Sunday, 31 July 2011

Song for a Sunday

I remember when I first heard Amy Winehouse sing - it was on some Saturday morning music show, and she had yet to release her first album. She sang something from it - I don't remember which song, and at the time I didn't even like the song itself all that much. But her voice. I couldn't believe it was coming out of her - that rich, soulful, jazzy voice. I think it is best shown-off in this beautiful rendition of 'Love is a Losing Game'.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hey folks! Hope you've had a good week. Mine involved making the ridiculous cake below, with my lovely friend Lorna. I'm off on holiday tonight, cat-sitting at home for a week, then off to Shropshire and Wales with my bro for a bit. I was going to have proper posts ready to pop up, and who knows, maybe I still will - but... Well, something will appear, but it might be on a somewhat rationed basis. Still time for a Weekend Miscellany before I board the train, though...

1.) The blog post - is a lovely photo post by Diana, being Part 1 of a multipart series documenting her recent trip to the UK. I'll come into it somewhere towards the end, but the first part is delightful - more general, about her 29 trips to these shores, with a great group of photos taken over the years. I swear, she knows Britain much better than I do.

2.) The link - so, the Man Booker longlist is out. I have read none; I own the Julian Barnes. This is the last time I shall mention anything to do with it...
3.) The book - had gone into a pile to go home: interesting enough to keep, but not to read for a while. It's Let Not The Waves of the Sea by Simon Stephenson, and I kept my review copy from John Murray mostly because I love the cover. And then I read this article from the Guardian, wept over it, and want to read it. Let Not The Waves of the Sea is non-fiction, about Stephenson's relationship with his brother Dominic, who died in the 2004 tsunami. My brother is the most important person in my life, and I love any book which cherishes the importance of siblings - even if this has a terribly tragic element, the blurb writes that it is 'more than a book about what it means to lose a brother: it is a book about what it means to have one in the first place.'

Thursday, 28 July 2011

On Visiting Bookshops

On the topic of personal essay collections, I've just started reading Christopher Morley's
Safety Pins (1925) which I'm loving so far. I'll write about it properly at some point in the dim and distant future, but I simply had to share this essay with you. Any one of us could write something under the title 'On Visiting Bookshops' - perhaps we should? - but here is what Morley had to say (you, like the previous owner of Safety Pins, would probably be tempted to pencil 'Yes' by the first sentence.)

It is a curious thing that so many people only go into a bookshop when they happen to need some particular book. Do they never drop in for a little innocent carouse and refreshment? There are some knightly souls who even go so far as to make their visits to bookshops a kind of chivalrous errantry at large. They go in not because they need any certain volume, but because they feel that there may be some book that needs them. Some wistful, little forgotten sheaf of loveliness, long pining away on an upper shelf - why not ride up, fling her across your charger (or your charge account), and gallop away. Be a little knightly, you booklovers!

The lack of intelligence with which people use bookshops is, one supposes, no more flagrant than the lack of intelligence with which we use all the rest of the machinery of civilisation. In this age, and particularly in this city, we haven't time to be intelligent.

A queer thing about books, if you open your heart to them, is the instant and irresistible way they follow you with their appeal. You know at once, if you are clairvoyant in these matters (libre-voyant, one might say), when you have met your book. You may dally and evade, you may go on about your affairs, but the paragraph of prose your eye fell upon, or the snatch of verses, or perhaps only the spirit and flavour of the volume, more divined than reasonably noted, will follow you. A few lines glimpsed on a page may alter your whole trend of thought for the day, reverse the currents of the mind, change the profile of the city. The other evening, in a subway car, we were reading Walter de la Mare's interesting little essay about Rupert Brooke. His discussion of children, their dreaming ways, their exalted simplicity and absorption, changed the whole tenor of our voyage by some magical chemistry of thought. It was no longer a wild, barbaric struggle with our fellowmen, but a venture of faith and recompense, taking us home to the bedtime of a child.

The moment when one meets a book and knows, beyond shadow of doubt, that that book must be his - not necessarily now, but some time - is among the happiest excitements of the spirit. An indescribable virtue effuses from some books. One can feel the radiations of an honest book long before one sees it, if one has a sensitive pulse for such affairs. Its honour and truth will speak through the advertising. Its mind and heart will cry out even underneath the extravagance of jacket-blurbings. Some shrewd soul, who understands books, remarked some time ago on the editorial page of the Sun's book review that no superlative on a jacket had ever done the book an atom of good. He was right, as far as the true bookster is concerned. We choose our dinner not by the wrappers, but by the veining and gristle of the meat within. The other day, prowling about a bookshop, we came upon two paper-bound copies of a little book of poems by Alice Meynell. They had been there for at least two years. We had seen them before, a year or more ago, but had not looked into them, fearing to be tempted. This time we ventured. We came upon two poems - 'To O, Of Her Dark Eyes,' and 'A Wind of Clear Weather in England.' The book was ours - or rather, we were its, though we did not yield at once. We came back the next day and got it. We are still wondering how a book like that could stay in the shop so long. Once we had it, the day was different. The sky was sluiced with a clearer blue, air and sunlight blended for a keener intake of the lungs, faces seen along the street moved us with a livelier shock of interest and surprise. The wind that moved over Sussex and blew Mrs. Meynell's heart into her lines was still flowing across the ribs and ledges of our distant scene.

There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love, and like that colossal adventure it is an experience of great social import. Even as the tranced swain, the booklover yearns to tell others of his bliss. He writes letters about it, adds it to the postscript of all manner of communications, intrudes it into telephone messages, and insists on his friends writing down the title of the find. Like the simple-hearted betrothed, once certain of his conquest, 'I want you to love her, too!' It is a jealous passion also. He feels a little indignant if he finds that anyone else has discovered the book also. He sees an enthusiastic review - very likely in The New Republic - and says, with great scorn, 'I read the book three months ago.' There are even some perversions of passion by which a booklover loses much of his affection for his pet if he sees it too highly commended by some rival critic.

This sharp ecstasy of discovering books for one's self is not always widespread. There are many who, for one reason or another, prefer to have their books found out for them. But for the complete zealot nothing transcends the zest of pioneering for himself. And therefore working for a publisher is, to a certain type of mind, a never-failing fascination. As H.M. Tomlinson says in Old Junk, that fascinating collection of sensitive and beautifully poised sketches which came to us recently with a shock of thrilling delight:
To come upon a craft rigged so, though at her moorings and with sails furled, her slender poles upspringing from the bright plane of a brimming harbour, is to me as rare and sensational a delight as the re-discovery, when idling with a book, of a favourite lyric.
To read just that passage, and the phrase the bright plane of a brimming harbour, is one of those 'rare and sensational delights' that set the mind moving on lovely journeys of its own, and mark off visits to the bookshop not as casual errands of reason, but as necessary acts of devotion. We visit bookshops not so often to buy any one special book, but rather to re-discover, in the happier and more expressive words of others, our own encumbered soul.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Large and Small

Here's a bit of personal trivia for you - the first new book that I ever bought on impulse was Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris. I was about 17, and didn't buy new books very often (and I still don't, actually - probably 95% of the books I buy are secondhand) but I had a book token, and this one called out to me. It's a wonderful, slim volume packed with delightful essays about books and reading - and, in fact, it's in my ongoing 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Heard About.

