Thursday, 28 June 2012

A Little Sale...

Books for Sale!

I'm going away for a long weekend (conference down near home, so making the most of it) and thought I'd try something... I've been having a sort-out, and have quite a few books I don't need any more.  I'm also somewhat in need of monies at the moment, what with an unfunded DPhil and all, so I thought I'd copy an idea Rachel had a while ago, and put up my old books for sale.  I think some of them might appeal.  Hope you don't mind this swerve away from normal blog posts - but I think it could be win-win for us both.

Because of postage costs, this is just for people in the UK - but if you see something you really like, then email me and we can try to work something out!

To make things simple, they're £4 each, 3 for £10, including postage.  Pick the one(s) you want, and email me at simondavidthomas[at] (and maybe stake your claim in the comments) - payment would have to be by cheque, or bank transfer, or Paypal.

With every order, if you like, I'll include one of my sketches.  Just say 'yes please, sketch!' with your email.  (Feel free to pick one from the archives - links in the left column - or I'll pick one.)

I don't know if this is going to be wildly successful or a complete dud, but I thought it would be worth a shot!  There are pictures of them all below, and a list at the bottom (I'll delete them from the list as they go... pictures might not be updated).  I wish I could just post them all off for free, but it would leave me very skint!

Normal service will resume next Tuesday :)

The Upright Piano Player - David Abbott
A Long, Long Way - Sebastian Barry
Discipline - Mary Brunton
Cloud 9 - Caryl Churchill
Youth and other stories - Joseph Conrad
Under Western Eyes - Josephn Conrad
Old Men Forget - Duff Cooper
The New House - Lettice Cooper
The Ridleys - Richmal Crompton
Weatherley Parade - Richmal Crompton
Mariana - Monica Dickens
The Bookshop - Penelope Fitzgerald
The Battle of the Villa Fiorita - Rumer Godden
Island Magic - Elizabeth Goudge
The Ivory Tower - Henry James
The Gingerbread Woman - Jennifer Johnson
Kim - Rudyard Kipling
The Village - Marghanita Laski
Little Boy Lost - Marghanita Laski
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town - Stephen Leacock
Babbit - Sinclair Lewis
The World My Wilderness - Rose Macaulay
Greenery Street - Denis Mackail
If I May - A.A. Milne
Once on a Time - A.A. Milne
The Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet - Benjamin Hoff
The Empty Room - Charles Morgan
White Boots - Noel Streatfeild
Love Letters - Leonard Woolf and Trekkie Ritchie Parsons
A Haunted House - Virginia Woolf
A Book of One's Own: People and their Diaries - Thomas Mallon

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Five From the Archive (no.4)

Didn't we all get excited over the past couple of days?  Mum and I have very much enjoyed the debates we've been having - your comments have been hilarious.  Some of you I'll never look at in quite the same light again.

Anyway, on with the show - and another trip down memory lane for Five From The Archive.  This week...

Five... Books About Death

A quick note.  I am definitely not intending to be glib about death or grief - but I think it is fascinating to see the many and varied ways in which death is treated in fiction and non-fiction.  Obviously 'death' is a huge topic, but it's thought-provoking to see how it has influenced such different books - some treating death with reverence and mourning; some as a matter of historical interest; some as merely a plot point.

I had the delight of seeing Karen/Cornflower on Sunday, and she laughed nervously when I asked her whether or not she thought it would be a good idea... but I'm going to go ahead, trusting that you know I wouldn't intend to be flippant about grief.  Ok?  Ok.

1.) Death and the Maidens (2007) by Janet Todd

In short: Todd uses the suicide of little-known Fanny Wollstonecraft as the starting point for exploring the strange and fascinating, intertwining lives of the Shelleys, Wollstonecrafts, and Godwins.

From the review: "According to Hogg (and also quoted by Todd), Shelley was 'altogether incapable of rendering an account of any transaction whatsoever, according to the strict and precise truth, and the bare naked realities of actual life'. It is to Todd's great credit that the reverse is true for her - what could have become sensationalised or hand-wringing is, in fact, told with a caring honesty. Death and the Maidens does not fall into the other trap, which much literary biography does, of dryness and dullness - though the research is doubtless impeccable, Todd does not write this work in an overly-scholarly manner."

2.) In the Springtime of the Year (1974) by Susan Hill

In short: A young woman comes to terms with the sudden death of her husband.

From the review: "Some of my favourite writers are those who can weave an involving narrative without huge set pieces or plot turns. The biggest event having happened in the first few pages, this novel is more a study of grief than a rollercoaster of events. From the immediate aftermath; the funeral; Ruth's difficult relations with Ben's family; closer kinship with Ben's younger brother; dealing with Ben's possessions; moving onwards to the future without him - each stage is subtly and intimately shown - never too much introspection, and always writing of so high a standard that it doesn't feel like cliché."

3.) Let Not The Waves of the Sea (2011) by Simon Stephenson

In short: Easily the most moving book on this list.  Stephenson's brother was killed in the new year tsunami, and this beautiful book traces past and future - a biography, autobiography, travelogue, and even a philosophy.

From the review: "It is often said that first-time authors put everything into their book - with novels, this is meant is a criticism.  Every idea is thrown in, to the detriment of the structure and unity required of fiction.  With non-fiction, with Let Not The Waves of the Sea, putting everything in is what makes Stephenson's book so special. [...] This book is as full and varied and complex as the life it commemorates, and I consider it a privilege to have been able to read it."

4.) The Driver's Seat (1970) by Muriel Spark

In short: My third Spark, and the one which made me love her - we learn early on that eccentric tourist Lise has been killed, and this short novel traces the curious events leading up to her death.

From the review: "The novel [is] some sort of waiting game, the reader never being quite sure where they stand. Spark's prose is deliberately - and deliciously - disorientating. We move in and out of Lise's thoughts, never quite grasping hold of her perspective, nor yet letting it slip entirely out of reach."

5.) Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie

In short: You know the score with Agatha Christie... it's interesting how death has become emotionless for the reader in murder mysteries, isn't it?  All the usual red herrings and impossibilities in typical Christie fare.

From the review: "What I wasn't expecting, what I had somehow either forgotten or never noticed, was how funny Christie is. The problems the vicar and his wife have with their servant are written so amusingly, I laughed out loud a few times. She also has the drifting 'oh gosh how we simply shrieked' type down pat too."

This is probably the vastest topic yet in Five From the Archive, but which great books (fiction or non-fiction) would you recommend under the theme of death?   Over to you!  Hope you're enjoying this series - I'm really loving a trawl back through the archives - and it's fun to be thinking up sketches again.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

In Defence of Jean-Benoit (by Anne aka Our Vicar's Wife)

As promised yesterday, my Mum (aka Anne aka Our Vicar's Wife) has written a response to my review of Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier... over to you, Mum!  (Plenty of spoilers ahead...)

Of course, Simon has it all wrong!  This book is not about infidelity and selfishness, or greed and violence – it is about the human condition, the cages which surround us, a bid to escape into an unchained world and the difficult moral choices which drag the protagonists back into the world they hoped to escape (with acceptance of their lot).

