Sunday, 30 September 2012

Song for a Sunday

Turn by Travis.  I'm not discovering anything new for you today, folks, but this is just a great song.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm at work this Saturday (boo!) but a friend is coming over to watch I Capture the Castle in the evening (hurray!) so it's not all bad.  Plus word got round at church that I like baking, so I got an 11pm text asking me if I'd make something for the Sunday service - will do, check.  Better than being asked to lift things or (the horrors) kids' work (kids work?), which I have managed always to avoid.  Anyway... here's your weekly miscellany, tuck in!

1.) The link - Adam and Chloe got in touch, and told me about The Willoughby Book Club.  It looks like a great idea - here's what they had to say:
A little about us… we offer our customers a personalised book club gift service for a range of ages and interests. In short, they choose from our range of book club packages (Babies, kids, adult fiction, non-fiction, cookery etc), tell us a little about the person they’re buying for, and we’ll then send out a brand new book once a month with a personalised message with their first delivery.
Maybe drop hints with your nearest and dearest...

2.) The blog post - is Lisa May / TBR 313's take on Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel - partly because it's a book I've been intending to read for ages, and partly because I've neglected her wonderful blog up til now, and I'm discovering all the delights that are there!

3.) The books - came from lovely Slightly Foxed, as a delightful surprise in the post.  Their beautiful Slightly Foxed Editions are gorgeous hardback reprints of memoirs.  Some of the most popular ones, now sold out (as they only print 2000 of each title) are available now as paperbacks - and they have sent me Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff and Adrian Bell's Corduroy, which Karyn was recommending only the other day.  Can't wait to get onto these, as the other SF editions I've read have all been utterly wonderful!  (And now the collector in me wants them aaallllll...)

Friday, 28 September 2012

A Man in the Zoo - David Garnett

I spent a day this week in the Reading University Special Collections reading room, going through Chatto & Windus review clippings books, looking at dozens of early reviews of David Garnett's Lady into Fox and A  Man in the Zoo.  This was incredibly interesting - looking at the initial response to these books, which was pretty positive, and seeing how their consensus over Lady Into Fox as a future classic have rather died a death.  David Garnett has become rather a footnote in the history of the Bloomsbury Group (most famous, perhaps, for marrying Virginia Woolf's niece Angelica - having previously been the lover of Angelica's father Duncan Grant.  Messy.)  But if anyone has heard of his literary output, it is for the 90-page novella Lady into Fox, where a lady turns into a fox (surprise surprise), which I wrote about briefly here.  It was a big bestseller in 1922, and lots of newspapers were eager to see what his follow up would be...

Hop forwards to 1924 and A Man in the Zoo, often found in tandem with Lady into Fox, since they only make up 190 pages between them.  Garnett has dropped the Defoe-esque (apparently) style of Lady into Fox, but he's still in person-as-animal territory - although this time there is nothing fantastic at play.

John Cromartie and Josephine Lackett are visiting the zoo, and are in the middle of an argument.  John has proposed, but Josephine doesn't want to leave her ailing father - and John believes that she simply doesn't love him enough.  They're having quite the contretemps, when Josephine says:
“I might as well have a baboon or a bear.  You are Tarzan of the Apes; you ought to be shut up in the Zoo.  The collection here is incomplete without you.  You are a survival – atavism at its worst.  Don’t ask me why I fell in love with you – I did, but I cannot marry Tarzan of the Apes, I’m not romantic enough.  I see, too, that you do believe what you have been saying.  You do think mankind is your enemy.  I can assure you that if mankind thinks of you, it thinks you are the missing link.  You ought to be shut up and exhibited here in the Zoo – I’ve told you once and now I tell you again – with the gorilla on one side and the chimpanzee on the other.  Science would gain a lot.”
She is venting, but... he takes her at her word.  John offers himself as an exhibit for the zoo - and, mostly to annoy a troublesome member of the committee ('it was not, however,until Mr. Wollop threatened to resign that the thing was done') they agree.

So he moves in.  He is housed between an orangutan and a chimpanzee, and draws quite the crowd - to the envy of his animal neighbours, and to Josephine's horror.  He is given a private bedroom and a library, and simply sits reading, ignoring the visiting public.  (It's starting to sound a little blissful, isn't it?  All that time just to read!)

For the rest of this short novel, Garnett shows Josephine and John's reactions to the situation, and (most adorably) gives John a pet caracal.  I hadn't looked one up before - but they're rather beautiful, aren't they?

(photo source)

As some of the early noted, Garnett doesn't entirely take full advantage of his scenario.  It could be used in all manner of different directions, but he doesn't explore very much - and the addition of another man (a black man, rather crudely drawn) feels a bit like Garnett is clutching at straws in an already extremely brief novel.  Lady into Fox was so brilliantly done, so logically worked out from the metamorphosis onwards, that A Man in the Zoo feels rather scattergun in comparison.  And the comparison certainly comes up time and again in those early reviews - as might be expected.

Taken on its own, without any reference to Lady into Fox, it's an enjoyable little book.  Garnett's style is pretty plain on first sight, but writing about passionate people without sounding ridiculous or hackneyed is difficult, so he deserves credit for that.  I suppose, with an extraordinary conceit at the centre of a narrative, the style shouldn't be over the top - so his gentle, straight-forward writing makes the tale seem almost rational.

I'd definitely recommend seeking out a copy which has both of these short novels together - not least because they are likely to have all the woodcuts by Garnett's then-wife Rachel Garnett, which have wonderful character to them.  Those for Lady into Fox are remarkable in the way she captures the fox's movements, as well as the human soul disguised in the metamorphosis.  The woodcuts help the fable-like quality of these two novels.  I don't know what message he might have been trying to give - they aren't simply Aesopian tales with morals - but an intriguing 1920s take on the strange and unusual, given a matter-of-fact treatment.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Side by Side

Thanks for your comments yesterday - we'll see, it might become a weekly feature til the end of the series, if I have the time and energy...

But, today - back to books!

I'm always intrigued by those arbitrary connections which books make while sat next to each other on shelves.  (There's a great quotation in Carlos Maria Dominquez's The Paper House about this, which I included in my review here.)  For those of us who shelve alphabetically, I mean (and I am always fascinated by the shelving decisions of bibliophiles).  Actually, any shelving system will throw up intriguing, unexpected combinations, unless you actively shelve by genre etc.  This sort of thing wouldn't interest many people, but I think I can guarantee that some of you will be among that minority...(!)  I love the idea that a simple alphabetical system can create clashes or harmonies between authors who might have nothing in common, beyond the first three letters of their surname.  But as the eye wanders along from book to book, one can't help but compare...

I thought I'd share some of the photos I took in Somerset quite a while ago, to show how authors have ended up being curiously appropriate or inappropriate bedfellows...

I love that two of my favourite authors - Ivy Compton-Burnett
and Barbara Comyns - are next to each other.
(Any authors who might divide them?)

It feels appropriate, too, that Elizabeth Cambridge
and Dorothy Canfield should sit alongside each
other - since I discovered both through Persephone.