It took me another seven years to get around to read At Large and At Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist (2007) which my friend Clare got me for my 25th birthday last year. Part of me was worried that I wouldn't love it as much, and Ex Libris had been such an eye-opener, in terms of making me realise that my bibliophilia didn't make me strange. Or perhaps it did, but at least I wasn't the only one! It was a step towards the wonder that is knowing fellow book bloggers.

Well, despite 'Literary' being in Fadiman's subtitle, she has widened her net, rather. It does cover all manner of things - 'The title is meant to suggest that my interests are presbyopic ("at large") but my focus is myopic ("at small").' Fadiman's writing is still wonderful - utterly engaging, and personal without being cloying or unduly emotional. She is, indeed, championing the personal essay - a form that has very few authors practising it at the moment. That's not quite true. I suppose you could say that lots of bloggers write occasional personal essays, although for the most part we tend towards the 'review' end of the spectrum, which is quite a different thing. Some bloggers are absolutely brilliant at the personal essay type post (of course, we're all thinking about lovely Rachel - I can't say how often people say to me, when the topic of blogs comes up, "Oh, the one I really love is..." and they always say Book Snob. Quite right, too. I'm delighted to have been a small part of her genesis!)

Back to Fadiman. She really has spread her net wide - with the inevitable result that some of the essays will appeal, and some will not. Whereas all book lovers will probably also love Ex Libris, with its various chapters on different facets of reading, there aren't really any essays in At Large and At Small which are guaranteed to delight all. Topics like post (sorry, mail), ice cream, and coffee are all general enough to be very entertaining to even those who avoid dairy, caffeine, and, er, ink. I can't stand coffee, but I still found her ode to its joys incredibly fun to read - and Fadiman has a way of engaging the reader which classes her amongst the best of her art form. Here is the opening paragraph of the essay on coffee; I defy you not to be beguiled:
When I was a sophomore in college, I drank coffee nearly every evening with my friends Peter and Alex. Even though the coffee was canned; even though the milk was stolen from the dining hall and refrigerated on the windowsill of my friends' dormitory room, where it was diluted by snow and adulterated by soot; even though Alex's scuzzy one-burner hot plate looked as if it might electrocute us at any moment; and even though we washed our batterie de cuisine in the bathroom sink and let it air-dry on a pile of paper towels next to the toiler - even though Dunster F-13 was, in short, not exactly Escoffier's kitchen, we considered our nightly coffee tirual [EDIT: oops, I mean 'ritual', but I love the new word 'tirual'!] the very acme and pitch of elegance. And I think that in many ways we were right.

I think the reason these sorts of essays work is that Anne and her friends and family are the main focus - or at least a point to which all the tangents are tethered. However, any reader of At Large and At Small, I suspect, will find some of the collection uninspiring. The first essay, on moths and suchlike, was not an auspicious beginning for me. I ended up skimming through the chapter on arctic explorers. And yet I was enthralled by what she wrote on Charles Lamb - an essay I can imagine others would hurry through with the same speed that I dismissed Vilhjalmur Stefansson.

It would be impossible to give you a proper taste of every chapter without making this post enormous, and it would spoil the surprise of reading them. So, I intend to give a warning - Anne Fadiman gives this collection the subtitle 'Confessions of a Literary Hedonist', but it is not that. A love of the literary will not carry you through every essay in At Large and At Small. This book is the Confessions of a Polymath, and it is more than likely that Fadiman will leave you cold with some of the essays. She will, however, delight you with others. And so few people write this sort of book this well, that I think it deserves a place on your bookshelf (and mine) for the half or three-quarters of it that you will (and I did) love.

Monday, 25 July 2011

A Day Out with Diana

I mentioned the other day that Diana Birchall was coming to Oxford, and of course I wanted to meet up with her. We met on her previous visit to the UK (the current one is her 29th, I believe) and had a fun, fairly speedy chat with her. This time I was determined it would be a little longer.

I hoped I'd be able to attend a talk Diana was giving to various writers groups in Oxford, on her (utterly fascinating) career as a story analyst for a major Hollywood studio, as well as her grandmother Winnifred Eaton/Onoto Watanna's life. And, indeed, it turned out that I could - a rapt audience heard Diana's wonderful talk, and asked many questions.

But this was only Part A of my time with Diana. When we'd been emailing arrangements, Diana had said that she would love to see me on Saturday, but wouldn't be able to see me on Sunday. I railed and stormed, protested and raged - all behind a computer monitor, of course - and *insisted* that she come with me to Jane's Teas. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Diana would love it. Well, with that sort of storming, what could she do but capitulate?

If you haven't heard of Jane's Teas before, have a look at my first blog post about it - and the amusing story behind how we found it.

And Diana loved it, of course. She very kindly treated me and my housemate Debs to scones (for Debs) and the most delicious caramel and date cake (for me) - and herself had an enticing fish 'smokie'. And if this generosity weren't enough, Diana sent us home with some gorgeous-looking honey, and copies of her books about Winnfred Eaton and Emma's Mrs. Elton. Looking forward to them!

Such a wonderful place, and such a wonderful day out. The weather was beautiful, the cake was delicious, the company was literary and fun. A lovely Sunday! How was yours?

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Song for a Sunday

A successful, productive day with my thesis yesterday - so let's celebrate with a cheerful, upbeat song. Step forward 'Something in the Water' by Brooke Fraser. It's a fun video too. Happy Sunday!

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, everyone. My week has included maximising the number of books I can fit in the shelf above my bed - which calls for horizontal shelving, rather than vertical (see below). My Saturday won't be very weekendy, as I'll be heading into the library to try and meet my chapter deadline next week - but Sunday has several fun events planned, one in particular I'm looking forward to - Diana Birchall will be visiting Oxford!

It seems to have been quite a while since I did a Weekend Miscellany - has it? - but I'm ready and waiting for a book, a blog post, and a link.

1.) The link - I found the idea behind this article fascinating, even if I haven't read many of the books mentioned: it's authors famous for the 'wrong' book. I.e. they've written better ones than the one which everyone knows about. I'm going to mu
ll this over, and probably come up with a blog post myself about it... (Oh, and I can't remember who pointed me in the direction of this article, but I suspect it was someone on Twitter in one of my brief sojourns there. Thanks!)

2.) The blog posts - are a wonderful series, recommended to me by a fellow blogger at the TV Book Club outing, of Weird Things That Customers Say in Bookshops. That link should take you to all the posts the blogger, Jen Campbell, has labelled in this series, although you may need to scroll down a bit to get to one of the listy-posts. They're HILARIOUS.