Dona was born into the nobility in the Restoration world with its dissolute Royal Court, its nation newly released from the constraints of the Puritan Commonwealth and the privileged few with time and money on their hands.  As a gently born woman her prospects were good – but her choices were few.  She married Harry St Columb because he ‘was amusing’ and she ‘liked his eyes’.  She was 23 – an age when it was high time she settled down.  Married life had begun as a series of journeys, travelling from house to house, merry-making with Harry’s friends – a ‘fast set’.  Soon pregnant, Dona had been forced into acting a part – in ‘an atmosphere strained and artificial’ in which Harry treated her with ‘a hearty boisterousness, a forced jollity, a making of noise in an endeavour to cheer her up, and on top of it all great lavish caresses that helped her not at all.

Simon defends Harry – and it is true that he loved Dona – but his attentions to her are mirrored in his fawning dogs.  He is clumsy and crass and clearly not her intellectual equal – possibly a common enough figure in the English shires of the time, but his desire to be part of the ‘in crowd’ draws him to London, where his heavy drinking make him even more doltish and unacceptable as a husband.  It is there that Dona begins to look around her for distraction.

London at that time was filthy, loud, stinking and claustrophobic.  The Court encouraged licentiousness and their ‘set’ – or at least the men in it - entered into every new escapade without conscience or moderation.  As long as Harry had his pleasures he joined in with the rest, but he was not the equal of Rockingham – a dangerous man, who formed part of the group.  Dona, desperately locked into an unfulfilling marriage became increasingly reckless, encouraged by the predatory Rockingham and failing to see him as the dangerous man he was.  The court revelled in extreme behaviour, but Dona excelled and shocked even the most cynical amongst them – in being wild and outrageous, she knew herself to be alive.  But, eventually she took part in one escapade too many and the sight of the Countess, whom she and Rockingham had held up in her coach (in the guise of highwaymen) begging for her life with the words “For God’s sake spare me, I am very old, and very tired” brought Dona to her senses : ‘Dona, swept in an instant by a wave of shame and degradation, had handed back the purse, and turned her horse’s head, and ridden back to town, hot with self-loathing, blinded by tears of abasement, while Rockingham pursued her with shouts and cries of “What the devil now, and what has happened?” and Harry, who had been told the adventure would be nothing but a ride to Hampton Court by moonlight, walked home to bed, not too certain of his direction, to be confronted by his wife on the doorstep dressed up in his best friend’s breeches.’

This is the turning point for Dona, who can think of nothing but escape.  She seizes her children, hastily packs her trunks and leaves for the country estate (and Simon, Harry had more than one estate – Navron, far away in Cornwall, was a neglected and forgotten part of his childhood – he didn’t rate it highly, so Dona’s arrival there was a gift to it!)  Yes, the children hate the upheaval, the frantic journey on atrocious roads, and Prue is put-upon; but in fact the life to which Dona takes them is idyllic for the children, who quickly lose their town ways and delight in the soft country air and the simple pleasures of childhood – putting on weight and gaining in strength, health and happiness.

Dona revels in the new life.  She shuns local society and lives simply – but she is aware her escape is only for a time.  Then Fate takes charge with her ‘inevitable’ meeting with the French pirate.  Led into world beyond her experience and imagining, Dona is fascinated by the enigmatic Frenchman, who challenges all her preconceptions about men.  His mysterious origins fascinate her - in his own way, he too has sought to escape from a world he can no longer tolerate.  He says:
“Once there was a man called Jean-Benoit Aubery, who had estates in Brittany, money, friends, responsibilities…. (he) became weary of Jean-Benoit Aubery, so he turned into a pirate, and built La Mouette.”

“And is it really possible to become someone else?”

“I have found it so.”  
But of course this is far too simple.  This is perhaps the Frenchman’s Achilles heel – he convinces Dona that escape is possible and that he has found it – but perhaps, by sharing it with her, he will lose it himself, forever.  Perhaps he too will remember it only as a dream.

The discussion goes on to describe the difference between contentment and happiness:
“Contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction….Happiness is elusive – coming perhaps once in a lifetime – approaching ecstasy.”
For a few brief weeks, in the height of summer, romance blossoms between the like-minded runaways.  Their mutual attraction is animal – physical, mental, emotional and pure (or impure) romance – but it is a ‘midsummer night’s dream’ and from the dream they are forced to waken.

The pirating interlude is full of drama and danger, revealing both Dona’s and Jean-Benoit’s reckless zest for life and risk-taking.  With it comes the full expression of their love – but even as they seem to vanquish the perceived foe, their real and deadly enemies are closing in upon them.  Dona walks back into a trap.  Harry, egged on by the suspicious Rockingham, has arrived unannounced.  The last chapters of the book, with their highly charged atmosphere and dramatic denouement keep the reader turning the pages late into a sultry summer’s night.

Dona’s bid for freedom and escape cannot be like Jean-Benoit’s – she is a woman, and a mother – she can only escape for a season.  The inevitable ‘prison door’ clangs shut behind her – but the choice is one she makes for herself, eyes wide open, having tasted her one moment of true happiness.  I do not defend her actions – or those of any of the characters – but I recognise what it cost her to return to Harry and the humdrum life he offered, and I can admire the mind which invented her.

I could write of the descriptions of the countryside, the odious, pompous Godolphin and his pedestrian neighbours, the vile Rockingham, the delightful William – all is there – Daphne du Maurier excelled at painting portraits of places, people and moods.  But the main thread of the story is what appealed to me, reading it for the first time as an adolescent.   It was the perfect attempt at escape – and who, sitting their exams at the age of 16, has not thought of dropping everything and going in search of adventure?  And I would maintain that 16 is probably about the right age to read this – for the struggles which Dona and Jean-Benoit encounter are on a par with those of Romeo and Juliet – for all that they are mature adults, Dona and Jean-Benoit display a curious immaturity.  It is a ‘coming of age’ book, a rite of passage, nothing serious!

I refuse to enter into a dialogue with my son about my so called ‘pirate fixation’ (wherever did he get that from???) but I will write in support of the Frenchman – he was beautifully drawn by du Maurier as a hero with a heart, a mind and immense talent – and if he had killed, it was only in the heat of battle and in self-defence.  He, and perhaps William too, took the trouble to get to know Dona – and I sense that no-one else in her life had ever done that before.  Small wonder she loved them!

I claim this book as perfect escapist reading for anyone who needs to go on a journey away from their own particular humdrum existence – just for a little while – and paddle in the shallows of the Helford river, hopeful of catching the cry of the oyster catcher and the laughter of a long-lost summer’s afternoon.

After all, we willingly return to our true lives – glad to be part of the real and less than perfect world – in our place, loved and needed – and content.  For where there is a Dona and a French pirate, there is also a home and a hearth and toasted muffins for tea!

And I almost hesitate to say it – but here goes – it’s a girl’s book, Simon, a girl’s book!