But - oh dear - Muriel Spark and Nicholas Sparks?
I don't think MS would be very amused...

And can you imagine what Ivy C-B would say to
Jackie Clune and her book about triplets?
(She might get on better with Noel Coward...)
Winifred Watson, Evelyn Waugh, H.G. Wells, Dorothy Whipple,
Antonia White - which of us wouldn't relish that dinner party?

This one just struck me as a maelstrom of bizarre connections.
Thackeray, Trapido, Trefusis, Trillin, Trollope, Twain, Tyler, Undset -
it shows the range of my reading, but it's a little dizzying...
That was fun!

Less relevantly, but because I know some of you will want to see it, here is about half my Virago Modern Classic collection - the ones in Somerset.

I would love to see some snapshots of your bookshelves... if you have any unusual next-door-neighbours, or oddly-fitting ones, do pop a photo up on your blog (if you have one) and put a link in the comments!

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Great British Bake Off: Episode 7

Rather late in the day, I've decided to post blog reviews of The Great British Bake Off.  This might be the only one I ever do, because it's taken forever, and it won't be relevant to many of you - and it sure as sweet bippy ain't relevant to books, unless you count my Great British Bake Off cookbook - but I thought it'd be fun.  Feel free to twiddle your thumbs til tomorrow if it's of no interest to you, and forgive the way in which my caustic sense of humour (brought on by any reality programme) might emerge, and actual details may be sidelined!

In case you don't know, the Great British Bake Off is a gentle baking show, where contestants are sent home week by week, having failed to make the most impressive meringue tower or (horror of horrors) produced bread without enough crumb, or an inadequate bake.  (Parts of speech fall by the wayside in the furore of the kitchen/big white tent.)

The judges are Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.  Paul Hollywood tries to be the baking world's Simon Cowell, and knows no greater compliment than 'that's not bad', but he has a twinkle in his eye which softens any disapproval.  Mary Berry is everyone's favourite grandmother, without a bad word to say to anybody, but can do more with a disappointed glance than Cowell could with his whole arsenal of insults.  And she's come dressed in Joseph's Technicolour Dreamcoat, bless her.

This week, two people are going home, and the challenge is - buns.  Sue Perkins (presenter/comedienne/dowdier version of Victoria Beckham) is quick to spot the potential for puns, but I shan't sully my blog with her innuendo - which is about as shocking as a sunken sponge, of course.  They have to make 24 sweet buns, of any variety, in three hours.  Scottish James seems inspired to launch into an Eric Morecambe impersonation, but decides better of it halfway through.

Brendan (brilliantly described on some blog I read as 'tiny bald oddity Brendan') kicks off proceedings by proclaiming his love for fresh yeast.  He's unnervingly good in all the challenges, but that's never welcome in reality programmes.  We love the plucky underdog, not somebody who can produce a pastry lattice seemingly out of nowhere (see also: Holly from last year who, for no obvious reason, decided to hide a gingerbread house under her croquembouche.  She ended up coming second to lovely Jo.  TAKE NOTE, BRENDAN.)

He's making Chelsea Buns for the Signature Challenge (i.e. 'make something you're good at') - or, as he has termed them, Chelsea Bunskis, because they're going to be a bit Russian.  Mel (the other presenter) apparently knows her Russian (her surname is Giedroyc, so perhaps that has something to do with it?) and gives him a long name in Russian which I can't now remember. [EDIT: It was Polish, not Russian!]

James is making 'Easter Buns' (also, apparently, a variant on Chelsea Buns - which I keep giving caps, for some reason).  Mel says, in the voiceover, that he is 'never afraid of trying something different'.  White-water rafting, perhaps?  Staging the first all-lion Broadway production of Cats?  No, it turns out his daredevilry begins and ends with wrapping puddings in muslin.  I'm mostly disappointed that he's swapped his jazzy knits for a plain blue jumper.

Luckily John has taken on his mantle.  Last week he had to leave the strudel competition because a food processor left him some pints of blood lighter (or so we were led to believe) but he's back, and he's inspiring Sue to throw in some jazz hands.

He opines that he is nervous, but "that's the way of life."  Later he adds "What's done is done, and can't be undone."  Profound, John, profound.  That near-death injury has clearly made you quite the sage.

Don't worry, I won't recap absolutely everybody.  But I can't ignore Kathryn (played, it seems, by Jane Horrocks.)  She's a rather ditzy, self-deprecating young mother, who seemed in the first week as though she was there simply for comic relief, soon to be sent home, but she's proved herself rather adept at everything -even while certain that all her offerings are awful.  I'm amused by the brief 'contestant home life' clip she gets.  All the contestants get these, and they last about two seconds (which hardly makes up for the hours the cameramen presumably spent on the motorway to film these segments.)  Most people are offering cake to their friends, family, or colleagues (last week poor Brendan was shown handing some to a neighbour, who appeared to shut the door in his face without saying a word.)  Kathryn, inexplicably, is shown with tent and campfire in tow.  Is she homeless?

She looks about 12 in this picture, but she's at least... 22?

Ryan (our next contestant) unnerves me because he looks and acts very like a (female) colleague of mine - so let's ignore him.  Onto Sarah-Jane instead.  She's my favourite, and not just because she's a vicar's wife.  She's probably the worst baker left, but Sarah-Jane is able to laugh at the whole process - even while crying in a field under an umbrella.  She's also offers the highest likelihood of dropping everything on the floor (oh, Rob from Series Two, gone but never forgotten.)

I should have noted down what people were actually making, but they all seem to be Chelsea Buns or things that are close enough for non-experts like me.

In the first couple of series The Great British Bake Off would divide time between the competition, and lengthy histories of the fruit cake or currant bun.  Thankfully these segments have grown shorter this series (perhaps the biography of the Victoria Sponge hasn't changed much in the past twelve months?) but we're still made to sit through experts waffling on about cakes and bakers past, while Mel does nothing to disguise her boredom.  Rev. Steven Wild is very animated and rather likeable, but there isn't really any sense that he knows anything worth mentioning about Cornish Saffron Buns.

Back to the kitchen/tent, and Sue's best pun yet - "You bun-loving criminals!" - and John (or was it James?) quite genuinely says "Good luck, little buns, good luck" as he puts his trays in the oven.  Brendan does his best to pretend the whole challenge is a down-to-the-wire angst-fest, but his heart isn't really in it.  It's not a high-octane show, despite Mel popping up occasionally and saying "One minute left, one minute" in excerpts probably filmed at the end of the day.  But we do have our first accident!  Kathryn spills some of her buns, but... they're fine.  Alfred Hitchcock it ain't.

Hollywood and Berry (crime-fighters extraordinaire!) step forward for some judging.  Always astute ("Did you use almond extract as well as almonds?") and straightforward ("Burnt"; "Bland") they eat extraordinary quantities of buns.  Occasionally Paul picks one up and pulls it apart, but it's not quite clear what he's trying to prove.  He pokes a hole in one of Sarah-Jane's ("it holes" - Paul, please put some effort into correct use of verbs!) and her critique isn't great - leading to this rather heart-breaking face.

