Monday, 31 December 2012

A Century of Books: Complete!

As I mentioned yesterday, I have finished A Century of Books - and, even better, I think there was only one other person who was trying to get all 100 books read during 2012 (a few others were joining in with longer-term aspirations) and she managed it too.  Well done Claire!  If I could reach to Canada, I'd give you a pat on the back.

So, that means I have my list of 100 books - it's really fun to see an overview of the 20th century, especially since it's such a subjective overview.  It's a Stuck-in-a-Book overview.  There are definitely many entries which wouldn't make a canonical list - there are plenty which I wouldn't recommend myself - but it's still (to me) a really interesting list to have.

If you click on the link up there, you'll get to Claire's post about her experiences with A Century of Books.  I agree with her - it's been great fun, with plenty of surprises along the way.  I wasn't surprised by how quickly I filled in the interwar years - with the curious exception of 1920, which proved quite elusive.  But I hadn't realised how tricky the 1900s and 1910s would be - I'd prepared myself to run out of ideas for the 1970s onwards, but they turned out to be rather easier.

I'll be doing more stats on my whole year's reading, but I couldn't resist giving one or two statistics for my 100 books in particular:

-- Only 6 re-reads

-- 46 fiction by women
-- 25 fiction by men
-- 21 non-fiction by women
-- 8 non-fiction by men

-- Of those from the second-half of the century, 24 related to the first-half of the century or earlier - i.e. biographies, adaptations etc.  Simon, you CHEAT!  I perhaps haven't explored the post-1950 world quite as I might have done...

And let me imitate Claire, and give you some advice, should you wish to try it yourself (and I encourage you to do so!)

Spread it out...
Don't read all your comfort zone years before the end of March!  If you get to winter and have to read 1900-1915 (or whatever it might be) straight through, you might tire of it all.

Short books are your friend
I love short books all the time, as you might possibly know - but even moreso for this project.  So sometimes I could get through half a dozen years in a week - but then an enormous book would come along and throw things a bit off kilter.  I haven't told you about Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea yet, and how much that almost ruined my schedule...

Friends are also your friend
As Claire says, it's much more fun when someone else (at least) is doing the same project - so that you can encourage one another.  I don't know if anybody is trying A Century of Books within a year for 2013, but there are plenty of people continuing a longer-term project - and if you wait for 2014, Claire and I will probably be doing it all again.

The agony and the ecstasy!
As everyone who's done (or is doing) A Century of Books is in agreement about one thing - the pain when the books you want to read consistently fall into years which have already been covered!  EVERYTHING was published in 1953: FACT.  (Maybe not a fact.)

Reviews are harder than reading
In normal practice, I often decide not to blog about certain books, or simply forget about them.  That wouldn't work with A Century of Books, if you wanted a page which linked to all the reviews.  And so I started doing round-up posts with three or four short reviews - that seemed to work a treat.

But don't meet trouble halfway
It's not really difficult, though!  A few commenters seemed to think it would be too restrictive.  Well, I can only say that I didn't find it so - especially for the first ten months or so of the year.  It really is the anti-challenge challenge (so long as you're used to reading more than a hundred books a year) and embraces every genre, form, author, nationality etc.  What did surprise me was how perfectly the timing ended up - 25 qualifying books finished after three months, 50 after six months, 75 after nine months and, of course, 100 after 12 months.

I loved doing it, and I'll be doing the project again - but not until 2014.  Like Claire, I'm missing 19th-century books - and 21st-century books too.  Right now I'm onto Vanity Fair...