Monday, 25 June 2012

Frenchman's Creek - Daphne du Maurier

You may remember from my first series of My Life in Books (links to both series are here) that my mother picked Daphne du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek as one of her choices.  Indeed, she was rather dizzied by her love of one Jean-Benoit Aubrey, the Frenchman (and pirate) of the title.  Tomorrow she will be guest-posting In Defence of Jean-Benoit because, dear reader, I have reservations about him, which I will disclose in time.  What I have fewer reservations about is Frenchman's Creek (1941) as a whole - I thought it wonderful, silly, fun.

Dona St. Columb is bored with her marriage to foolish, affable Harry, and as the novel opens she is haring off in the middle of the night to their Cornish estate, along with her two children and their nurse Prue.  Dona is impetuous, a little wild, and wholly unsuited to the Restoration Court society in which she has found herself - although she also has gained something of a reputation, by drinking with the lower orders and generally acting in a manner which doesn't befit the wife of Harry St. Columb.

At which point, all those boxes in our heads are being ticked - independent woman, check; impulsive and sassy, check.  And yet... it's also the first signs of the selfishness which Dona exhibits throughout the novel.  Onto that later.

Well, Dona sets up home in her Cornish mansion (wouldn't it be nice to have a spare mansion or two, dotted around the country?)  Only the butler William is there, having fired all the staff (did I mention that the house is supposed to be fully staffed, even when they aren't living there?  All my spare mansions will be the same, of course.)  Dona enjoys being away from London, but finds high society in Cornwall no less enervating than that in London.

But we know what's coming.  Let's cut to the chase.  A French pirate has been terrorising the local dignitaries - carrying out sophisticated robberies on the rich, and apparently distressing the local woman (although, as is pointed out by more than one person, they don't seem that distressed...)  Dona decides to investigate... and is captured, taken aboard the pirate ship, and brought before the pirate chief himself, Jean-Benoit Aubrey.  But he isn't in the Captain Hook line of pirates - indeed, he utterly ignores her, and continues drawing...
How remote he was, how detached, like some student in college studying for an examination; he had not even bothered to raise his head when she came into his presence, and what was he scribbling there anyway that was so important?  She ventured to step forward closer to the table, so that she culd see, and now she realised he was not writing at all, he was drawing, he was sketching, finely, with great care, a heron standing on the mud-flats, as she had seen a heron stand, ten minutes before.

Then she was baffled, then she was at a loss for words, for thought even, for pirates were not like this, at least not the pirates of her imagination, and why could he not play the part she had assigned to him, become an evil, leering fellow, full of strange oaths, dirty, greasy-handed, not this grave figure seated at the polished table, holding her in contempt?
Well, I shan't continue to give away the plot, but guess what?  They fall in love.  Surprise!

My favourite character, though, is William the butler.  He, it turns out (er, spoilers) is actually also from the crew - and only stays on land because he gets seasick (and thus is the character most similar to the man my mother eventually married, leaving her pirate fantasies behind her.)  William is a little like Jeeves, especially in the first half of the novel, in that he manages to convey a great deal of impertinence while still seeming obedient and non-committal.
"I have a wager with your master that I shall not succumb.  Do you think I shall win?"

"It depends upon what your ladyship is alluding to."

"That I shall not succumb to the motion of the ship, of course.  What did you think I meant?"

"Forgive me, my lady.  My mind, for the moment, had strayed to other things.  Yes, I think you will win that wager,"

"It is the only wager we have, William."

"Indeed, my lady."

"You sound doubtful."

"When two people make a voyage, my lady, and one of them a man like my master, and the other a woman like my mistress, the situation strikes me as being pregnant with possibilities."

"William, you are very presumptuous."

"I am sorry, my lady."

"And - French in your ideas."

"You must blame my mother, my lady."

"You are forgetting that I have been married to Sir Harry for six years, and am the mother of two children, and that next month I shall be thirty."

"On the contrary, my lady, it was these things that I was most remembering."

"Then I am inexpressibly shocked at you.  Open the door at once, and let me into the garden."

"Yes, my lady."
Before I go onto my main problem with Frenchman's Creek, I will assure you that I love the novel.  It isn't in the same league as Rebecca in terms of neat, clever plotting.  It's an unashamedly silly historical romance - everything is improbable and over the top, but Daphne du Maurier never stumbles into improbable or over the top writing, and that's the most important thing.  Her style remains measured and unhysterical.  It's even an historical novel that I enjoyed, which is rarer than hen's teeth.  But...

I have a problem with Jean-Benoit as a romantic hero.  That doesn't stop me enjoying the novel a great deal, but it does prevent me putting J-B on a pedestal.  He is, after all, a pirate.  There is some suggestion that he has murdered people - he has certainly stolen from and humiliated them.  A brief mention that he gives to the poor isn't enough to make him a-ok, to my mind.  Yes, it's an historical romp, and he shouldn't be held to the same moral standards as real life people today, but... it makes me question my mother's taste a little...

But more than that, I came away from Frenchman's Creek feeling desperately sorry for Harry.  Yes, he is a buffoon.  No, he will never be able to provide Dona with the intellectual, adventurous companionship she craves - but she never tries to make their marriage work, and he tries so, so hard.  Read these lines, and see if you don't feel sorry for him...
"I want to see you well," he [husband] repeated.  "That's all I care about, damn it, to see you well and happy."  And he stared down at her, his blue eyes humble with adoration, and he reached clumsily for her hand.
Frenchman's Creek probably shouldn't be given this sort of scrutiny, but I just wanted to shake Dona for being an appalling mother and a cruel wife, and I can't help wish that Harry had married some other woman, and that Dona and Jean-Benoit had sunk on their ship together...

Tomorrow my mother, Our Vicar's Wife, will leap to Jean-Benoit's defence!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Songs for a Sunday

I didn't choose the songs for this post - Beryl did.  To round off a very successful Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week (thanks once again, Annabel!) I listened to Bainbridge on Desert Island Discs from 2008.  She wasn't at all what I expected.  You can listen too, and hear her somewhat unexpected song choices, by clicking here.  She appeared twice - I have yet to listen to the first one, from 1986, but you can here.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Something Happened Yesterday - Beryl Bainbridge

The Beryl Bainbridge Fest ain't over yet, folks, and here's my final review of the week - Something Happened Yesterday.  It isn't a novel, it's a selection of columns which Bainbridge contributed to the Evening Standard in the 1980s and '90s, with short (often quite bizarre) introductory paragraphs to each column, written when the book was published (1993).

Well, although it takes a different format, Something Happened Yesterday has the same disjointed, playfully subversive tone that I have come to expect from Bainbridge.  Each column involves some event which has recently befallen Bainbridge, or recently come to her mind, suggested by something else.  It's a whole mix - from visiting the village of her youth to a zoo trip to her time on a BBC children's radio programme.  The occasion scarcely matters, for it is the eccentric musings on life which Bainbridge incorporates that make this book so distinctive.  The dark humour of her novels is definitely present.  Here's a representative sample of her style:
It did however remind me of the cautionary tale of my son's nursery school teacher, a lady named Miss Smith, referred to as Mith Mith by her lisping charges.  It's a true story, albeit tragic.  A group of infants on a Tuesday morning just before Christmas in a house in Ullet Road, Liverpool, were discovered at home-time marching up and down swigging bottles of milk in an abandoned manner while Mith Mith lay slumped across the piano.  She had been dead for a quarter of an hour and had apparently passed on in the middle of The Grand Old Duke of York.  This shocking incident has remained fresh as a daisy in my memory because I hadn't got round to paying the fees, whereas the rest of the mothers had stumped up the three guineas a term in advance.
Most amusing, probably, is the way in which Bainbridge can end up at the most curious of statements.  'A knowledge of sex and moths is no substitute for Latin, science and maths', for instance, or, as an aside, '(I once knew a countess, an ex-theatre sister from Liverpool, who messed up my kitchen while trying to decapitate her husband, the Earl.)'  These statements are equally startling in context - not completely incongruous, because Bainbridge has more or less built up to them, but then takes a leap to something extraordinary.