3.) The book - and if you can't wait til Jen's book of these gets published, there's always this one to hunt out: Bookworm Droppings (awful title, but fun contents) by Shaun Tyas. (Sample: "Do you have Anne of Clark Gables?") Basically it's the same idea as Jen's proposed book... still, a good idea is a good idea. You can get it for 1p plus p&p on at the mo!

Friday, 22 July 2011

People Who Say Goodbye

Continuing something of a theme, tonight I'll be writing about P.Y. Betts' People Who Say Goodbye, no.13 in the Slightly Foxed Editions series, and kindly sent to me by the lovely people at Slightly Foxed. This series of reprints seems to be mostly - perhaps wholly? - devoted to memoirs, and limited editions of 2000 of each are printed. Indeed, some have sold out completely, and others have fewer than a hundred copies left - and they are so beautiful that I at least now have a hunger to own the lot.
People Who Say Goodbye was originally published in 1989 by Souvenir Press, when I was three and the author was eighty - and looks back over the first couple of those eight decades, giving a rich and quirky vision of her childhood. Slightly Foxed Editions republished it earlier this year. Betts was apparently a successful writer in the 1930s, contributing to Graham Greene's 'prestigious but short-lived magazine Night and Day', according to Hazel Wood in her preface. It is perhaps odd that she should return to the literary world fifty years later with a childhood memoir, but I'm very glad that she did - for no other justification need be given for her expecting the reading public to care about her childhood than that she has written about it in an entirely engaging, amusing, and refreshingly unmournful and unsentimental manner.

Phyllis Betts' childhood in Wandsworth, South London is essentially an ordinary one - made historically extraordinary by having been lived through World War One. One of the most touching and amusing moments in this memoir comes after the war, when Phyllis and a friend are given a bag of sugar - long scarce - and head off to the woods to eat it, laughing hysterically after they have done so. It is moments like this which punctuate People Who Say Goodbye - keenly remembered moments of childhood which are not earth-shattering, but are a delight to read.

Phyllis Betts' parents are a little unconventional, ignoring protocol and society a lot of the time (Phyllis had to attend a new school in her old gym uniform, for instance, since her mother couldn't see the economic sense in changing it simply to fit in) and she has a wide range of relatives who shuttle on and off the page at various junctures.

But the 'plot', if one can have a plot in a memoir, is not what appeals - it is Betts' voice throughout. If she reminded me of anyone, it was Barbara Comyns. No writer I've encountered understands the child's perspective as well as Comyns did - with all its unpredictability, callousness, and odd humour. Well, Betts' is a close second, remembering her own childhood and childlike voice so perfectly (one assumes) that this never feels as though it were written by an eighty year-old. Not that it is written with childish naivety and ignorance, as Emma Smith's excellent memoir The Great Western Beach was - rather we see the world through a child's surreal vantage, without forfeiting the knowledge and perspective of adulthood. It's difficult to define, but it certainly works wonderfully well. To show you what I mean, especially in terms of the Comyns connection, I'd better just give a few examples... here are three from various points of the books:

'People like to hear about other people going mad. It sort of cheers them up that it is not yet Madday for them.'

* * *

'She was a dedicated Fabian and looked the part, with her serious grey eyes, wide intellectual forehead and her air of a pained saint always looking for the good in people and not finding much.'

* * *

Brattle Place was not, of course, the only place that I had been to for holidays. By the time I was six I had been to a number of different places and, by a coincidence that struck me as marvellous, they all began with a B: Broadstairs, Bournemouth, Brattle Place, Barton, Bagnor and Bexhill. For ages I had known the alphabet with its twenty-six letters, and as the tally of holiday places mounted, all beginning with B, the same as our surname, my sense of wonder increased. There were plenty of other places where people went for holidays, no farther away - Eastbourne, Ramsgate, Hastings, Torquay - yet all the places we went to began with B. The improbability of the thing hinted at the intellectual beauty of mathematics and engrossed me with a sense of the marvellous.

Betts often throws out all sorts of tid-bits which make me want to know more, and then sidles away from them with the insouciance of any raconteur who knows how to keep the audience wanting more, rather than bored by detail. She mentions the Isle of Wight - where, she had heard, 'you could never be more than four miles from the sea, yet in the paper recently there had been a bit about an old lady, well into her eighties, who had lived on the island all her life but had never set eyes on the sea.' Is this true? Why? How could anybody not be filled with curiosity at this! More personally to Betts is the question of her brother. Early in the novel she declares that she will barely write about her brother, since he wouldn't want to be included (how like Barbara Comyns, who did the same with one of her sisters in Sisters By A River) and she is true to her word. Only occasionally is he mentioned, and she quietly says at one point that he 'grew away from her'. How terribly, terribly sad - but left barely spoken, on the page. Betts gives the most extraordinary details and memories all over the place - the minutiae that children notice and remember - but in a strange way she is also reticent.

There is plenty to laugh at in the book, which, although it couldn't be called a comic memoir, certainly makes use of humour along the way. One of the moments I'm sure I'll remember involved Phyllis' desperate hunt to find gifts for her relatives, invariably without success or receiving gratitude:

"... and she gave me a china dog," exclaimed Aunt Ada in bitterness to my mother... "a china dog not fit to put in a servant's bedroom".

This remark, repeated at home by my injured mother, became a family catchphrase. Anything disliked or rejected, be it a pair of scuffed tennis shoes, a note sung flat, or a lump of unchewable gristle, was thereafter described as being 'not fit to put in a servant's bedroom'.

Isn't that lovely? Family catchphrases are always enchanting to share (ours include such strange things as 'it's always the nose', 'HEAVY BOOTS', and the mouthful 'not as nice as you possibly could be if you tried your very hardest) although it is difficult to write much about them without leaving the reader feeling left out - it is one of Betts' merits that the reader feels rather part of the family, or at least an accepted guest.

Lurking behind this unsentimental, energetic childhood memoir is, however, a sadness - the inevitable sadness of nostalgia, perhaps. Towards the end of People Who Say Goodbye, Betts includes a conversation which explains the title. She is talking to Clement, an unconventional boy with whom she has struck up a friendship. He is the first to speak in this excerpt:
"Will you be coming back to see us?"

"I shouldn't think so. In a way I should like to but the way things are I don't expect I shall."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I've seen that people who come to say goodbye usually don't come back."

"When did you begin to notice this?"

"It came on gradually, from when I was about five right up to now. It's true, you know."

"You were young to notice that that is how things are."

"Fairly young, I suppose, yes."

"Do you remember the people who don't come back?"

"Yes. I remember them all."

"Will you remember me?"

"Of course I shall. If I live to be eighty I shall still remember you here playing the piano - playing 'The Dance of the Blessed Spirits.'."

It is probably a fanciful recollection of eighty-year old Phyllis which puts the age 'eighty' into the mouth of the child Phyllis - but that doesn't affect the sadness of this belief, created in the maelstrom of war with the soldiers who came to say goodbye and never returned.