Here is the whole list:

1900 - Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
1901 - The Spinster Book by Myrtle Reed
1902 - The Westminster Alice by Saki
1903 - Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw
1904 - Canon in Residence by V.L. Whitechurch
1905 - Lovers in London by A.A. Milne
1906 - The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
1907 - The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit
1908 - The World I Live In by Helen Keller
1909 - The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter
1910 - Reginald in Russia by Saki
1911 - In A German Pension by Katherine Mansfield
1912 - Daddy Long-legs by Jean Webster
1913 - When William Came by Saki
1914 - What It Means To Marry by Mary Scharlieb
1915 - Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
1916 - Love At Second Sight by Ada Leverson
1917 - Zella Sees Herself by E.M. Delafield
1918 - Married Love by Marie Stopes
1919 - Not That It Matters by A.A. Milne
1920 - The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
1921 - The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray
1922 - Spinster of this Parish by W.B. Maxwell
1923 - Uncanny Stories by May Sinclair
1924 - The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor
1925 - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
1926 - Blindness by Henry Green
1927 - Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann
1928 - Time Importuned by Sylvia Townsend Warner
1929 - A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
1930 - His Monkey Wife by John Collier
1931 - Opus 7 by Sylvia Townsend Warner
1932 - Green Thoughts by John Collier
1933 - More Women Then Men by Ivy Compton-Burnett
1934 - Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
1935 - The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen
1936 - Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
1937 - The Outward Room by Millen Brand
1938 - Dear Octopus by Dodie Smith
1939 - Three Marriages by E.M. Delafield
1940 - One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie
1941 - Country Moods and Tenses by Edith Olivier
1942 - The Outsider by Albert Camus
1943 - Talking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
1944 - Elders and Betters by Ivy Compton-Burnett
1945 - At Mrs. Lippincote's by Elizabeth Taylor
1946 - Mr. Allenby Loses The Way by Frank Baker
1947 - One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
1948 - The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
1949 - Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease by Cecil Beaton
1950 - Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy
1951 - I. Compton-Burnett by Pamela Hansford Johnson
1952 - Miss Hargreaves: the play by Frank Baker
1953 - Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton
1954 - M for Mother by Marjorie Riddell
1955 - The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens
1956 - All The Books of My Life by Sheila Kaye-Smith
1957 - Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
1958 - Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris by Paul Gallico
1959 - Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy Evelyn Smith
1960 - The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
1961 - A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
1962 - Coronation by Paul Gallico
1963 - A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
1964 - The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble
1965 - Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson
1966 - In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
1967 - The Joke by Milan Kundera
1968 - A Cab at the Door by V.S. Pritchett
1969 - Sunlight on Cold Water by Francoise Sagan
1970 - Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford
1971 - Ivy & Stevie by Kay Dick
1972 - Ivy Compton-Burnett: a memoir by Cecily Greig
1973 - V. Sackville-West by Michael Stevens
1974 - Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith
1975 - Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge
1976 - The Takeover by Muriel Spark
1977 - Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge
1978 - Art in Nature by Tove Jansson
1979 - On The Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
1980 - The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate
1981 - Gossip From Thrush Green by Miss Read
1982 - At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald
1983 - Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff
1984 - The Only Problem by Muriel Spark
1985 - For Sylvia: An Honest Account by Valentine Ackland
1986 - On Acting by Laurence Olivier
1987 - The Other Garden by Francis Wyndham
1988 - Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
1989 - Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy
1990 - The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
1991 - Wise Children by Angela Carter
1992 - Curriculum Vitae by Muriel Spark
1993 - Something Happened Yesterday by Beryl Bainbridge
1994 - Deadline Poet by Calvin Trillin
1995 - The Simmons Papers by Philipp Blom
1996 - Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark
1997 - The Island of the Colourblind by Oliver Sacks
1998 - The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
1999 - La Grande Thérèse by Hilary Spurling

Happy New Year!

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Frederick the Great - Nancy Mitford

I’ve done it! I’ve done it! My book for 1970 is finished, and with it is finished my Century of Books. I was so fearful that I might stall at 99 on December 31st, so finishing on December 28th was rather a relief. I’ll write more about the project, including the sort of stats and things that interest me, but for today I’ll get on with reviewing the title I chose for 1970 - Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford.