Those introductory passages I mentioned - it's a little odd to read them before reading the column in question, but often they feel no more normal afterwards.  They go off at tangents; they reveal less than they appear to, and add new questions rather than answers.  Sweet William could have written them.  Here's one which prefixes a column which is mostly about Snow White:
I'm not going to enlarge on the events recounted here: they are too painful.  The moment he set eyes on me my ex said I looked very withered.  The last night he was here the cleaner confronted him.  How could he have walked out on his children all those years ago?  His response was pretty predictable, given the guilt we all feel.  He said, "This is all very boring", and caught a taxi to the airport.
Which brings me onto another point.  Bainbridge makes pretty free with her relatives and friends.  Often her daughters and grandchildren are mentioned, but also talks about neighbours and acquaintances - surely they then read the Evening Standard, and recognised themselves?  But, but... sometimes Bainbridge's introductory paragraphs make it clear that the anecdote she's relating is not, in fact, wholly true... or is true in essentials, but happened with other people, in a different way...

Like some of Bainbridge's characters, and like her own quirky narrative style, nothing can quite be trusted in her journalism.  I'm very glad that her style and tone didn't get diluted by the demands of a newspaper column - it really is just an extension of the qualities I enjoy in her fiction, with a personal twist and a drier, acerbic view on life.  Great fun, very unusual, and a lovely way to finish off my first dive into Beryl Bainbridge territory.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Sweet William - Beryl Bainbridge

Sweet William is my second Bainbridge novel, published in 1975 - so, a couple years before Injury Time, which I reviewed earlier this week.  I've read both as part of Gaskella's Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week - and I'm very grateful that she prompted me in this direction.  Although I've only read two, I feel like I'm getting a greater sense of Bainbridge's range.

Unlike Injury Time, Sweet William isn't an out-and-out comedy.  There is a certainly a lot of humour in it, but it's a darker humour - where the darkness isn't merely incidental, but brings with it tones of genuine hurt and despair.  But it's far from bleak - Bainbridge throws in enough of the surreal and unexpected to prevent this being a Hardyesque paean to misery.

Ann is a BBC secretary, recently - impulsively - engaged to Gerald, who is heading off to America as the novel begins.  She has rather a fiery relationship with her mother, who invariably cows or embarrasses her, and is equally sick of putting up with her cousin Pamela.  She is attending a children's performance on behalf of her landlady (as you do) when she first encounters William...
Her first impression was that she had been mistaken for someone else.  She looked behind her but there was no one in the open doorway.  The stranger was beckoning and indicating the empty chair beside his own.  His eyes held such an expression of certainty and recognition that she began to smile apologetically.  It was as if he had been watching the door for a long time and Ann had kept him waiting.  She did notice, as she excused herself along the row of seated mothers, that he had yellow curls and a flattish nose like a prize fighter.  He was dressed appallingly in some sort of sweater with writing on the chest.  On his feet he wore very soiled tennis pumps without laces.
Not entirely the most beguiling of portraits, is it?  But William definitely has a way with women, and it isn't long at all before Ann and William have, er, become better acquainted - all thoughts of Gerald apparently banished.

Only William isn't the world's most faithful of men.

It gets a bit dizzying, trying to work out how many women - and, Bainbridge hints but never states explicitly, men - are besotted with William - and he certainly isn't slow to reciprocate.  Sweet William is only 160 pages long, but in that space Bainbridge manages to wind and weave quite a complex tangle of relationships - in fact, the complexity is mostly due to the fact that William is far from honest.  He says he's going to certain places; he's actually elsewhere.  He doesn't even mention some of the people he's having dalliances with, until much later.  It's a little confusing for the reader, but that helps get us in Ann's frame of mind - and Bainbridge's style is never confusing.  It's a very organised, precise confusion, if you understand what I mean.

William reminded me quite a bit of Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I read for Muriel Spark Reading Week, and reviewed here) - and not just because he's Scottish.  They're both deceptively charming men who appear suddenly and create havoc, never telling much of the truth.  We see Sweet William from the woman's point of view, and so it does have some of the frustration and heartbreak woven in.  Me and my sensitive heart, ahem, I callously preferred the conversations between Ann and her mother - who is strident and occasionally rather hysterical.  (Spoiler ahead, by the way.)
Voice beginning to rise in pitch, her mother said, "His wife should be told."
"She has been," Ann said.  "She thinks William's a beautiful person."
"Shooting's too good for him," said her mother shrilly.  It was as if she'd promised herself, or someone else, that she would not shout recriminations at Ann and was now relieved that there were others on whom she could vent her feelings.
All in all, I didn't love this as much as Injury Time, because I thought Bainbridge managed farce so beautifully there.  Sweet William is a different kettle of fish, and it's not fair to fault Bainbridge for not achieving something she didn't set out to achieve - indeed, I imagine a lot of people would prefer the subtler narrative in Sweet William where actions matter and feelings can get hurt, unlike the surreal hostage-situation in Injury Time.  Whichever one comes out on top, they're both fantastic novels.  I can definitely see why Bainbridge is mentioned in the same breath as Spark, and I'm intrigued to read more.

And now I'm wondering whether or not Bainbridge wrote any novels without mistresses in them?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Five From The Archive (no.3)

In honour of Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week - and being a bit teasing about the morose face she seems to have in every photo...

Beryl Bainbridge was famously nominated for the Booker Prize five times but never won - and so, also in my honour, this week's five from the archive are...

Five... Shortlisted Booker Titles (which didn't win)

1.) Loitering With Intent (shortlisted 1981) by Muriel Spark

In short: My favourite Spark novel, as I'm sure you all heard during Muriel Spark Reading Week, it concerns Fleur's somewhat mad involvement with arrogant Sir Quentin, his Autobiographical Association, and the world of publishing.

From the review: "This becomes the crux of the novel - where does Fleur's imagination end, and where does plagiarism begin? Similarities between the Autobiographical Association's activities and the manuscript of Warrender Chase grow ever greater - how much is coincidence, how much does Fleur absorb, and how much does she write before it happens? "

2.) The Bookshop (shortlisted 1978) by Penelope Fitzgerald

In short: A woman tries to open a bookshop in a small town, but finds that the town takes against her.

From the review:  "Between Christine and Florence a rather touching, but unsentimental, friendship develops. If that sounds remotely mawkish, trust me, it isn't. Penelope Fitzgerald doesn't do mawkish. Her writing is spare, very spare, and there isn't room for emotions - we simply see the people interact, and can quite easily understand the emotions they must be experiencing."