I don't think I'd have chosen quite such a sombre title for the memoir. These people, who say goodbye, are certainly present in the book - but there is so much more. Who knows what happened to most of the figures in the book. I don't even know what happened to Betts after she became an adult - there is no mention in the memoir, as though childhood were hermetically sealed, revisited now without any acknowledged link to what happened afterwards. And that is what comes most to the fore of People Who Say Goodbye - not the people who say goodbye, but the person to whom it was said. Betts' memoir is not only a very honest and perceptive book about childhood, it is honest and perceptive about a real individual child - a much rarer quality.

I am indebted to Slightly Foxed for sending me a copy, and Lyn for telling me about it in the first place. Click on her name there to go over to the wonderful review she wrote in May. And then go and get a copy of this wonderful little book!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Slightly Foxed Archive

The lovely folk at
Slightly Foxed have asked me if I'd like to join in with their new project, 'Taste of Slightly Foxed' - every month they publish a newsletter, including a piece from their archives of Slightly Foxed journals, and they asked if I fancied posting the pieces on here as well. Stuck-in-a-Book readers are prime audience for Slightly Foxed, really - we do tend to prefer the under-the-radar gems from previous decades, don't we? - so I keenly agreed to post the Tastes. And here is the newsletter too, so enjoy that as well! And, do you know what... there will be even MORE in a Slightly Foxed vein tomorrow, when I review one of the books they publish - and it's a good'un.

This month’s taste of Slightly Foxed is A.F. Harrold on the novels of Iris Murdoch, chosen to celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Iris’s birth. Here’s to you, Iris, and happy reading to you all.

Some years ago a couple of friends were running a speed-dating event at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and, being short of male participants and knowing I was performing at the festival that weekend, they asked if I could help out. And so it was that I found myself meeting twenty women, sequentially, for very short periods of time, wearing nothing (as it were) but a name tag. It was, naturally, almost as bad as it sounds.

Because it was a literature festival, however, our name tags didn’t sport our own names. Instead they carried the title of a favourite book or author or character, and that evening I wore ‘Iris Murdoch’ on my lapel – the consequence of which was that every time I changed tables I was greeted by one of two opening gambits. On the one hand, the words ‘The Sea, The Sea’ might be said (an acknowledgement of her Booker-winning novel of 1978), usually followed by the phrase, ‘I’ve not read it’; or, on the other, I would be encouraged to agree that Jim Broadbent is a really superb actor, especially (and relevantly) in the film Iris. It’s not wholly unusual for an author to be remembered for such things but it seems a bit of a shame, as does a third response, voiced by many of my speed-daters: ‘I’ve always found her rather impenetrable.’

Perhaps Iris Murdoch is often seen as off-putting because she began her career as a philosopher (as a student she arrived at Cambridge just after Wittgenstein had left but fell under his spell nevertheless – the first line of her novel Nuns and Soldiers is simply his name, spoken by a dying man) and she both lectured in and published books on the subject (hers was the first English monograph about Sartre, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist). Her books, even the thinnest of them, inhabit a world alive with philosophical thinking – her characters are people in search of meaning and understanding, on the deepest levels. In short, they worry a lot.

But what sometimes isn’t mentioned is that all her books are rollicking love stories. Her characters fall in and out of love violently, passionately, desperately and despairingly, often with the wrong people, often when they’re already involved elsewhere, often inopportunely. If they wore bodices they would be ripped. And it’s these two poles that make her books entirely their own creatures – stories of intellectuals having affairs with one another and worrying about the nature of The Good. And they’re funny, too. And heartbreaking. They’re like grandiose Shakespearean tragedies and comedies with added vigour and philosophy. Take the plot of The Sea, The Sea. It’s told in the first person by a retired theatre director, Charles Arrowby, who moves to a remote cottage on an unnamed stretch of coast. He’s busy living a life of solitude and simplicity – a break from his London life, an escape from his friends – when he meets a woman in the local small town. She turns out to have been the love of his life, whom he last saw forty years ago. They have both grown old, but in his deluded loins the fires are relit. She is married; he stalks her, abducts her. All sorts of complicated, embarrassing and frankly frightening (and occasionally supernatural) things happen and eventually she is lost to him again.

So much for the plot. We only have the report by Arrowby himself however, and as a storyteller he is astonishingly self-centred, self-important and clearly somewhat deluded. One wonders exactly how far the unreliability of his unreliable narration extends. What would this story of obsessive, destructive, unrequited love of one pensioner for another look like from the outside?

The Black Prince, an earlier first-person novel, actually has four additional postscripts written by characters other than the narrator – each of whom shares their view of the narrator, each of whom puts themselves at the centre, as the real undeclared love interest of the story. Maybe that’s an accurate and natural way of seeing things, to assume such a central importance (it’s certainly very funny to read), but in The Sea, The Sea, Arrowby goes wonderfully above and beyond, entirely unable to imagine any other point of view.

This is where the sumptuous pleasure of Iris Murdoch’s prose comes into its own. It’s the sort of prose that delights in its own fecundity, that believes in richness rather than sparseness, that was learned from Proust rather than Hemingway. She piles detail upon detail, without ever losing, for one second, her grip on the story. Granted, pages may go by as she details a dinner party and the involved irrelevant thoughts of the diners, but it all ties in (sometimes only on a second reading, but these books are jigsaws without any missing pieces).

Her writing is sometimes criticized for its superfluity of adjectives, an over-richness on the lectorial palate. Indeed, when the paperback rights reverted from Penguin to Random House at the turn of the century, and the novels were reissued with introductions, Candia McWilliam mentioned this while discussing The Black Prince: ‘As quite a young child . . . I heard an adult say that she wished “Iris Murdoch would not write her adjectives in threes”. So I watched for this habit . . . and it is true, she favours a triplet. Occasionally there are bravura groups of four or five adjectives . . . “She was looking at me in the cool north indigo duskiness of her room with such a humble pleading diffident rueful tender look on her face”.’ She goes on to suggest that these idiosyncrasies aren’t there to impress, but rather to soothe the reader – as if to suggest her art has the truthfulness and virtue of not being ‘over-mediated’.

Another common feature of Iris’s writing that might annoy is the habit of her characters to eat. Of course, characters in other writers’ books also eat, but not often in such combinations and detail. This reaches, perhaps, its apogee in the The Sea, The Sea, in Charles Arrowby’s meticulous and didactic diary entries:

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with taste, I have brought a supply from London.) . . . Then bananas and cream with white sugar. (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin.) Then hard water biscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheeses are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest ‘cellar’. I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly) and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading.

This passage ends: ‘How fortunate we are to be food consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.’ You get the sense that Iris herself is speaking in this last pair of sentences, and who am I to argue?