Vintage Books kindly sent me a couple of Nancy Mitford’s biographies a while ago, and I was in a bit of a quandary about them. Those of you who were reading Stuck-in-a-Book in 2008 may recall my Mitfordmania, which has lessened a little (mostly because I came to the reluctant conclusion that Debo Mitford probably wouldn’t become my best friend) but is certainly not dead. So I was all eagerment to read another book by Nancy Mitford – but my interest in notable figures of French history is so minute as to be negligible. On which side of the balance would Frederick the Great fall down? More Mitford or more History? Frivolous and funny, or scholarly and dry? I thought I had my answer on the first page:
He was the third son of his parents: two little Fredericks had died, one from having a crown forced upon his head at the time of the christening and the other when the guns greeting his birth were fixed too near his cradle; the third Frederick, allergic to neither crowns nor guns, survived, and so, luckily for him, did his elder sister, Wilheimine.
Can this possibly be true? Had two heirs did in such surreal circumstances? I decided not to take recourse to Wikipedia, but just to take Nancy’s word for it. Even if Nancy is honestly reporting events, the tang of Mitford is evident in the bizarre way she phrases them, and the absence of any sort of explanation. I’m sorry for the children and their mother, but I was delighted that Mitford didn’t lose her tone when writing non-fiction.

Indeed, for much of the time it felt novelesque. Mitford uses almost no footnotes and, whilst there is a bibliography at the end, her biography is evidently incredibly subjective. Since she doesn’t reference properly, even when giving excerpts, it is impossible to ascertain where she gets her information – and where she is making stuff up. I doubt she ever invents battles which didn’t happen, or friendships which never existed, but she certainly imposes a great deal that she cannot have known for certain. The first 80 or so pages of Frederick the Great concern his life as a prince, principally (ahaha) his relationship with his father. It was the section of the book I found most interesting, but Mitford blithely imagines Frederick’s thoughts and feelings, giving no evidence for these forays into his consciousness – for, indeed, what evidence could there be?

Frederick William (Frederick the Great’s father) loved hunting and religion (if not noticeably God), and hated intellectuals and the French. Frederick the Great was – from birth, it sometimes seems – the exact opposite. He suggested that hunters were below butchers (because butchers killed out of necessity, and did not enjoy doing it), he enjoyed winding his father up by being blasphemous or heretical, and worshipped the French tongue so greatly that he always signed himself Fédéric, could barely speak German, and prized French culture above any other. At least this is what Nancy Mitford claims – but I began to suspect she might be superimposing her own devotedly Francophile feelings upon this German king, just a little.

It is something of a truism of biography to present the subject as a ‘mass of contradictions’. Certainly, Frederick the Great seems that. Mitford emphasises his love of culture (he was passionately fond of Voltaire, at least until they met; he practiced the flute four times a day) and his progressive nature (legal reforms which saw only a handful of death penalties given a year, in contrast to the rest of Western Europe; decreasing cruelty to civilians during warfare) but alongside this is, of course, his reputation as an invader and ruthless militarist. That reputation was, indeed, all I knew about him before starting this biography. But Mitford is much keener to present him as a human, even lovable, character – anecdotal foibles and all:
The King’s time-table when he was at home did not vary from now on; many people have described it and their accounts tally. He was woken at 4 a.m.; he hated getting up early but forced himself to do it until the day he died. He scolded the servants if they let him go to sleep again, but he was sometimes so pathetic that they could not help it; so he made a rule that, under pain of being put in the army, they must throw a cloth soaked in cold water on his face.
He often comes across as rather a silly, but ultimately adorable, little boy. When it comes to his militaristic tendencies, Mitford is clearly quite bored by them – and, in turn, makes the chapters describing them by far the most boring of the book. It’s true that I would never thrill to the accounts of battles and tactical manoeuvres, but Mitford’s style loses all charm or polish when she comes to write about them. These secluded chapters are written with all the panache of a primary school essay about a child’s holiday activities – “Then he did this, then he did this, then he did this” – and Mitford evidently can’t wait to get onto the next chapter.