3.) A Month in the Country (shortlisted 1980) by J.L. Carr

In short: Tom has been hired to uncover a medieval mural in a northern village church - this gentle novel shows his relationships with the other villagers, and quiet absorption in his work.  (I'm afraid the 'review' is hardly that... one of my scatterbrain days.)

From the review: "The most interesting scene is that when Tom visits the vicar and his amiable wife, Alice, only to discover their monstrous and secluded vicarage seems to alter both their personalities. Like the rest of the novel, this is shown subtly and calmly, but is a fascinating glimpse into one facet of the village."

4.) The Little Stranger (shortlisted 2009) by Sarah Waters

In short: Creepy events start to happen in an old mansion in the post-war 1940s.  Visiting Dr. Faraday narrates them, but is uncertain whether or not the supernatural is to blame...

From the review: "It's something of a truism to say that 'the house is itself a character', but you have to take your hat off to Waters' ability to invest Hundreds Hall with this power without it becoming a caricature of Gothic literature. The house remains comfort and terror; mystery and simplicity; homely and unhomely."

5.) Black Dogs (shortlisted 1992) by Ian McEwan

In short: Something happens on a couple's honeymoon, involving two black dogs.  We see the impact of this event without, for a long time, knowing precisely what took place...

From the review:  "It certainly battles out with Atonement for being my favourite McEwan - people have recommended 'early McEwan' to me, and I can see why. The writing here is compact, tense - so often I'd finish reading paragraphs or phrases and think "wow" - quite the opposite of Saturday."

As always, I want to know - which would you suggest?  To give you a hand, here is a link to all the shortlisted titles.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Word Verification

I'm afraid I've had to reactivate word verification.  I know it's a pain, but I've been getting so many spam comments recently that I'm having to bring it back.  Sorry!  To give you a smile, I was amused by one of the spam comments I got today.  Usually they give a link to their website after a vaguely positive comment about 'your site'.  This innovative spammer went with something a bit different...  They still had their link, but before that:
The very next time I read a blog, Hopefully it won't disappoint me as much as this particular one. After all, I know it was my choice to read through, but I genuinely thought you'd have something interesting to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something you could fix if you weren't too busy searching for attention.

UPDATE: Well, I've had two spam comments in the not-very-long since I posted this, so apparently Word Verification doesn't make any difference.  I've turned it back off for now.

Injury Time - Beryl Bainbridge

It's Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week with Annabel/Gaskella... hope you're joining in!

Can you imagine what would happen if the casts of Abigail's Party and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were held hostage in a siege?  Well, if you can't, then read Injury Time and it'll give you a pretty good idea.  The sexual bewilderment of George and Martha is combined with the 1970s would-you-like-an-olive stylings of Beverley et al in Bainbridge's 1977 novel, somewhere in the middle of her writing career.

Edward is a somewhat hapless chap, working in dull job and in a marriage with Helen which, if not loveless, is hardly passionate.  And he has a mistress - albeit one with three unruly children at home, and no intention of staying submissively in the shadows.  His mistress rejoices in the absurd name Binny.
Binny was a wonderful mother, but she didn't seem to realise he was a very busy man and his time was limited. They could never do anything until her ten-year-old had settled down for the night.  They could usually start doing something at about five to eleven, and then they had to do it very quickly because Edward had to leave at quarter past eleven.  He was always whispering frantically into Binny's ear what he might do if only they had a whole evening together, and she grew quite pale and breathless and hugged him fearfully tightly in the hall, mostly when seeing him out.
Binny is tired of fitting in around Helen's schedule (although Helen supposedly does not know of Binny) and demands that Edward ceases to treat her as a dirty little secret.  In order to pacify Binny, Edward agrees to invite his colleague Simpson, and Simpson's wife Muriel, to a dinner party at Binny's house.  What could possibly go wrong?

Bainbridge is great at showing the awkwardness of this dinner party and all its shades of morality: Simpson has overstated his wife's approval of the night, for example, and Binny's attempts to maintain a presentable dinner party in bizarre circumstances are drawn wonderfully.  My favourite character, though, is Binny's neighbour Alma, who turns up mid-way through the party, rather the worse for wear.  I don't know what I find so amusing about characters who incongruously pepper their conversation with 'darling' and 'dear', but it always makes me chuckle.  Indeed, the whole novel is very funny - mostly a humour which comes from dialogue, clashes of characters, and surreal turns of events.
"Drunken driving is a crime," said Simpson stiffly.  "It should carry the harshest penalties."

"What are you worried about, darling?  I lost my licence, didn't I?"  All at once Alma's face crumpled.  Tears spilled out of her ludicrous eyes.

"You can talk, George," Muriel said coldly.  "You're only wearing one shoe."
The most bizarre twist, as I mentioned at the beginning and as the cover suggests, is that these characters find their evening's festivities interrupted when two men and a woman come running through the front door (complete with a pram holding a doll) and hold them all hostage.  The house is chosen more or less at random, and they are simply a bargaining tool against the police.

What makes Injury Time so hilarious is that Beryl Bainbridge chooses not to change the tone when the hostage situation takes place.  The characters - especially irrepressible Alma - don't alter the way they talk, and the dynamics between man, mistress, colleague, and wife all remain fraught, uncomfortable and very funny.  It helps that Ginger and Harry, the main two hostage-takers, are not your normal criminals.  Some fairly disturbing events occur in Injury Time, but they are described with such lightness, and focus upon social awkwardness rather than anything more traumatic, that this remains decidedly a comic novel.  As my first foray into the world of Bainbridge, I'm off to a fantastic start, and I look forward to seeing what else the week brings.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos

Amongst my towering pile of current (but not very active) reads, I mentioned Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos.  One or two of you encouraged me to return to it, and I am never one to turn down the call to read a short novel from the 1920s.

Lorelei is the blonde in question, going around America and Europe bewitching rich men and thinking deep thoughts.  These thoughts she has been encouraged to note down in her diary... she is admirably determined to educate herself, but rather more determined to secure diamond tiaras etc. from the gentlemen she encounters.  She is not aided by her unrefined friend Dorothy, whom I absolutely love - Lorelei attempts to refine her, but Dorothy's slang and insults ("Lady, if we hurt your dignity like you hurt our eyesight I hope for your sake, you are a Christian science") are thankfully unfettered by decorum - they're hilarious.

The joy of the novel is the voice Loos creates for her blonde.  Almost every sentence begins 'So' or 'I mean', and her deep thoughts are about as perceptive as her spelling is correct.  Typos today are, for once, not my own work.
I am going to stay in bed this morning as I am quite upset as I saw a gentleman who quite upset me.  I am not really sure it was the gentleman, as I saw him a quite a distants in the bar, but if it really is the gentleman it shows that when a girl has a lot of fate in her life it is sure to keep on happening.
I haven't seen the film musical, with Marilyn Monroe, but I think I'm going to now.  At the time of publication, it was hugely successful - the second best selling title of 1926 (although published in 1925), and Edith Wharton called it 'The great American novel.'  I wonder how tongue-in-cheek she was being?

