.

But Jansson's insights into human character don't preclude her beautiful descriptions of the natural environment. I was particularly taken with this, from the same story:
At that exact moment the setting sun broke through a gap in the mountain chain and the twilit landscape was instantly transformed and revealed; the trees and the grazing sheep enveloped in a crimson haze, a sudden beautiful vision of biblical mystery and power. Viktoria thought she had never seen anything so lovely. She remembered once a set designer saying, "My job is to paint with light, that's all it is. The right light at the right time." The sun moved quickly on, but before the colours could fade, Viktoria turned and walked slowly back to her house.
I don't really read in a visual way, as it were, but this description really worked for me - and it's typical of the beautiful images that Jansson places congruously alongside the interaction of flawed and interesting characters.

If I had to choose just one story as my favourite, it would be 'The Woman Who Borrowed Memories' - a deliciously, deviously clever story concerning the reunion of two women, and the disunity of their shared recollections. One is vampirically changing and appropriating the other's memories - all shown very subtly, very believably. It represents everything I love about Jansson's 'touch'.

'The Summer Child' is about a disconcerting child visitor, anti-social but not malevolent:
When it came to giving people a bad conscience, he was an expert. Sometimes all he had to do was just look at you with those gloomy, grown-up eyes and you would instantly be reminded of all your failings.
I wonder if Jansson was thinking of her own writing when she wrote those words. The human mind and soul cannot be held up to such close inspection without the reader glancing at their own. But although Jansson exposes so many home truths, entirely without sentimentality, Travelling Light is far from a depressing or distressing collection. Instead, it makes you marvel with fascination, soak in the wonderful prose, and be grateful that there existed someone with so precise, perceptive and unpredictable a view of the world.