Poor Sarah-Jane!  Don't go!

A mixture of gibberish and Mary Berry's mischievous grins, and we're back to establishing shots of sheep and ducks.  Sarah-Jane and John seemed to get the worst critiques - Brendan and Danny do well.

Onto the technical challenge!  Everyone has to make the same thing, and Hollywood and Berry will judge them 'blind' (only it's always entirely obvious which contestants made what, as they squirm and wince their way through their assessment, in front of the judges.)  This week - jam doughnuts!  If Our Vicar's Wife comes by, she'll tell you about the jamless jam doughtnut she ate on honeymoon.  The news that it's jam doughnuts seems to fill Sarah-Jane with glee, Danny with consternation, and Brendan with a vague melancholy.  Only Scottish James has made them before, many times... could pride come before a fall?  Usually Kathryn claims not to have a clue what is happening from beginning to end (this week: "It's just like kneading a big ball of chewing gum") and yet produces one of the best results.  We'll see.

For some reason, we're now off to see Tori Bottomley, WWII Re-enactor.

Thanks, Tori.

We're back to the tent, and Scottish James claims that the 'most satisfying thing in the world - no exaggeration' is when bread dough on the scales weighs exactly what you want it to.  His seems to, so life is all downhill from here, eh?

Nobody else really seems to know what they're doing.  Kathryn toys with 'taking the oily plunge', whatever that means, Danny is next ("I wonder how much you can disguise with a whole heap of caster sugar?")  Although Danny is very talented, she doesn't have the right ingredients for a great reality TV contestant.  She's somehow very forgettable, and exactly as good as she looks.  Ideal contestants should either be much better or much worse than you'd expect, and (if possible) have a strong regional accent and/or comic facial expressions.  Never mind, Danny, at least you've got competence on your side.

Jam is haemorrhaging everywhere, 'doughnut doom' is mentioned, but eventually everyone's trays of ten doughnuts must be brought to the front and laid before the critical eyes of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.  Paul announces that he's looking for "Light colour, cooked inside, and a good amount of jam."  Quantities of jam have now taken on moral significance.  Paul's talent is being able to tell, simply from holding a baked good, exactly where the contestant went wrong - whether they were proved a minute too long, or have an ounce too much flour - while Mary witters a little, smiles at the contestants, and shows just as much expertise in far fewer words.

Well, in seventh and last place is lovely Sarah-Jane, followed by Ryan, Kathryn (that's a surprise!), Brendan (who looks incredulous), John, Danny, and in first place is Scottish James.  He feels that he has cheated the other contestants, because he's made doughnuts before... Ryan, on the other hand, considers coming second-last as 'a sort of victory'.  Hmm.  It's also a sort of failure, isn't it, Ryan?

Finally we have the Showstopper Challenge, which is basically the Signature Challenge but with fancier toppings.  They're making celebration loaves - from Christmas loaves to Stollen to  'Kugelhopf-Brioche Baba', whatever that may be.  James is making that, and apparently it includes half a bottle of whiskey.  At this stage in the game, and having presumably seen the programme before, the bakers know what Mary and Paul especially like and dislike ("Mary loves a lemon.")  James concedes that Paul isn't a big fan of lots of alcohol in a baked good, but he's going right ahead anyway...

This post is getting absurdly long, so I'll just give you a quotation or two:

"I'm the bridge between the 70s and today."

"I'm trying to fight for my place in the competition - that's why I'm shoving a piece of marzipan full with cherries and chocolate."

"It can look like a drunken seaman."

"Paul's frightened me a little bit about the amount of cinnamon that's in the dough."

It's getting pretty exciting!  Sarah-Jane - who really is fighting for her place now - has decided to make a plaited loaf, despite being appalling at that during Bread Week.  Well, good luck to you, love.  At this point, unless her loaf turns out to be a sentient being, she's heading back to Crawley.

Oh.  Sarah-Jane, did you know you can save money on train tickets if you buy them early?  I'd get on the internet now, love.  Brendan, who was worried that people might think he's too dated in his decoration, has opted for this...

And the judging begins!

Brendan gets "good bake".
Sarah-Jane's is "raw", but has good flavours (always a death knell.)
Ryan's "doesn't have that sort of wow", and his pork brioche (*shudder*) is also raw.
Danny's cake has "a nice strong colour" and Mary can taste all the separate flavours
John's strikes Mary as too flat and "a little bit on the stodgy side" - which, in Paul's less gentle lexicon, becomes "it's beginning to weld my mouth together."
Kathryn presents hers with a sparkler on top, and the cinnamon levels turn out to be acceptable.
Finally, James's whiskey is over the top - he needs to concentrate more on his 'core flavours'.  So we finish off with yet another of Paul's incomprehensible criticisms.

Two people are going, who will they be?  Presumably Sarah-Jane and Ryan, no?  Paul and Mary make an effort to pretend that it could be various of the other bakers, but unless they're picking names out of a hat arbitrarily, then surely these two will be on their way home...

This week's star baker is... Danny!  She smiles a bit, but seems to have forgotten all about it before the camera pans away from her.

And, going home...

Sarah-Jane and...

... Ryan.

So, no surprises there.  They both seem fairly cheery about it.  I'll miss lovely Sarah-Jane... and now I'm Team Kathryn.

Next week - biscuits!  But possibly not another review from me, as I've discovered how very long this sort of blog post takes to write.  Hope you can forgive a step away from the usual - we'll be back to books tomorrow.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Railway Children - E. Nesbit

I'm still having trouble filling up the first twenty years of 20th century, so decided to take recourse to a reliable candidate for 1906.  When I started this project there were a list of authors I thought would come in handy for the decades I know less about.  Some I've read this year (Muriel Spark, Paul Gallico), some I haven't yet (Milan Kundera, Penelope Fitzgerald) but E. Nesbit was always on that list, and likely to appear at least once before the end of 2012.  I haven't read The Railway Children since I was about eleven, and I thought (given how often I've seen the film) that it was about time for a revisit!

Well, what on earth can I say about The Railway Children?  Surely - surely - you've all read it, or at least seen the film?  No?  Someone at the back hasn't?  I'll whip through the basics of the plot quickly, and then give you my 2012 response in bullet points.  M'kay?

Bobbie (Roberta), Peter, and Phil (Phyllis) are three young siblings who, when their father leaves mysteriously, must move with their mother to the countryside and 'play at being poor'.  While she scrapes together money by writing stories, the children grow to know and love the railway and station.  It becomes the focus of their lives, and their various exploits and adventures are connected with it - whether rescuing an injured boy playing paperchase, preparing a party for the station master, or ripping off petticoats to stop a train derailing in a landslide.

Here's how I responded to it in 2012...