Other objections? It is said that her characters live their lives in closed circles outside the real world. No one ever seems to own a television, go to the cinema or read a paper – in fact news events never seem to intrude, there is no topicality; if they have jobs then they’re usually civil servants who never appear to go to the office. There is a lot of truth in these comments (a lot of untruth too, of course). Her characters aren’t always connected to the real world, aren’t always anchored in a recognizable time (although they’re ‘contemporary’, precise years are generally unpindownable), but they’re Shakespearean in that way. The real world, the one outside the closed walls of these circles, or these strange closed-away communities (in The Sea, The Sea it’s an isolated cottage outside an unnamed village, in The Bell it’s actually a nunnery), has nothing to do with the story and so is unnecessary. This is what love does – it drives away all other concerns. Her novels often dwell in that middle section of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where all is magic and bewildering and love.

But when they do touch the earth, there’s one character that recurs time and again, and that is the city of London. Murdoch really is a London novelist. Her first novel, Under the Net, was a philosophico-picaresque romp around post-war London, through bomb sites, pubs and a midnight swim in the Thames. Her penultimate novel, The Green Knight, includes a detailed, breathless, desperate chase scene (following Anax, a runaway dog) in which streets and parks and details whizz past like the A–Z.

And dogs! That dog, Anax, gets a lot of attention and is a major driver of the plot. In Nuns and Soldiers, Barkiss, the pub dog, is missing for the whole novel, only to return on the final page. In The Philosopher’s Pupil the dog is called Zed, and there is a scene in that book in which some piece of information is revealed to an assembled crowd: ‘The silence continued, ringing now with echoes of what William had said, and each person present promised himself some amendment of life. Brian thought, what a skunk I am . . . Gabriel thought, dear, dear William . . .’, and so on for ten more characters, until, ‘What Zed thought is not known, but as his nature was composed almost entirely of love, he may be imagined to have felt an increase of being.’ To anyone who has known or owned a dog, that description must be ideal.

That passage is also one of the funniest – a hugely tangled web of concerns, intrigues and blind alleys all tied up together, with people worrying too much: Murdoch-esque and knowingly so. She’s funny in the same way as Leonard Cohen – they’re both aware of the dark corners of being human, and of their own reputations, and they know the only rational response is to explore the depths and smile while you do it.

In Nuns and Soldiers the character Anne Cavidge, a defrocked nun, has started reading novels: ‘Anne read with continued amazement. What an extraordinary art form it was, it told you about everything! How informative, how exciting, how funny, how terribly sentimental, how full of moral judgements!’ How true, I’d add! Even at their most fantastical, most unlikely and bizarre – when characters are being obtuse and irrational – Murdoch’s novels are desperately true and beautiful.

But I couldn’t say all this in the four minutes I had to share with each of those women in Cheltenham and so I left empty-handed, except for my name-badge which had declared me to be Iris Murdoch, for just one night.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A Grand Day Out

Thanks to the lovely people at Specsavers, and the media company they use (MEC) really does provide some charming folk, I spent yesterday travelling up to London and watching two episodes of The TV Book Club being recorded. I'd seen one recorded in the last series, which was great fun and involved meeting Jo Brand, whom I love - this time we didn't get to chat to the presenters, because other people had priority, but I'll get onto them in a moment.

So, I arrived at Kennington tube station and whipped out my (not-so)smart phone... but Google Maps wasn't working, for some reason... and I had to try to remember the route I'd taken last time. In my family, Mum and Dad seem to have navigation as their sixth sense, and look pityingly upon me and my brother... who very much don't. We're both pretty good at getting lost (one day I'll tell you about East Chinnock's Circular Path of Ineluctability, but not today) - however, today I managed to find my way, all by myself! True, this involved turning left, walking, turning right, walking... and I'm there. But think how many times I chose not to turn left or turn right? Several, that's how many.

I arrived, and immediately spotted Keith, whom I had the pleasure of meeting last time. It was also lovely to meet Martin and Lyndsay. Clicking on their names should take you to their blogs...

But we weren't the only special guests. The lovely ladies of Elm Park Reading Group had won a competition to come and see the episodes being recorded, and it was very nice to have a quick chat with them. Here are five of their group, with lovely smiles...

I'm especially hoping that Irene (second from left) will find her way here, as we turned out to have nearly identical reading tastes - bonding over Elizabeth von Arnim, Katherine Mansfield, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Barbara Pym, Diary of a Nobody... but Irene likes Catcher in the Rye, and I don't(!) Irene - you will love E.M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady, promise. Now I want to go and pay a visit to the Elm Park Reading Group! Are men allowed?

Onto the episodes. The first featured a discussion about The Radleys by Matt Haig - a suburban family with secret vampiric urges. The panel (Jo Brand, Meera Syal, Stephen Tompkinson, Rory McGrath and impressively intellectual celeb guest Andrea Corr from The Corrs) all loved it, as did Nicola (one of the wonderful crew) so I will probably give it a go sometime... but me and blood aren't a great combination.

The second episode being recorded was the same panel, but with Andrea Corr ushered off and National Treasure Celia Imrie taking her place on the sofa - and they chatted about Emma Henderson's Grace Williams Says it Loud, which I have started and sidelined... again, probably not my cuppa, but an interesting discussion nonetheless. Sorry to be quite brief about them, but (a) I haven't read the books yet, and (b) you should watch the episodes yourself!

I love that the presenters - and often, although not always, the guests - are really passionate readers, and excited to talk about books. It's refreshing, for a medium that often thinks the only way people will interact with books is costume drama. We love costume drama - of course we do - but there is definitely plenty of room for book discussion programmes too. I would LOVE to see more of BBC's My Life in Books too, or (even better?) The TV Book Club could pick a year from the past (1930 would be fun) and imagine which eight books they might have chosen from that year - and do a series on them. I'd love it, anyway...

All in all, a great day out. Thanks for letting me come back!

Oh, and I did pop by the wondeful Slightly Foxed bookshop on Gloucester Road first (mostly secondhand; some new books, including their own publications) and bought a couple of books I'm pleased with. More on that soon, probably. And a neat link into tomorrow's post... and the day after's (day's after?)


Monday, 18 July 2011

A Photo Post

A couple of years ago I was talking to a friend about this blog, and she said "I sometimes read the posts - but usually only when there are lots of pictures." That's right up there with my brother telling me he "skips the bookish bits" - both of them would be pleased to see a post devoted mostly to photos. I'm no great photographer, but I thought you might like to see a few bits and pieces from the past fortnight or so. Those of you who know me on Facebook may already have seen most of them...

I went to buy delphiniums, and instead came home with a cat-covered cushion...

On my very indirect way to Hay-on-Wye, I popped back to my old village - I planted this tree with my Grandad (known as Grandad Tractor, because he worked on a farm) when it was a tiny sapling. Look at it now!

I am very impressed with the effort Blackwell's have gone to - no ordinary scaffolding for them.

Surely this can't possibly be true??

The quiz I attend every Sunday always has a cartoon round - this week's challenge was 'the landlord visiting a library' and I won with this sketch! My team, Queen Equizabeth I, were rightfully proud - even if we only came mid-table for the rest of the quiz...

My housemate and I took some pirates - including Tompkins the Inconsiderate - to the woods, to find a very particular tree.