As the beauty of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is in the style, I'll give you another excerpt - one which gets across quite how beguiling the young woman is:
So Mr. Jennings helped me quite a lot and I stayed in his office about a year when I stayed in his office about a year when I found out he was not the kind of gentleman that a young girl is safe with.  I mean one evening when I went to pay a call on him at his apartment, I found a girl there who really was famous all over Little Rock for not being nice.  So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of hysterics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings.
Because everyone at the trial except the District Attorney was really lovely to me and all the gentlemen in the jury all cried when my lawyer pointed at me and told them that they practically all had had either a mother or a sister.  So the jury was only out three minutes and then they came back and acquitted me and they were all so lovely that I really had to kiss all of them and when I kissed the judge he had tears in his eyes and he took me right home to his sister.
So, I mean, I liked the novel a lot - I didn't find it quite as uproariously funny as some people evidently do, and I think the joke would wear a little thin if it were stretched beyond the 150pp of this novel - but it was great fun while it lasted.  And I do have the even shorter sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, in the other half of this edition, starting from the other side and meeting in the middle... I'll report back in due course.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Song for a Sunday

Like everyone else in the world, it seems, I have Adele's albums.  I bought 19 after hearing her beautiful cover of 'Make You Feel My Love' at my cousin's wedding.  Well, little did I know that, buried deep in my iTunes, I had a duet called 'Water and a Flame' which Adele sang with Daniel Merriweather on his album Love & War.  And it's rather nice.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend (Minimalist) Miscellany

It's been a long day, so I'm going to leave you with a very minimalist miscellany.  Follow the links to find out more...

1.) 60 Years in 60 Poems - can you help?

2.) Remember how much I loved Life in a Day?  Now there is Britain in a Day.  Not as good, but still definitely worth watching.

3.) Have you seen Karyn's new bookshelves yet?

4.) Tove Jansson AND Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?  Yes please!  (click the picture for more info.)

5.) Claire shares How To Write A Novel by Georgette Heyer - very funny!  And...

6.) Michelle shares On Reviewing Fiction by Rose Macaulay - also very funny!

Have a lovely weekend :)

Friday, 15 June 2012

On Sylvia Townsend Warner and Virginia Woolf

Bea Howe (c.1925) by Duncan Grant

"What inspired and intrigued most about Sylvia was her way of talking.  I had never heard anybody speak like her before.  Some chance remark or an artfully-posed question by Tommy – who loved to argue with her – and Sylvia was off in a fantastic flight of her own.  Poetic words, colourful phrases, an apt quotation, extraordinary similes poured forth from her in a way I did not meet again till I came to know, and dine with, Virginia Woolf.  But where Sylvia kept her conversational flights of fancy more or less under control while the slightly malicious gleam in her eyes dared one to give her verbal battle, Virginia’s flights of pure fantasy, soaring sky-high, as the light in her beautiful deep-set luminous eyes kindled and grew almost wild, silenced one to listen to her, entranced." 

Bea Howe
PN Review 8:3 (1981)

Thursday, 14 June 2012

M for Mother - Marjorie Riddell

Why is it that I love books about motherhood from 50+ years ago?  I'm not likely ever to be either a mother or a time traveller.  I blame the Provincial Lady books, which set me off on a literary path from which I have never looked back.  I can't remember who mentioned Marjorie Riddell's M for Mother (1954) - was it you? Own up! - but I enjoyed adding it to the fold.  This one is actually from the other perspective - the daughter narrates.  She has recently left home, and each short chapter begins 'My mother writes to me and says' - it's all good fun.  There are lots of gossipy aunts who cause trouble, and Mother doesn't believe the daughter can possibly live a successful life without a mother's tender care.  

It's not in the same league as Diary of a Provincial Lady or Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, but it's definitely a book you'll enjoy flicking through, if you're a fan of those books by Delafield and Jackson.  I thought it would make sense to give you a taste - here's a chapter picked more or less at random: Chapter 17 - Holiday at Home.

My mother said she was glad she had got me at home for a fortnight because she was going to feed me up.  She knew that when I was away in London I lived on baked beans.  She wasn't surprised my eyes were dull.  She had warned me every time I came home but it was like talking to the Sphinx.  She had always thought that if I insisted on starving myself to death I would just have to get on with it, but now she had changed her mind.  Mrs. Plant's daughter was the picture of health and my mother wasn't going to have people making comparisons.

I said I don't live on baked beans.

My mother said yes, you do.

Now, eat your supper, my mother said.  You've got to eat it all.  I'm not going to let you die of starvation.  I'm just not going to let you whether you like it or not.

There, she said when I had finished, you look better already.  You don't look haunted.

On the following day we went to buy a tonic.

A tonic for putting on weight, my mother told the assistant.  Yes, you are rather thin, madam, said the assistant.  For my daughter, said my mother coldly.

Then we had me weighed.  I was nine stone.  See, my mother said.

And you've got to go to bed early, my mother said.  I can't do anything about it if you will never go to bed before two in the morning when you are away.  But I can while you are home.  I am helpless when you are in London and am forced to stand by and watch while you wear your nerves to trembling shreds.  I'm only glad I can't see you.  If you will tire yourself out like this the next thing will be you will lose your job, and you know you won't like that.

I said I don't stay up until two every morning.

My mother said yes, you do.

And another thing, my mother said.  You are going to take things calmly and slowly while you are home.  When you are in London you spend your time rushing like a mad thing from place to place without pausing for breath.  Tearing about like that without breathing isn't good for you.  You will have a gastric ulcer and then where will you be?

Aunt Ethel had one in her old house at Tunbridge Wells, my mother said.  She was in hospital for weeks and when she came home her roses were thick with greenfly.

I said I don't rush about like a mad thing.

My mother said yes, you do.

You whole attitude towards things is wrong, my mother said.  Your money, for instance.  Your father is going to talk to you about that.  I told him only last night he is going to.  I shall leave it to him and not say a word myself.  But what I want to say is that you simply must not carry it all about with you at once.  And don't say you don't because you do.

I know I do, I said.  Do you want me to leave half a crown under my mattress and carry a shilling round wih me?

There's no need to be sarcastic, my mother said.

I'm not being sarcastic, I said.

You carry pounds in your handbag, my mother said.

No, I don't, I said.

Don't argue, my mother said.  I remember, she went on, when Aunt Gertrude went to London in 1938 to see Aunt Dora and somebody stole her handbag.  Aunt Gertrude has never forgotten it.  Since then she has kept her money in a woolly bag tied round her waist under her clothes.  It has never been stolen again.  If you won't leave some of your money locked up in your room, my mother said, I will give you a woolly bag like Aunt Gertrude.

Now, eat your suet pudding and stop arguing, my mother said.  I'm going to keep you alive if it kills me.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Five From The Archive: Index

I thought it might be useful to have a central index post for Five From The Archive... so here it is!  Not much here at the moment... but it does mean I break the pattern of doing it every Wednesday early on, and won't feel wracked with guilt if I miss week 34, or something!