  • It all happens so much more quickly than I remembered!  I suppose I'm used to the pacing of the film, and of course perception of time changes over the years, but I was amazed at how speedily E. Nesbit dashes through the events.
  • E. Nesbit is funny!  There's an arch, dry humour that I hadn't spotted the first time around.  It first crops up on the opening page, where Phyllis is described simply as 'Phyllis, who meant extremely well.'  I'm not going to say that The Railway Children is a raucous knockabout, but this humour prevents Nesbit stumbling into over-earnest territory.
  • Lordy, she's sexist.  Par for the course in 1906, I daresay, but she doesn't seem to be using irony when the doctor says "You know men have to do the work of the world and not be afraid of anything - so they have to be hardy and brave.  But women have to take care of their babies and cuddle them and nurse them and be very patient and kind."  *Shudder*
  • However, there is such a lovely feel to reading this book.  A mixture of the qualities inherent in the story, characters, setting - but also, of course, a little journey back to my own childhood.  Not only did I read and watch The Railway Children, but I grew up next to a railway.  No station, and no steam trains of course, but the noise of trains still takes me back.
  • Er, yes... yes, I did cry at the end.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Song for a Sunday

Not many singers come out of The X Factor (or similar shows) with great records - mostly because they're shoved through Simon Cowell's song-making factory, or because they're good singers but not good songwriters.  The only brilliant album from X Factor (that I can think of) is Rebecca Ferguson's 'Heaven'.  I haven't heard Aiden Grimshaw's album yet, but I rather loved 'Curtain Call' - enjoy!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

My ex-housemate Mel is visiting Oxford this weekend, which will make me very happy.  It's not the same city without her, and we'll paint the town red this weekend (or, more likely, play Scrabble.)   This might mean no post on Monday - forewarned is forearmed, and I'm sure you'll get through the day!  But for now, a link, a blog post, and a whole mound of books.

1.) The link - is a free library!  "The only rule is that there are no rules" - books can be borrowed for any length of time, or even kept.  The man running this, from his home, wisely says "As a book caretaker, you become a full man."  Take note, OV and OVW.   Oh, and it's in one my very favourite cities, Manila in the Philippines.  (WHY didn't I visit when I was there?)  Read more here.  I know a few of you live in Manila - have you ever been?

2.) The book - comes from beautiful Folio Books (thank you!) - a rather lovely edition of The Wind in the Willows, which I haven't read since I was about 12.  I'll probably have a re-read soon, and will post more then, but I promised Ozal a link to Folio's page on the book asap. 

3.) The blog post - is Victoria/Litlove's fascinating discussion-opener on writing blog reviews.  She also includes links to other posts, which will send you off into one of those link-blog-link-blog spirals that could be gloriously unending.  Well, that's what it did for me.  Victoria's post also acts as LitCrit 101 for those who sometimes feel out of their depth in that area - and there's also a really interesting set of comments which are worth reading.

4.) The ebooks - *washes mouth out with soap*  Yes, I'm going to talk about ebooks.  The lovely people at Bloomsbury Reader got in touch to ask whether I'd like one of their Ivy Compton-Burnett ebook reprints (can one reprint an ebook?)  Obviously I couldn't accept, but I did offer to do a 'shout-out'.  So, for those of you who are yet to try Dame Ivy, Bloomsbury Reader have quite a few available as ebooks: A Heritage and Its History, Elders and Betters, Two Worlds and Their Ways, The Present and The Past, The Last and the First, A Family and a Fortune, Men and Wives, Parents and Children and even her first, disowned, novel Dolores.  The only one of those I've read is Parents and Children, which is great - and I imagine all the others are great too!  (Some are available as print-on-demand paperbacks, but at twice the price of the ebooks, and rather more than you can find the books for secondhand.)  Let me know if you try any!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Guard Your Daughters - Diana Tutton

41. Guard Your Daughters (1953)

What a heavenly book!  What a glorious find!  It has gone into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.  There was never any question that it wouldn't.

Occasionally I started a book and, after a page or two, know that I will hate it *cough* Mary Webb *cough - less frequently, it takes only the first page to tell me that a book is astonishingly brilliant (step forward Patrick Hamilton.)  Rarest of all is the book where, before the end of the second page, I know I will read and re-read it for many years to come.  We all recognise the difference between a book we admire and a book we love.  Often these overlap, but there are very few novels which feel like loved ones, so deeply are we attached to them.  Guard Your Daughters is on that list for me, now.

First off, I have to acknowledge how similar it is to Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.  I mentioned that the other day, but I don't think I can really write a review without acknowledging it again.  Guard Your Daughters was published five years after I Capture the Castle, and I think Tutton must have been influenced by it - or perhaps there was something in the zeitgeist?  (Disclaimer: I'm going to make two big assumptions - that you've read I Capture the Castle, and that you love it.  I won't give away any significant spoilers, but my references to Dodie Smith's novel might not make complete sense if you've not read it.... ok, disclaimer over!)

Here are some of the similarities: The narrator is a young girl (Morgan Harvey is 19, to Cassandra's 17) who lives with her eccentric family in the middle of rural nowhere.  Her father is a writer (although Morgan's father is a successful and prolific detective novelist, not an avant-garde sufferer from writer's block) and there are posher folk living nearby.  Tutton even seems to make reference to Rose's disastrous attempts to dress up for her neighbours, when Morgan and her sisters are preparing to visit theirs:
Luckily, if you bother to read a few illustrated papers you can always find out what to wear when, so that we didn't make any crashing faux pas, such as wearing long dresses or flowers in our hair.
The most significant similarity is the feel of the novel.  Just as I Capture the Castle has a warm, nostalgic feel to it (don't ask me how), so Guard Your Daughters feels like a novel one read repeatedly throughout childhood, even though I hadn't read a word of it before this week.  Without being like those mawkish Edwardian children's books where everyone Learns A Lesson, Tutton has created a wonderful family of people who love one another and, somehow, make the reader feel included.  'About fifty years out of date', as one sister cheerfully confesses, and 'living in a completely unreal world' as another admits, but this isn't a realist novel.  This is a novel which glories in its own delightful eccentricity - but not without serious undercurrents.

Right, the family.  While Cassandra was blessed only with one sister and one brother, Morgan has four sisters.  Dreamy, shy Teresa is the youngest (at 15) - she warmed my heart by her forthright hatred of sports.  Next is Cressida, the only one of the unmarried sisters who craves a normal family environment - she rather blended into the background, but that turns out to be important.  Morgan is the middle sister.  One year older than her, Thisbe is dry, sardonic and loves to make visitors feel awkward - the only thing she takes seriously is her poetry.  Oldest is Pandora, recently married and thus absent from the home.  When she visits, her perspective on life has changed...
"The thing is--" said Pandora.
"I realise now - I never did before --" She hunted for words and I turned and stared at her.
"What are you trying to say?"
"I realise now that we're an odd sort of family."
"Well of course we are."
"But I mean - Oh, Morgan, I do want you all to get married too!"
"Five of us?  I doubt if even Mrs. Bennet managed as well as that, unless she fell back on a few parsons to help out.  However, dearest, we'll do our best."
It is obvious that life cannot be normal for these five - but Guard Your Daughters isn't self-consciously wacky or absurd.  The events are entirely plausible - there are very amusing scenes where Morgan and Teresa try to run a Sunday School lesson, or Morgan and Thisbe attempt to negotiate a cocktail party, or the girls try to put together a meal for a visiting young man while subsisting on rations (and finer things illegally given by a nearby farmer.)  The various relationships between sisters aren't unlikely either - except perhaps the standard of their conversation and wit.  What makes the Harvey family eccentric is their detachment from the outside world, and their complete absorption in the feelings and doings of the family unit, to the exclusion of almost everybody else.  (The family unit is completed, incidentally, by their father and mother.  No Mortmain-esque step-parents in sight.  The father is only mildly absent-minded, and the mother... well, she has sensitive nerves... it's not all easy-going in this household or this novel.)