Hope all is well with you this Monday - have a great week!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

International Anita Brookner Day

Happy 83rd birthday, Anita Brookner, and Happy International Anita Brookner Day to the rest of you - surely the most publicised literary event of the past decade, courtesy of Thomas (and Simon is co-hosting). Having intended to read Brookner for a number of years, this seemed like the perfect time to give the old girl a whirl. And so I duly took down her 1984 Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac off my shelf, and have just finished reading it.

And oh dear, it is not in the spirit of the thing, but... this might be something of a lukewarm post. Thomas did warn us several times that Hotel du Lac, although Brookner's most famous novel, is not her best - and I did listen to him - but it felt expedient to read the novel I had on my shelves already. So I shall judge merely Hotel du Lac; I will not try and extrapolate beyond that to Brookner as a writer.

Hotel du Lac is set in a hotel by Lake Geneva, and we see it all through the eyes of romance novelist Edith Hope. She describes herself thus:

this mild-looking, slightly bony woman in a long cardigan, distant, inoffensive, quite nice eyes, rather large hands and feet, meek neck, not wanting to go anywhere, but having given my word that I would stay away for a month until everyone decides that I am myself again.

And the hotel itself
seems to be permanently reserved for women. And for a certain kind of woman. Cast-off or abandoned, paid to stay away, or to do harmless womanly things, like spending money on clothes.

Amongst these women, and the most interesting characters in the novel, are mother and daughter Mrs. Pusey and Jennifer. Edith spends most of the first half of the novel revising the ages she considers them to be, from 40s and 20s to, eventually, 70s and 40s. They are rather desperate, and lonely, and put on false cheer. But, to be completely honest, they have already flown from my mind a little. Their portraits were painted a little too thinly, on too unstable a canvas.

Amongst these women there is only one man of note - Mr. Neville. I couldn't describe the relationship between Edith and Mr. Neville as romantic, still less a love story, but he does offer opportunities for some interesting views from Edith, which are refreshingly neither old-fashioned nor modern, but an honest path between the two.
"My idea of absolute happiness is to sit in a hot garden all day, reading, or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening. Every evening." "You are a romantic, Edith," repeated Mr. Neville, with a smile. "It is you who are wrong," she replied. "I have been listening to that particular accusation for most of my life. I am not a romantic. I am a domestic animal. I do not sigh and yearn for extravagant displays of passion, for the grand affair, the world well lost for love. I know all that, and know that it leaves you lonely. No, what I crave is the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together."
And so the novel continues. Now for the negative.

What makes me a bit cross is that Hotel du Lac made me respond in a way I hate - using responses from which I would normally run a mile. I can't stand it when critics sneer at 'nothing happening' in a book, or about boring heroines. The sort of ridiculous statement Saul Bellow made of Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, that 'I seem to hear the tinkle of teacups' - which ought really to be a compliment. I wish I could have heard the tinkle of teacups in Hotel du Lac! But nothing felt vital or vivid to me. Edith is quite a boring person, but that wouldn't matter if she had not also been a boring character. Austen's Mr. Collins is boring; Mrs. Palfrey is pretty boring, if it comes to that, but neither of these are boring characters, because of the vitality with which their dry lives are evoked - one for humour, and the other for empathy. Edith Hope simply fades, fades, fades into a pretty backdrop.

You know me, I love books without much plot. I love novels which look gently, calmly, slowly at the ways in which people interact. I thought I would love Anita Brookner, but I certainly did not love Hotel du Lac. Which is not to say I hated it - more than anything, I was disappointed. There seem to be so many novelists who 'do' this sort of book rather better - E.H. Young, E.M. Delafield, even Richmal Crompton to a lesser extent. Brookner's writing in Hotel du Lac is never glaringly bad, and is occasionally perceptive. She has a knack for using unusual adjectives or adverbs which unsettle ('"I hate you," she shouted, hopefully') but... overall, I was not blown away by her style, or compelled by her prose. Often my eyes slipped to the end of the page, without taking in what had I had read. It all felt tolerable, I suppose, but...

Yet I will not let my lukewarm response to Hotel du Lac put me off. I shall remember that I was warned it wouldn't be Brookner's best. I will read the other reviews which will doubtless pop up around the blogosphere today. And I will wait a few years, and given Anita another go.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Burying the Pratchett

First things first - huge congratulations to my brother, who has passed his final lot of actuarial exams, and is now a fully-qualified actuary!

Second things second - onto the post for today (and possibly my favourite ever post title - I do love a pun, donchaknow). There are a few authors who are not just liked or disliked, but seem to inspire a fervour in their fans which sets them apart from common or garden novelists on your bookshelf. Jane Austen, James Joyce, Angela Thirkell - these are all names which come to mind. And, beating all these by securing such fanaticism during his own life, Terry Pratchett.

Of course, there are plenty of people who like Mr. P a bit, or appreciate some of his books and not others, etc. But there are plenty who think he can do no wrong, and refuse to believe that anybody could be immune to his charms. Their eyes light up at his name, and they are adamant that he should be read by all. I don't think I know anybody quite at this level of fandom in the blogosphere (are there?) but I have met quite a few in book groups and other social gatherings - and Mr. P certainly isn't without his devoted (if not feverishly fervent) fans among the blogs - including the lovely Claire of Paperback Reader, Sakura of Chasing Bawa, and doubtless many others.

Another of his rational admirers is my housemate Mel. We don't have a hugely similar taste in books, but we do overlap with quite a few favourite titles (Gilead, Rebecca) and generally know whether or not the other person will share our enthusiasm for a book. I lend her Angela Young, but I wouldn't bother with E.H. Young. She told me I shouldn't judge Terry Pratchett by his covers (I think all the ones I've seen are awful) and should give him a go - so, over the course of a few months, I read Going Postal (2004).

Going Postal, in brief, is about conman and trickster Moist von Lipwig, who is apparently also in Making Money and Thud! He has been caught, and is faced with the choice of being hanged, or... sorting out Ankh-Morpork's post office.

The plot winds over 472pp. and it would be too complex to explain to the uninitiated (such as I was myself) what golems or banshees are in the Discworld, er, world. Lots of characters appear in several novels, and I didn't really know whether people like Havelock Vetinari, who seems to rule the roost, appear in lots of other novels or not. Almost everyone I've spoken to about Terry Pratchett say it doesn't really matter whether or not you read them in order, and that they can all stand alone, but I think perhaps it would take a while to feel like you knew the world Pratchett returns to time and again.

For a full plot outline of Going Postal, I'm going to be lazy and point you in the direction of Wikipedia's very able summary. The main gist is that the city's postal service is completely useless, and the post office is filled with tens of thousands of unsent letters - envelopes cascade when any door is opened; the whole building threatens to collapse under the weight of it all. The command of aging postman Tolliver Groat and his assistant, pin-obsessive Stanley Howler, does not inspire confidence. Moist von Lipwig revitalises the postal service, and must decide between honest work or corruption - or, as seems more likely, a blend of the two. In the background, there is also a somewhat unlikely romance with the unaptly named Adora Bell Dearheart.