1.) Five... Books featuring Twins or Doubles
2.) Five... Books set in World War II
3.) Five... Shortlisted Booker Titles
4.) Five... Books about Death
5.) Five... Books by Canadians
6.) Five... Books about Family
7.) Five... Books about Pairs of Women
8.) Five... Books about Hands
9.) Five... Books about Holidays 
10.) Five... Books about the Theatre 
11.) Five... Books about School

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

How To Review a Book

I've seen many bloggers work out their own approach to reviewing books, covering all aspects - from whether or not you ought to say where you got a book, to whether or not negative reviews should feature at all on a blog.  Some bloggers (wisely) just outline their own preferences - others, at the shoutier end of the blogosphere which I frequent very seldom and to which none of you belong, lay down the law for all bloggers.  I'm not going to attempt to do either, but today I stumbled across John Updike's criteria for writing a review (which first appeared in the introduction to his essay collection Picking Up The Pieces in 1975) and I thought it was very interesting, and maybe even very sensible... what do you think?

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never ... try to put the author "in his place," making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Books On Hold

I've mentioned quite a few times that I'm one of those readers who can't commit to just one book at a time.  I always have a few on the go - usually four or five that I'm reading in earnest, as it were - but there is also a second batch of books which I have started, and intend to finish, but somehow drift into the background of my reading.  Sometimes I started and the book got sidelined somehow, dropping from those four or five into the hinterland of will-finish-one-day; sometimes they're books which, from the outset, I intended only to dip into now and then.  I thought you might like to see a list of the books I have on the go, not including the four titles I've started in the past week or so.

I was a little surprised at quite how many there were, I have to confess.  Here are all eleven of the books I have started, will finish one day... but haven't touched for quite a while.  With each picture I've included a quick mention of where the book came from, why it got sidelined, and how far I've got...

The Memoirs of a Midget - Walter de la Mare
Pages Read: 64/378

I started this because I thought it might be useful for my thesis.  It turned out to be neither very useful nor very engaging... but I think I'll finish it one day.  Especially since it turns out my housemate Rachel is distantly related to the author.

A Reader on Reading - Alberto Manguel
Pages Read: 92/291

The Library at Night - Alberto Manguel
Pages Read: 94/328

These Manguel books were always intended to be dip-in books for me - I have them on hand when I'm writing my thesis, as it seems a more productive distraction than browsing Facebook.

Gentleman Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos
Pages Read: 48/156

I bought this after seeing it mentioned in the Provincial Lady books, but stalled a couple of years ago - I will finish it one day (maybe even today, thinking about it) but I can't remember thinking it very amusing.

The Kingdom of Infinite Space - Raymond Tallis
Pages Read: 52/291

Not my normal read, you'll agree - a non-fiction book about the head - but I did find it fascinating when I started it last summer.  But I think I'll have to read it in small doses.

The Eye of the World - Robert Jordan
Pages Read: 590/782

Colin lent me this about three years ago, and I read 550 pages in one weekend (a good way to make yourself read something is to take nothing else on a trip to Paris) but since then I haven't been super-keen to get back to it.  Colin got so bored of waiting that he bought a new copy, and gave me this one.

Told By An Idiot - Rose Macaulay
Pages Read: 30/315

This was actually the first Rose Macaulay novel I bought, but I still haven't read it - I started at Christmas, but somehow got sidetracked.  I think I'll have to start it again next time, as I don't remember anything from those thirty pages...

The Man Who Unleashed The Birds: Frank Baker and His Circle - Paul Newman
Pages Read: 82/239

Paul Newman kindly sent me a review copy of this book about Miss Hargreaves-author Frank Baker, which I'm enjoying - but somehow it went back on the shelf for a bit.  Its time will come!

The Novel in the Viola - Natasha Solomons
Pages Read: 254/391

I loved Solomons' first novel, Mr. Rosenblum's List, but I didn't have the same urge to whip through this one... but one day I will finish this one.

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey
Pages Read: 112/404

I was really excited about this novel, and did enjoy the first hundred or so pages a lot - but I wasn't in the right mood for it after a while, and... well, you're getting familiar with this story now!

The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson
Pages Read: 251/370

This is the only one on the list that I might well not finish.  It was for book group, and I didn't get to the end in time for the meeting... I'm finding it very boring indeed.  One day I might make myself plough through those final 120 pages, but it doesn't feel worth it.


I forgot about The Chateau - William Maxwell!
Pages Read: 138/402

I bought up loads of Maxwell novels when I read They Came Like Swallows, and somehow stalled on this one... bringing my total up to TWELVE neglected books.  And four that I'm reading more actively.  So... SIXTEEN books on the go - argh!

Well, there you are!  Have you read any of these?
I'd be intrigued to see how many I've finished this time next year... and, if nothing else, this little investigation has helped me locate all sorts of bookmarks I thought I'd lost.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Song for a Sunday

Colin, my brother, recently described something (I forget what) as "like your Song for a Sunday - people wish it wasn't there."  To heap coals on his head, today's song is one he told me about.  We don't share a taste in music any more than we share a taste in books, but occasionally there is something we both like - step forward 'Rainy Days and Mondays' by The Carpenters.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I wonder how many Weekend Miscellanies I've done now?  It feels like nearly 100, but I daresay it isn't that many yet.  I hope you're still finding them useful - I know that I enjoy people's round-up posts, and I also like being able to collect together bits and pieces rather than scattering them through the week.  This weekend I'll be at work on Saturday, but not up to very much on Sunday.  I'm in a bit of a reader's block at the moment - or, rather, reading a couple of books that I'm finding dull but have to finish - so perhaps I'll indulge on Sunday and read something fun.  What are you up to?

1.) The link - if you happen to be in the Oxfordshire area at the end of June, why not go and see AA Milne's brilliant play The Dover Road (PG Wodehouse's favourite play, donchaknow) in Dorchester-upon-Thames?  More info here.  I'm hoping to go, if I can persuade some others.

2.) The blog post - if you're not doing so already, you should follow Thomas on his tour around the UK.  He's back in the US now, but is putting up glorious photo posts of his travels - he basically seems to have had the perfect trip (give or take potentially fatal car journeys) and has gone to many places I dream of visiting.

I don't think I've mentioned on here that Thomas and I had cream tea at the Randolph whilst he was in Oxford - I daresay it will appear on his blog at some point, although we didn't actually have a photo taken.  I met Thomas on his last visit, along with lots of other bloggers, but it was a real delight to have him to myself for a couple of hours.  I always get a bit nervous about these things, which either makes me very quiet or very voluble - well, just call me Garrulous Gary, because I chatted away animatedly all the way through, and Thomas did too.  It was so easy, and such fun.  We spoke surprisingly little about books (although we agreed to continue reading each other's blogs, despite my dislike of Hotel du Lac and Thomas's of Rebecca) - but we seemed to speak of many other topics under the sun.

3.) The book - I passed on my copy of Julie Myerson's Then to my housemate Mel, who read it instantly (remember those days, of never having unread books on your shelf?) and tells me it is brilliant - and baffling.  Dystopia, amnesia, and hallucination were the words I grasped from the conversation - which sounds as though it could be enthralling, or could be a huge mess - sounds as though it's the former.  Maybe one day I'll have time to read it... thank you to Jonathan Cape for sending me a copy.  I'll try to persuade Mel to write about it for me...