But, despite Pandora's fears, they do manage to meet a couple of young men.  Gregory's car fortuitously breaks down outside their gate (remind you of any novel?) and, later, Patrick offers Morgan and Teresa a lift in his car while they're on their way to a nunnery to learn French... Aside from owning cars, these young man share bewilderment at the Harvey family, and both become objects of desire for one sister or another.  Unlike I Capture the Castle, the romance plot never becomes of overriding importance.  Far more important is the family, their love and rivalry, and definitely their comedy.  There are many very amusing scenes, and a few quite moving and difficult ones, but the main wonder of the novel is the family, and Morgan's voice.  She is not so self-conscious as Cassandra, but has an inviting, charming, slightly wry outlook on her sisters - coloured, of course, by her love for them.  I have no idea how Tutton has created such a lovable character - if I knew, I'd bottle it.

These aren't the sisters in the book, of course... but they could be.
(picture source)

It's so difficult to write about a book when I have simply loved it.  I want to shelve any critical apparatus (not that I usually drag it out on my blog) and substitute rows of exclamation marks and smiley faces.  Guard Your Daughters is so warm, so funny, so lively and delightful.  It's a warm blanket of a novel, but never cloying or sentimental.  Basically, if you have any affection for I Capture the Castle, you'll feel the same about Guard Your Daughters.  I'm going to go one step further.  I think it's better than I Capture the Castle.  There.  Said it.

Bizarrely, unbelievably, criminally, it is out of print.  But I've seen the edition I have (the Reprint Society, 1954) in lots and lots of bookshops - I think they may have overestimated the demand!  I would love people to read it, so I'll probably buy up copies when I see them, and force them on friends and family... if it's languishing on your shelves, then go and grab it asap.  I'm so grateful to my friend Curzon for initially recommending it to me, and later Nicola Humble (author of the absolutely essential The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920 to 1950s) for reminding me about it at a conference earlier this year.  It's probably my book of 2012 so far, and if you manage to get a copy, please come and let me know what you thought.

Oh, what a heavenly book!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Five From the Archive (no.9)

I'm still enjoying these jaunts down memory lane - I'm not sure how much longer I'll be able to think of themes which encompass five great books each time, but even with 45 titles down, I have about 300 other reviews to consider... fun!  Do use the Five From the Archive idea and badge, if you so wish.

Five... Books About Holidays

This may be cruel, as the summer quietly dies, but (if it helps) some of these holidays are far from desirable...

1.) The Enchanted April (1922) by Elizabeth von Arnim

In brief: Four seemingly incompatible women join each other for a month in beautiful Italy - which has a powerful effect on them all.

From my review: "The castle is described beautifully, and especially the garden - attention drawn often to the wistaria, which happens to be my favourite plant. Everywhere is brightly sunny, airy, thick with the scent of flowers and bursting with nature. It could have been horribly overdone, but E von A strikes just the right note."

2.) Illyrian Spring (1935) by Ann Bridge

In brief: Another idyllic trip to Italy sets off an intriguing friendship between (Lady) Grace Kilmichael and young artist Nicholas.  Heavy on snobbery, but made up for by being simply beautiful.

From my review: "There are a few, a very few, authors who manage to write about the visual in ways which focus upon characters' emotions and their responses, even if this isn't stated explicitly, and that works for me. I'm thinking the moment when Jude looks out over Christminster in Jude the Obscure, and more or less every moment of Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April. Ann Bridge joins that select few, for me."

3.) The Great Western Beach (2008) by Emma Smith

In brief: A lovely childhood memoir of visits to Cornwall, which manages to be joyful despite some tough subject matter.

From my review: "I think the most useful way I can write about this book is to describe the style. First person, but neither from the author's current perspective, nor from the child's. It is all written as though she were looking back at the events from a distance of only a couple years - some hindsight and analysis is permitted, but alongside childhood ignorance of certain things, and a child's language."

4.) Straw Without Bricks (1937) by E.M. Delafield

In brief: Not a traditional holiday, perhaps, but here Delafield casts her witty and sensible eye over Soviet Russia, even living in a commune.

From my review: "This is certainly not the 'funny book' that her publisher was hoping for. Delafield's own political leanings were to the left, though not as far as Communism, and she treats the country and its inhabitants seriously. Much of this is with a subdued horror - at the indoctrination, the lack of freedom, the systematic removal of beauty and individualism - but she never makes Communism's adherents appear ridiculous. The humour is often directed towards her fellow tourists, or such quintessentially British anxieties as having to wait around for something to happen, or wondering how to pass someone one is keen not to engage in trivial conversation."

5.) Beside the Sea (2001) by Veronique Olmi

In brief: Easily the darkest of these books, a mother struggles with two young sons while staying in a dingy hotel beside the sea.

From my review: "I was initially thrown by the tone of the novel, being so different from what I expected - and I did worry that it would be like so many other novels, in a 'real' voice which is so jarring and unsatisfying. But Olmi is much cleverer than that - though the reader might think at the start that this is an average mother, it is soon obvious that she is not. Unreliable narrators always make for interesting reading, and this one gives away only so much - and how much of that is true or reasonable is difficult to gauge..."

a gold star if you can spot the pun... ahem.

As always - over to you!  These themes are just to make us think a bit out of the box, or make unusual connections between books we've read, so... holidays in fact or fiction, folk?

Monday, 17 September 2012

Conference Called

What We Didn't Quite Look Like (except in spirit)
(photo source)

A few of you asked if I'd feed back on the conference I attended last week, and I'm more than happy to do so.  It was called Space and Place in Middlebrow: 1900-1950, mostly organised by Kate Macdonald whom you may know from the podcasts Why I Really Like This Book.  When you see that her most recent podcast is about E.F. Benson's Queen Lucia, you'll sense that we were in the right hands to enjoy a wonderfully middlebrow conference...

I didn't speak at this conference (although had given my first proper conference paper at the equivalent conference last September, on Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes and Edith Olivier's The Love-Child.)  This was a mixed blessing - I enjoyed being able to sit back and relax, and just listen to the fascinating papers, but I also got to the end of the two days wishing I'd contributed something more.  But when the call for papers came out I couldn't think of anything to submit, since I was busy writing up what I'd spoken on in 2011.  Oh well - I certainly had a really amazing couple of days.  If all academia was like this, then I would jump on board wholeheartedly.