So... what did I think of my first Pratchett read? Well, I enjoyed it rather more than I thought I would. Some of it is very funny - I especially like the Dimwell Arrhythmic Rhyming Slang which does not rhyme, an example being "Syrup of prunes: wig", and I couldn't help laughing a lot at Stanley's discourses on the topic of pins. But... but... I did have a few problems with it.

One issue I have with Going Postal, rather than (I assume) Pratchett's wider work, was Moist himself. Selfishness is the trait I loathe most in fictional characters, and I am never going to be able to get behind a character who is a conman or robber and yet is supposed to be sympathetic too. This is why I can't watch the TV drama Hustle. And the same casual cruelty which I find so unpleasant in some of Evelyn Waugh's novels. Moist has something of a redemption (I love that the Wikipedia article lists the themes of the novel as 'Fantasy/Redemption/Post Office') but not really - he's still happy to trick innocent people out of their savings, and so on.

More generally, I found the whole novel a little too *silly*. I love surreal elements in books, and the idea of a post office which needs overhauling could be really fun. But everything is writ so large; there is so much exaggeration and extravagance, from the fantastical names onwards, that it all felt to me a bit like a schoolboy writing his first over-the-top story. Which was fun to read, most of the time, but difficult to feel like it affected me much. Not every novelist has to address the problems of the human condition (although I daresay plenty of Pratchett fans would argue that he does) but one of my problems with fantasy novels is that they often seem to sideline the minutiae of human interaction in favour of wider, more ridiculous and hyperbolic brushstrokes.

This might all be throwing fuel onto the fire for ardent Prachettites. I want to reiterate that I enjoyed Going Postal rather more than I thought I would, and I'm pleased I gave him a go. Since my book group is reading one of his novels later in the year, I daresay I'll give him another go. But it has not been a wholly successful experiment - the fault is with the reader, not the book; the writing is good, and I imagine Pratchett is one of the best at what he does - but what he does is not what I want, and I shall slink back to my real people in real houses, with only a moderate amount of mail coming through the postbox of a morning.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

You wait ages for one obscure book to be reprinted...

...and two come at once!

Verity alerted me to the fact that Greyladies will be reprinting Richmal Crompton's Leadon Hill - it's one that I own (and paid an extortionate amount for) but haven't read, but I'd always be delighted to have more RC in print.

And Jane is blowing the fanfare for a reprint of Leo Walmsley's Love in the Sun - I'm sure I'm one of many who read her enthusiastic review last year, or perhaps longer ago, and wanted to read it but couldn't find an affordable copy. The Walmsley Society is reissuing it at the end of July.

Any other upcoming reprints or translations you're excited about?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Life in a Day update

Apparently Life in a Day is coming out in US cinemas - er, 'theaters' - on 24th July. But the sad news is it seems to have been and gone from most UK cinemas...

A Book Surprise

You know me - it's not unusual that I buy a book or two, now and then. The other day was one of those days - I spotted A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee by Bea Howe mentioned in the Sylvia Townsend Warner / David Garnett letters, and it sounded like it might be useful for my thesis, as well as quite interesting. Bea Howe was a friend of Sylvia TW's, as well as Bloomsbury enough to warrant this rather nice portrait by Duncan Grant:

Anyway, said book arrived. Or, rather I had to go to the Royal Mail Sorting Office and pay £1.97 to get it, because the people sending it hadn't put enough stamps on the parcel. I was a little miffed about this, but soon didn't mind AT ALL. Here is the book (and I've taken the opportunity to show you the new cushion I bought, called 'Moggy')

I opened the parcel whilst I walked down street, as one does, and flipped it open... this is what I saw:

Could this be true? Could this copy be from the library of Richard Garnett, the editor of the Garnett/Warner letters? Surely a coincidence?

And then my eyes flicked over to the right-hand side... and there it was:

OHMYGOODNESS. David Garnett, much beloved (to me) author of Lady into Fox had owned this book. The book I bought because it was mentioned in his published letters. I got home and checked the signature against his online - they matched.

Breathe, Simon, breathe.

Any books in your libraries that are exciting for similar reasons? The nearest I've had before was the copy of The Priory by Dorothy Whipple which I bought, and discovered upon arriving home held her signature. Fun!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Life in a Day

It's time to take a step away from my normal book reviews, and turn attention towards film - I don't write about films very often, because this isn't stuck-in-a-box-office - and so when I do, it tends to be films which I've loved, and want to encourage other people to see. So it should come as no surprise that this review of Life in a Day is almost wholly positive - I think Life in a Day is one of the best films I've ever seen, and certainly the best non-fiction film. It's almost a documentary, but not quite.

The producer, Ridley Scott, and his team asked people on YouTube to contribute a video about their life on Saturday 24th June 2010 [I mean July, thanks Liz!]. There were a few questions - what do you love? what do you fear? what's in your pocket - but in general they were given free rein. And not just in the West, but around the world; 400 cameras were sent to the developing world. They received over 4500 hours of film, from 81,000 contributors, in 192 countries. This was edited to a few hundred submissions, and turned into the amazing film Life in a Day, which I saw yesterday and want to watch again, right away.

The film is vaguely both chronological and thematic. 24th July turned out to be a full moon, so there were some shots of that, and we move through people's early morning routines - including a moving one of a toddler and his father in a hugely untidy apartment, I think maybe in Thailand. Towards the end of the film it was night again, but in between the pieces were cut together in more subtle ways, the only obvious editorial intrusions being when several people together answered what they fear ("ALL kinds of monsters), what they love ("My refrigerator - it just stays in the corner and keeps its mouth shut"), and what they have in their pockets (a lot of guns...)

What made Life in a Day so brilliant, and not mawkish as I'd feared, is that almost all the clips show rather than tell. I expected lots of grainy videos of British teenagers whining, but most of the contributions were collaborative - people filming other people, or taking the camera on a tour. Most felt quite professional too - or, at least, the people owned a tripod. Camera professionalism didn't ruin spontaneity, or make the clips feel fake. Indeed, probably my favourite video went a bit awry - a man films his wife holding their baby twins, and is in the midst of quoting Walt Whitman when his wife interjects "This is so self-indulgent - I've been looking after them ALL day, will you please stop?" and all the while he is trying to remember whether the Whitman line has the word 'spirit' or 'soul' in it.

For there are equal amounts of laughter and tears in this film, often provoked by the same clips. For instance - the man videoing the birth of his baby (moving) who faints in the process (amusing!) Alongside births (both human and giraffe) there are marriages, a proposal, and pregnancy - but the only deaths are seen at a distance, in the tragic events of the Love Parade festival in Germany. For some people and families 24th July 2010 was especially significant, and these moments are included - but the more interesting moments of the film are entirely normal - whatever that means for the people and cultures involved. A boy has his first shave in the West; African women sing while preparing food; in one of my other favourite moments, we get a quick glimpse of a balut cart in the Philippines - which brought back memories for me.