Friday, 8 June 2012

Daunt Books

You may not know, but Daunt Books have branched out into reprints.  Indeed, they did so in 2010.  It's been mentioned a few times around the blogosphere - I have an inkling that I may have mentioned it in passing here, actually - but today is the first time I have set eyes on the books they've printed.  Having seen my review of Ann Bridge's Illyrian Spring, they very kindly got in touch and offered to send me a copy - as well as two novels by Sybille Bedford: A Favourite of the Gods and its sequel A Compass Error.  When I went to the Celebration of Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Jane Howard listed Taylor and Bedford as the two authors universally praised by other novelists - so I'm excited to try her out.  These books are (I quote the email I got) 'about three generations of women living in Rome, London and the South of France in the first decades of the 20th Century.'  Sounds good, no?

Oh, and excuse my fancifulness with the images.  I've been envious of people who have Instagram, and then discovered that Picasa 3 is the Poor Man's Instagram (as well as being the Poor Man's Photoshop) so... yeah.  I'll try not to get too carried away for future posts!

Aren't they beautiful editions?  In terms of buying them, Daunt Books are primarily a bookseller, especially travel books, so they don't have a publishing website set up - but you can buy these editions from them.  Let me know what you think of their style - and, of course, whether you have read Sybille Bedford's work.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

For Sylvia by Valentine Ackland

When I started reading For Sylvia: An Honest Account by Valentine Ackland (published posthumously, in 1985) I was rather prepared to loathe the author.  I've recently read Sylvia Townsend Warner's Diaries, and I haven't come across more heartbreaking diary entries than those concerning the period when Ackland (STW's partner for decades) decided to move her lover Elizabeth Wade White into their home, while Sylvia Townsend Warner moved out to a hotel, as some sort of experiment.  Although Warner is devoted to Ackland until Ackland's death, and indeed until her own, she comes across as a selfish, cruel person.  It is perhaps unsurprising that when writing about herself, a more sympathetic portrait is drawn - and the fact that Ackland writes so well swept me along for a lot of it.  Although I have to say, a more miserable portrait than the cover photo I do not think I have ever seen.  I'm not sure a more miserable portrait is possible.  It didn't make me immediately warm to her.

For Sylvia isn't wholly an autobiography - it is, as the title suggests, an account of Ackland's life, written for Sylvia. Having said that, the 'for Sylvia' bit doesn't particularly influence the style or structure - she isn't addressed as 'you' at any point, but remains 'Sylvia' - so perhaps it is safest to call For Sylvia a memoir.  In essentials it deals with two broad aspects of Ackland's life - one being her romantic life, and the other being her battle with alcoholism.

Ackland starts by addressing that which every memoir needs: the pivotal moment of its subject's life:
The 'crisis': it has been laid down that this should grip the reader's interest, grapple him to the author, and amke it impossible for him to put the book down until he has finished it, or at least impossible for him to return it to the lending library by the next post.  But the 'crisis' in this particular life is very difficult to describe; for one thing, it is hard to know whether it happened in a flash or whether, in point of fact, it matured rather slowly and broke, as it were, creamily and in silence.  This 'crisis', too, is not directly concerned with a sexual upheaval, which makes it perhaps less enthralling to the reader than it was to the author.  However; it happened, and it was undoubtedly the sharpest possible crisis any life can know, for all it was so quiet and did not so much as cause a ripple on the surface of domestic life.
She is writing of her alcoholism, which had dominated much of her life for 19 years.  More particularly, the crisis is actually the end of this domination.  I know they say you cannot cure alcoholism, but the night in question - 8th October 1947 - was the last time Ackland felt the need for alchol.  Although with very, very little Christian faith at this point (she wavered quite a lot) she prayed to God.  'There was no reply.'  And yet, the following evening, after being ill all day, 'I suddenly realised that I was walking in tranquility and with perfect confidence; and that tranquillity and assurance has never left me.'  I don't wish to undermine the battles faced by those with alcoholism when trying to stop drinking; I am merely recounting the 'crisis' with which Ackland opens her memoir.

It is quite a structurally peculiar way to start.  Although Ackland does mention alcoholism at many points throughout For Sylvia (which, by the way, is short - 135 pages, including a 24-page introduction by Bea Howe) the rest of the memoir is structured chronologically, and focuses upon her various relationships, especially those with the anonymous R and X. 

I shan't summarise Ackland's accounts of her various love affairs - they take up most of the book.  I will simply write that (a) it is astonishing the number of women who throw themselves upon Valentine without the slightest provocation, and without knowing that she was a lesbian - Valentine herself didn't know for the first few, and (b) that it can't have made for very charming reading for Sylvia.  Although Ackland writes very well about her life, and has a simple, calm, flowing style which I had not expected of her, she isn't being very kind to her intended audience.  I get the feeling that, just as I forgot that Sylvia had been apostrophised at the beginning, so Ackland forgot, and became too involved with the tangled webs of her love affairs.  And they are often very tangled.  Ackland got married to a poor, bewildered man after a lengthy engagement - saying, shortly beforehand, that she will either marry him tomorrow or not at all.  She refuses to consummate the marriage, but immediately commits adultery with her long-term female lover.  Indeed, there is barely a time when Ackland isn't being, or considering being, unfaithful.  'I wonder,' she writes at one point, 'if anyone in the world was ever so idiotically vile as I was, for the best part of my youth.'  Ah!  A moment of self-awareness! (one thinks).  But one would be wrong.  Despite devoting paragraphs at various junctures to praise of Warner's character and their love for one another, the reader then comes upon this:
I write this on a day when I have heard that I at any time now another one I love will come to live with me here, in this house where Sylvia and I have lived for twelve years together, through bitterness of private woe, through war, through my degradation and shame and throuhg the almost two years accomplished of my heavenly rescue and our increasing happiness and peace.  I do not know how this new thing has come about, nor whether it is the work of heaven of hell.  I cannot, for more than a moment at a time, realize what it will be like to be here without Sylvia - or anywhere without Sylvia.  But I have a conviction that this must be tried; although it is so dangerous that I can scarcely dare measure it even in my fancy.
I couldn't remember, whilst reading For Sylvia, whether it has been written before or after this crisis in their relationship (for it was not permanent; Ackland chose Warner, and Warner came back to her own home, her own possessions) and was quite shocked that Ackland could write the above excerpt in the midst of eulogising their love.  I daresay I shouldn't judge her, but it is difficult to read her wanton cruelty, having read Warner's diaries.  In a book which centres on a person's actions and motivations, it is impossible not to assess and respond to them.

Whilst I was reading For Sylvia, the genuine quality of Ackland's writing, and (for some reason) its merit as good prose, made me feel a little more sympathetic to her.  I remain, of course, sympathetic to her plight with alcohol.  But in remembering her unkindness, her cruelty to Sylvia, and her absurd belief that it 'must be' done, I lose patience altogether.  It should be possible to separate writer and person, and I do admire Ackland more as a writer than I thought I would, but For Sylvia is an exercise in self-delusion - interesting, involving, but also infuriating.