I think different specialities attract people akin to their topics.  I've heard that conferences on the 18th century have banquets and are a bit formal.  People studying the middlebrow seem to be so relieved that other people know what the middlebrow is, and have read some of the same authors, that we bond delightedly over tea and cake.  It was lovely to see people I knew from last year, including blogger Tanya/20th Century Vox who gave a brilliant paper on E.M. Delafield's The Suburban Young Man, and it was an especially fun surprise to meet Nick of A Pile of Leaves, since neither of us knew the other would be there.  Amusingly, he came over and asked if I were Stuck-in-a-Book (as it were) entirely based on someone pointing me out as a Simon who owned too many books.

The papers were deliciously middlebrow, of course, and great fun to listen too - as well as thought-provoking and scholarly.  Finally, after three years, I have got enough confidence to ask questions and join in conversations - a shame it didn't come at the beginning of my DPhil, but better late than never!  It was a very positive experience to feel like I might have things to contribute to discussions, and some knowledge about the subject.  Last year people were really supportive of and interested in my paper, but I was a blur of nerves for a lot of it.  This year I could hear the papers without worrying about my upcoming contribution.

I shan't reveal much about people's arguments in their papers, because of intellectual property etc., but I imagine a few of you will be drooling enviously at the knowledge that topics covered included: views of the English Riviera in Rebecca; women writers in Elizabeth Cambridge's Hostages to Fortune and Angela Thirkell's High Rising; national identity in Agatha Christie's novels; the middlebrowness of Woolf's literary pilgrimages; bedrooms in Jeeves and Wooster novels; alternative rooms of one's own in Lettice Cooper's The New House and Stella Gibbons' Bassett; middle-class uncanny in Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost; Elizabeth Bowen and the suburbs... and that's only a selection of the papers I thought most interesting! Last year's conference had quite a few topics which were really only on the peripheries of the middlebrow, so it was joyous to have so many papers slap-bang in the middle of the middlebrow.  Can you imagine people not only having read these novels, but having original, exciting arguments to put forward about them? I was on cloud nine!

There was also a very entertaining discussion by always-hilarious Erica Brown and Chris Hopkins about a new venture at Sheffield Hallam University called Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950.  They've collected together nearly 1000 books (of various 'brows', but lots of middlebrow titles) from those fifty years, and as part of the project have got book groups reading their way through them and producing reports.  It all sounds very like something the blogosphere could support - watch this space to see if things open up to the wider world.  In fact, watch this space, because that is their blog, and has more info etc.  They're also looking for further donations (in the form of books) to the collection, so if you have anything going spare... well, check out that blog or this website.

All in all, a wonderful couple of days!  In November I'm speaking at a conference on The Marginalised Mainstream, which seems to have a somewhat wider remit, but will hopefully be as interesting.  Oh, if only this conference could have gone on for months and months!

All The Books of My Life - Sheila Kaye-Smith

I recently read one of my favourite ever author autobiographies, Sheila Kaye-Smith's All The Books of My Life (1956) without having read any of her novels.  I have read two volumes about Jane Austen which Sheila Kaye-Smith co-authored, and now I have read her autobiography (of sorts) - but I have still yet to read any of her fiction.  Should I?  Being 'rural novels', I have an unreasoning terror that they will be exclusively in cod-dialect, and feature sturdy (but honest) young men and flighty (but honest) young women.  Everything, in fact, that Stella Gibbons warns there might be, in Cold Comfort Farm.  My experience with Mary Webb has done nothing to assuage these fears.

Most of us turn to author's biographies or autobiographies to elucidate their novels, or simply because we want to learn a bit more.  My way of doing things seems a bit contrary, but I happened to flick through All The Books of My Life in the Bodleian the other day (somehow it has found its way to the high-use open shelf collection - who could possibly have been reading it?) and I knew I'd have to get myself a copy.  As the account of writing and living as a novelist, it is deeply interesting.  As the perspective of a reader in the first half of the twentieth century, it is a joy.

Kaye-Smith apparently wrote an earlier autobiography about 'my marriage, my home and my religion', and decided that, turning seventy, it was time to dedicate an autobiography to the books she has read.  It's like My Life in Books, I suppose.  From the book about Charles which taught infant Sheila to read, to the latest developments in her reading taste, Kaye-Smith threads the narrative of her life with the books which have influenced her.  Naturally, perhaps, the quotations I have jotted down are those which deal with the books, rather than the life.  Her life is interesting, but I found myself nodding in agreement so enthusiastically at her readerly opinions that I couldn't help but mark them down.  Excuse a torrent of quotations... beginning (let's keep this chronological, shall we?) with her early affection for Lewis Carroll's Alice:
My delight in Alice in Wonderland, which I feel with increasing strength every time I read it, dates from the very dawn of understanding.  It is surely a wonderful achievement to have written a book that does not lose a spark of its magic in the re-reading of sixty years.  As I grew up I came to prefer Through the Looking-Glass - the adventures and characters are more significant and I am increasingly amazed at the brilliance of its construction - but my first introduction was to Wonderland, by means of a version specially prepared for small children and called The Nursery Alice.  This had the Tenniel illustrations, but they were all in colour, and the book must have been an expensive one for it was always kept in the drawing-room.  I remember the panic with which I saw my mother lock the drawing-room door when a thief was supposed to be about, for I felt sure that his main design was to steal my Alice.
There is something rather adorable about that, isn't there?  I love how Kaye-Smith is able to recall the perspectives she held at various stages of her life.  Not only does she remember the books she read, but how she felt about them and the impact they had.  She covers all manner of obscure novels and esoteric books, but my next two excerpts concern well-known writers, and I've selected them purely because I agree with them so whole-heartedly...
I do not think a full-grown sense of humour is required to appreciate Dickens, but it is advisable to read him as I did for drama and pathos.  He is primarily a comic writer.  His character-drawing - and no one more signally then Dickens has given honorary members to the human race - is the drawing of a humorist, that is of a caricaturist, who can often show more of his model's essential quality than a 'straight' artist, but certainly requires a mature mind to appreciate him at his full value.  I read Dickens not to laugh but to cry, for in those days I wanted most of a novel was the gift of tears.
And how could I resist this account of her experiences reading Ivy Compton-Burnett?  Not only do I agree with her assessment of Dame Ivy, but it shows that a false-start with her needn't be the end of the story... encouraging words for any of you who have tried and failed to enjoy ICB!
For many years I found her unreadable, and the praise of her admirers was as the meaningless clamour of those who worship strange gods.  I myself bore all the marks of the Philistine - I complained that her novels were only dialogue, that the characters all talked alike, that they did not belong to the story and so on.  When J.B. Priestley in one of the Sunday papers investigated her cultus and found it more of a craze, I murmured 'the Emperor's clothes...'