And then there is the triptych of US soldiers in Afghanistan; a war wife dressing herself up to Skype her husband there, and crumbling before the monitor once the conversation is over; an Afghani photo-journalist taking the camera around the Afghanistan that doesn't make the news.

It sounds cliched, but Life in a Day really did make me marvel at how wonderfully and fearfully made humans are - how precious lives are, and how poignant the mundane can be. Going with a cynical mindset would ruin the film, but you don't need to be as easily teary as I am to make this a moving and memorable experience. Some critics have said that the film is too upbeat, but I don't think it could be called that - there are plenty of sad moments, among the happy and the hopeful. It's also the most compelling film I've ever seen. The film is as varied as life is - and, as a stunningly ambitious experiment to capture the whole world's life in a day, I think the film has succeeded as well as is humanly possible.

Watch the trailer below:

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Song for a Sunday

Slightly unusual choice today, but I thought I'd share a clip someone uploaded to Youtube. Sian Reese Williams is an actress in a soap opera I watch called Emmerdale, and in fact her character Gennie (short for Genesis) is one of my favourites. But I didn't realise she could sing too - here she is, performing The First Cut is the Deepest.

I have just been to see a film which is relevant to Youtube... will reveal all tomorrow.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend everyone, hope you've got something fun planned - and that you're reading something good. It's been a while since I did a Weekend Miscellany, and there's no time like the present.

1.) The book - is A William Maxwell Portrait - a collection of personal essays written about William Maxwell and his writings. It was published in 2004, but arrived at my house this week. Does anybody know anything else about this?

2.) The link - is an amusing video called 'book librarian' sent to me by a colleague - enjoy!

3.) The blog posts - are a few book reviews you'll probably want to see, if you haven't already: Lyn on Fanny Burney's Evelina, Nicola on Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows, and Tanya on Nicola Humble's Culinary Pleasures.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Better World Books

Proper reviewy-type post soon, promise, but I had to share this. I ordered some books from
Better World Books, and this is the confirmation email I got. I love it!

Hello Simon,

(Your book(s) asked to write you a personal note - it seemed unusual, but who are we to say no?)

Holy canasta! It's me... it's me! I can't believe it is actually me! You could have picked any of over 2 million books but you picked me! I've got to get packed! How is the weather where you live? Will I need a dust jacket? I can't believe I'm leaving Mishawaka, Indiana already - the friendly people, the Hummer plant, the Linebacker Lounge - so many memories. I don't have much time to say goodbye to everyone, but it's time to see the world!

I can't wait to meet you! You sound like such a well read person. Although, I have to say, it sure has taken you a while! I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but how would you like to spend five months sandwiched between Jane Eyre (drama queen) and Fundamentals of Thermodynamics (pyromaniac)? At least Jane was an upgrade from that stupid book on brewing beer. How many times did the ol' brewmaster have one too many and topple off our shelf at 2am?

I know the trip to meet you will be long and fraught with peril, but after the close calls I've had, I'm ready for anything (besides, some of my best friends are suspense novels). Just five months ago, I thought I was a goner. My owner was moving and couldn't take me with her. I was sure I was landfill bait until I ended up in a Better World Books book drive bin. Thanks to your socially conscious book shopping, I've found a new home. Even better, your book buying dollars are helping kids read from Brazil to Botswana.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Triple Choice Tuesday

I meant to mention this earlier, but better late than never - lovely Kim has very kindly invited me to take part in Triple Choice Tuesday - click here for more info, and my choices. Not a huge surprise to anyone familiar with my favourite books, but good fun nonetheless - while you're there, check out previous Triple Choice Tuesdays - they include Stuck-in-a-Book favourites such as Danielle, Sakura, Annabel, Jackie, Lizzy, Kirsty, Claire, Simon S, Teresa, Stu, Kim herself, and loads of others too.

Patricia Takes a Bus Ride

As I predicted, I dove straight into the books by Kitty Vincent - I'll write about them properly soon, maybe tomorrow, but I don't think I can really do so without giving you a taste of her writing. So I thought I'd copy out the piece I love most so far - 'Patricia Takes a Bus Ride' from
Gin & Ginger.

Patricia's companion said something to the lady seated next him in the bus, but she regarded him with an icy stare. When they reached Patricia's flat, and she was pouring out tea, she remonstrated with him.

"I shan't take you out again," she said, "if you don't observe the proper etiquette. It has taken me years to learn it, but I am absolutely infallible now. I believe I could write a book on how to be a perfect lady in a bus.

"If you are travelling on top it is quite in order, I might almost say desirable, to enter into conversation with your neighbour. If it should happen to be raining a little light badinage is allowable as you snuggle beneath the cover, so thoughtfully provided by the company.

"If you are a woman you begin (I beg your pardon, you commence) the conversation by hoping that your umbrella is not objectionable, and the correct retort is, 'Some weather for the ducks, what!' Then you discuss the latest murder, or some interesting trifle of the description, being careful to keep the conversation within strictly suitable limits. It is advisable to preface your remarks with, 'Well, what I always say is ---' and you finish up by observing that 'Murder is always a mistake; it comes out in the end.'

"You must never be original, because it may lead you into being daring, and to be daring on a bus is not good form.

"When you or he come to the parting of the ways, I advise you to murmur, 'So long,' or 'Well, ta, awfully.' I know that the latter remark is frightfully 'bon ton' because the most immaculate young man bade farewell to me in these terms, and he was so marvellously dressed that I am sure he was a dancing, partner or something really smart of that description.

* * *

"You should never speak to anyone inside a bus, as it violates every canon of deportment. If you should be forced to speak - if, for instance, you want to leap across the body of the person next you - you merely ejaculate 'Pardon!' This will have the desired effect.

"When the conductor asks for your fare, do, please, not enter into a long description of where you are going, it sounds excessively vulgar, and shows that you are not conversant with your world. If, for instance, you desire to alight at South Kensington, merely hold up one finger, and mutter, 'South Ken.' This places you, at once, as being 'all right,' while if you explain that you want to get to a square somewhere near the Underground, you are making yourself conspicuous.

"Many contretemps may occur in buses, and the way in which you meet them places you at once. If you are seated opposite a child who appears to be rapidly growing more and more ashen, you may assume that it is suffering from mal de bus. You must either pretend that, although you took a ticket to Piccadilly Circus, you recollect that you have pressing business at Hyde Park, and leap from the bus, or you must accept the consequences with sang-froid.

* * *

"Bus laws lay down that a child who is violently sick is 'a poor little dear,' and you are expected to behave accordingly, although in your heart of hearts you know that it is a gluttonous little pig. But if you so much as lift an eyebrow, child-lovers glare at you with muttered expressions of, 'Well, I suppose she as a child once.' It is useless and exhausting to explain that, although you were once a child, you were not a sick-in-a-bus one, and you merely become an object of universal execration.

"As one spends so many hours in buses, it is so important to learn how to behave," Patricia said a little plaintively.