Then came what can only be called my conversion.  It was one of those mental switch-overs in which a pattern that had seemed meaningless as black on white is suddenly filled with meaning by the discovery that it is really white on black.  I. Compton-Burnett's novels are not pictures, they are designs, and bear the same relation to life as the stylized rose on the wallpaper bears to the realistic illustrations in Flowers of the Field. One does not quarrel with the wallpaper flower because it has a symmetry and formality which the model lacks.  We obtain both from the book and from the wallpaper the essential meaning of a rose - indeed there may be more abstract meaning in the wallpaper design than in the naturalistic picture.  I. Compton-Burnett is definitely an abstract novelist.
When with a deep sigh of satisfaction I closed Mother and Son I did not at once, as I should have in the case of any other author who had so delighted me, rush to order more books by the same hand.  I shall doubtless read them all in time, but they must be spaced out - probably as far apart as their actual dates of publication.  To sit down and read, say, six I. Compton-Burnett novels in succession would be like sitting down to a six-course dinner consisting entirely of caviare.  The addict would find that bad for the palate as well as the digestion - time must pass and other food be eaten if he is to recapture the original savour.  So promising myself a treat in the future not too far away, I open a novel by Monica Dickens.
Sheila Kaye-Smith (photo source)
I shouldn't be giving the impression that All The Books of My Life is simply a collection of reviews tacked together.  When Kaye-Smith subtitles the book 'an autobiographical excursion', she means just that - the books really do frame an autobiography and, especially in the second half, anecdotes and reflections prompt or are prompted by comments on the reading Kaye-Smith undertook at any point in her life.  For example, there is a fascinating account of a friend in early adulthood who suffered a psychiatric-disorder which made her believe in her own false double-life.  Details of fan letters and increasing literary celebrity will appeal to anybody intrigued by the status of authors in the mid-century.  Towards the end of the book, there is quite a bit about Kaye-Smith's Catholicism and various theological and spiritual books, which will appeal to some readers (although mostly went a bit over my head, as her spiritual reading seems rather more learned than mine.)  And any well-known admirer of Jane Austen could hardly craft a book without humour - it is a subtle wit, found chiefly in the turns of phrase Kaye-Smith uses, or wry conclusions to paragraphs...
Love and violence also swelled the sales of another spinster novelist, E.M. Hull, author of The Sheik, whose remarkable picture of desert life started a public demand for sheiks that was fostered by the cinema until it died of its own absurdity.
We all love reading the words of bibliophiles, otherwise we wouldn't be reading blogs.  All The Books of My Life demonstrates that you don't need to have the remotest interest in an author's work to find their autobiography engaging, and I found herein the dual pleasures of agreement and discovery.  For all the head-nodding passages, there were two or three about books and authors I have yet to encounter.  It is perhaps surprising that more authors do not choose this bookish format for their autobiographies, and I wish more would, but I am delighted to have found (entirely by good fortune) so sublime an example.  But I still won't be throwing my hat into the ring and trying one of her bain't-youm-be-alost rural novels.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

What I'm Reading; or, How Googling It Quickly Led To The Most Surreal Website Ever

I'm currently reading Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters, recommended years ago by my friend Curzon, and which I will be enthusing about more than you can imagine.  I'll be hunting you down and making sure you read it if you have any affection for I Capture the Castle.  But I couldn't resist posting a link... I googled Guard Your Daughters and not many people have written about it, but it does feature in a photo blog called 2 bison, where the photographer takes photos of everyday objects and two small bison... see here, and marvel.  (And make sure you click on '2 bison' at the top of that page, to see what else has been given the same treatment.)

(Oh, and have you read Guard Your Daughters?)

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Back soon...

Off to conference for a couple of days, and then busy weekend, but will see you next Monday!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Book Blogger Appreciation Week!

Book Blogger Appreciation Week (BBAW) always seems to arrive before I expect it, and disappear before I've managed to hop on board - at least since I joined in back in 2009, or thereabouts.  Well, this year I'm not going to manage to join in every post, but it came at a time when I've been feeling especially appreciative about the book blogosphere, so I'm going to do my BBAW contribution all in one post.  There will be a lot of links to other bloggers... but I love them all.  And it's only the tip of the iceberg, so please don't think that not being mentioned means I don't adore your blog.  Get ready for an appreciative ramble!

I was struck by what an amazing job bloggers do.  Nobody gets paid, most have families and/or jobs and dozens of other commitments - but they all manage to write intelligent, compelling, funny, charming, touching book reviews and literary posts.  It takes up a huge amount of time (I seem to spend less time than many, and it still takes up loads of mine!) and yet we all do it willingly, happily, joyously!  And you know why?  Because all the other book bloggers are so darn brilliant!  What started for each of us, I suppose, as a love of books and reading, has grown into more than that.  We still love books, and have picked up so many recommendations from each other (thank you blogosphere for introducing me to Shirley Jackson, Muriel Spark, Joyce Dennys... so many) but it's become about so much more than that.

I was going to try to list every book blogger I've met, but I realised that it's probably 40-50 people.  Which is amazing!  But it might be a little exhausting - for me and for you - if I type them all out, and I'd be bound to forget someone lovely.  So, instead, I shall write about bloggers I've had the pleasure of meeting who live in distant lands... two from Canada, three from the U.S., and one from Australia:

Claire/Captive Reader - from her very earliest days, Claire leapt to the top of my favourite blogs.  Her taste is impeccable, her style engaging, her reviews incredibly perceptive.  I had the fun of book shopping through London with Claire, and buying vastly more than she did...

Darlene/Roses Over A Cottage Door - oh, what a ray of sunshine Darlene is!  Both her blog and, even more so, in person - I wanted to drag her across the ocean and make her visit tea shops with me at least once a week.

Thomas/My Porch - such a funny, incisive blog, and such a charming, engaging man!  Our two hours over tea and scones this year, each talking nineteen to the dozen, ranks amongst my favourite blogging-related occasions.

Teresa/Shelf Love - gosh, this meeting was an age ago, when I'd only 'known' her for a bit.  Now I want to meet again, Teresa!  I'm so impressed by the discipline Teresa and Jenny show in maintaining the very high standard of their wide-ranging blog (not to mention the humility involved in co-authoring a blog) - they just don't seem to have off-days.

Diana/Light, Bright, and Sparkling - another infectiously enthusiastic lady, who has forgotten more about Jane Austen than I will ever know.

Karyn/A Penguin A Week - many of us have a fairly good idea of our own blog's identity, but nobody has as ingenious and precise a premise as Karyn - picking one Penguin Book a week from her enviable collection, and writing wonderfully engaging reviews on them.  A truly unique blog.  And we had a lovely afternoon, bookshopping through Oxford.

And who would I must like to meet, outside of the UK?  So many!  But I'm going to say Eva/A Striped Armchair.  One day, Eva!

I always remember the author I met who said "Oh, you're a blogger - you must be lonely."  I'm sure it was kindly meant (er, I'm far from sure) but it isn't true.  Even without all the face-to-face meetings, blogging is all about community - we're all typing away in our garrets, but the best bloggers and the best blogging experiences are those which value community.  Nothing puts me off a blogger more than if they don't have a 'blog roll'.  But that's just the start - over the years I've loved participating in various readalongs and publisher- or author-specific weeks.  Just thinking about author-reads, there have been Stu/Winston's Dad and Henry Green, Thomas/My Porch and Anita Brookner, Annabel/Gaskella and Beryl Bainbridge, Florence/Miss Darcy's Library and Rosamond Lehmann, Simon/Savidge Reads and Daphne du Maurier.

I was so thrilled by the enthusiasm for Muriel Spark Reading Week, which the encouraging, perceptive and incredibly well-read Harriet co-organised with me.  Not only did lots of my favourite bloggers join in, but I got to meet many more.  And it couldn't have come at a better time - I didn't mention it then, but during the week I underwent an examination for cancer, the culmination of the scariest and most horrible weeks of my life.  I was lucky - it ended up being a false alarm.  But you'll never know how much it meant to me to have all the enthusiasm and support for Muriel Spark Reading Week distracting me.  Thank you, all of you.  (And thank you especially to Harriet, who did know what I was going through, and couldn't have been kinder or more understanding.)

I especially love bloggers like lovely Kim who dedicate an ongoing series to interviewing bloggers and finding out their literary preferences.  Blogs should have porous boundaries, flowing into one another, as we would at a book group.  So it feels like a good time to announce that I'll be hosting a third series of My Life in Books in October - it previously appeared in March 2011 and March 2012, but the feedback was so positive that I couldn't wait til next March.  I shan't reveal names yet, but I asked 14 people and everyone said yes!  They'll join the thirty (thirty!) bloggers and blog-readers who've already shared their lives in books.

But something I realised, while writing out my list of bloggers to ask (which was at least thirty names long - plenty of people to ask next time!) is that I'm not doing very well at keeping up with the blogosphere.  Victoria (who has such intellectual sensitivity, but also - wonderfully - once shared my phase for Sweet Valley High) covered a similar topic here.  Book Blogger Appreciation Week is also demonstrating to me how widely spread the blogging world now is - when I started, I felt I had a fairly good grasp on who was blogging, and we all seemed to more or less know one another.  A huge number of those dearly familiar faces are still around - delightful, warmhearted Karen/Cornflower, infectiously enthusiastic Danielle/A Work in Progress, dear Elaine/Random Jottings, whom I've met so many times and has shaped my reading life so much over the years, and Margaret/Books Please who started at almost the same time as me, to name but four.  I love the way we've all grown together as bloggers, and the archives we've each built, stretching back for years and years... and, ladies, you're not looking a day older.

But there must be so many young bloggers out there (young in blogging terms, I mean - lots of literate six-month-olds) to whom I must be introduced.  True, it would easily take up all my time just to keep track of the long-standing book bloggers - but imagine what would have happened if I'd stopped seeking out new blogs three or four years ago?  What I would have missed!  So I mustn't rest on my laurels; I must keep my eyes open.  When I tried to think of book blogs I love which are less than a year old, the only two I could think of immediately were Helen/A Gallimaufry - an impressively thoughtful, thorough, inviting blog - and Karen/Kaggy's Bookish Ramblings, with her great range of twentieth-century fiction reviews akin to my own bookish loves.  Which makes me wonder... how many other gems I am missing?  (Sorry if you're less than a year old and I already know you, it's probably just because I can't imagine the blogosphere existed without you!)

There are perils involved with having been a book blogger pretty consistently for five and a half years.  There are so many joys too - I still get excited when I get a comment or a lovely email - but I mustn't get complacent or too settled.  And so... I'd love you to comment with a recommendation of a new blog.  And by 'new', I mean less than a year old.  Spread the love!  And, whilst you're at it, why not comment and tell me what you love about any blog or any blogger - just keep the appreciation overflowing this week!

Finally - I want to reiterate how much I appreciate everyone who comes to visit Stuck-in-a-Book, whether this is your first time, or you've been here every week since the beginning (hi Mum!)  I wouldn't have the patience to continue if it weren't for your interest, or if there weren't so many fascinating blogs around to keep the community going strong.  I never could have imagined all the joys and adventures blogging and blog-reading would bring - please, bloggers and blog-readers, feel 100% appreciated!  The internet would be rubbish without you.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Novel Diner

My friend Claire Coutinho (and her friend Mina) has recently started up a brilliantly novel idea - a literary-themed supper club!  The next one is at Shoreditch House on September 18th with American Psycho as the theme... nearly sold out, but keep an eye on future events.  More info here, but do read my interview with Claire below.  Since it's a supper club, I thought I'd arrange it as a menu card, divided in Starter, Main, and Dessert...

The Great Gatsby


1.) So... what is the Novel Diner?

We are a pop-up supper club that brings to life the world of a different novel at each event. We create a bespoke menu using food references in the novel, and we also have live performances, costumes and decor.

2.) How did you come to be doing this?

We are passionate about food and books, which naturally led to a few conversations about ways to marry the two. We came up with The Novel Diner because it is the kind of event that both of us would love to attend, but it's also incredibly fun for us to organise. Every month we sit down with our favourite novels and antique recipe books and work out how best to capture a particular story for our diners. We see it as a labour of love and hopefully, this translates onto the plates of our guests!


3.) How do you decide upon the books you use?

We choose books where food plays a big part in the narrative or context of the novel. In the case of To The Lighthouse we recreated Mildred's masterpiece - a melt-in-your-mouth boeuf en daube. For Proust we of course had madeleines in addition to other classic belle epoque fare like chicken liver parfait, fried sole and asparagus veloute. For The Great Gatsby, where we wanted to capture some of the Jazz Age's decadence with luxe canapes, a beautiful summer buffet and (naturally) plenty of Gin Fizzes. Then, up next, American Psycho where we can play around with fusion food (e.g. Indian-Californian a memorable mention in the book) and the nouveau cuisine which will really set the yuppie party scene of the late 80s/early 90s.

To The Lighthouse

4.) The photos from the To The Lighthouse event are wonderful - could you describe the evening for us? Any backstage anecdotes to share??

There were some first event nerves! We were lucky enough to have the pianist from the Savoy playing a 1920s music which swept us up in the mood. The music and (ahem) a couple of gin cocktails saw us through. Mostly, it was the music of course…. 

5.) Have you come across any meals-in-novels which are too repellant to consider?

Leopold's Blooms urine-tanged kidneys in Ulysses is probably up there.... We were also considering an Enid Blyton summer spectacular although sardines with condensed milk and ginger cake probably isn't very nice (despite what those Malory Towers girls say).

The Great Gatsby - the pudding!

6.) What has the response been like?

Incredibly positive - we never thought it would be this popular. 

It's wonderful to see how passionate people are about literature, and more specifically about some of the novels we've chosen which are some of our own all time favourites. People seem to like the way that the marriage of food with novels gives them a communal experience of their most-loved books. It's also quite fun that we get suggestions for future events, we always welcome more!

To The Lighthouse


7.) And the question I always ask everyone... what are you reading at the moment?

Claire just finished Jonah Lehrer's Imagine and is now reading The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild. Mina is reading The Ask by Sam Lipsyte and recently finished Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It by Geoff Dyer.

The Great Gatsby

Do go and have a look at their website or their Facebook page, and maybe try to get along to one of their future events if you can!