Ultimately, it is a very involving character portrait, with so much subjectivity laced silently through it, that Mitford is in every sentence. Since it is non-fiction, people appear and disappear, arrive far too late in the narrative or inconveniently die – Mitford can’t help it, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less confusing for an ignorant reader like me. So, poor historian that I am, I can’t pretend that Frederick the Great will ever rival Nancy Mitford’s novels for my affections, and this wasn’t the all-consuming, utterly-joyous reading experience I’d hoped might round off A Century of Books, but it was definitely interesting to see how Mitford might approach the topic – and, who knows, I might even have learnt a thing or two that I’ll remember.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Two Classic Children's Books

A Century of Books has led to me reading more children's books than usual in 2012.  The debate about whether or not adults ought to read YA fiction (a phrase I hate) is probably best left for another day - but I think most of us understand the call towards unashamed classic children's fiction, which doesn't have the slightest pretence to being adults' literature.

First, very speedily, a suggestion Claire mentioned when I was struggling to fill in 1909 - Ann Veronica went back on the shelf for another day (next to Rebecca West, amusingly enough) and Beatrix Potter came off instead.  Well, actually, since I don't have a copy of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, I downloaded the free ebook from Project Gutenberg, and read it on my Kindle for PC.  It's lovely - of course it is.  Peter Rabbit's sister Flopsy and her wife Benjamin have quite a few children - 'They had a large family, and they were very improvident and cheerful.'  (Which picture book writer today would use the word 'improvident'?  Or 'soporific'?  Love you, Beatrix.)

You probably know the story.  Wicked Mr. Macgregor is back, and does his best to kidnap the Flopsy Bunnies... will he manage it?  Can you guess?  (By the way, this cartoon is an amusing counterpart to Beatrix Potter's bunny stories.)  It feels a bit like I'm cheating with 1909 - but I suppose Potter is more influential than most of the other authors featured in A Century of Books.  And it was delightful!

*  *  *
A whistle sounds, a flag is waved.  The train pulls itself together, strains, jerks, and starts."I don't understand," says Gerald, alone in his third-class carriage, "how railway trains and magic can go on at the same time."And yet they do.
This seems like a very apt quotation from E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle (1907), because she is best known (at least in our household) as the author of The Railway Children.  Her own writing, then, successfully combined the possible - if unlikely - story of children living near a railway, and this novel where all manner of extraordinary things happen.  But it is, perhaps, the possible events threaded through the novel which made it most effective, in my eyes.

Everything starts off believably.  Siblings Jerry, Jimmy, and Kathleen are bored during their summer holidays, spent with one of those eternal Mademoiselles of children's fiction from this period.  Only this one is not cantankerous or hysterical, and is quite happy to let them go off to explore.  On their exploits, they discover (as one does) a beautiful castle, with grounds replete with marble statues, etc.  And - look! - a sleeping princess!  She awakes, after Jimmy (somewhat reluctantly) kisses her - and she takes them through to see her jewels.  One of these is a magic ring, she confides, which can make the wearer invisible.  Only they have to close their eyes for a bit whilst it works.  And, yes, it works!

But the princess is rather surprised.  It turns out she is, in fact, Mabel - the housekeeper's niece - and wasn't expecting the ring actually to turn her invisible.  And thus their adventures begin...
There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs for ever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real.  And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets, and the like, anything may happen.
And anything does happen.  Invisibility, expanding, swimming statues, ghosts...  I prefer my novels' fantastic elements to be rather more restrained, with parameters neatly set.  This all felt a bit scattergun, but I suppose Five Children and It is similar and that doesn't bother me, but that's probably because I grew up reading Five Children and It, and this is my first reading of The Enchanted Castle.  I have a feeling that this would feel a much more coherent book for those who loved it as a child.  As for me, sometimes it seemed like dear E. Nesbit was making it up as she went along.

What saved it completely, though, was her delightful tone.  I wrote, in my post on The Railway Children, that I'd no idea E. Nesbit was so witty - and that continues here.  There are plenty of asides and sly nudges to the reader - a wit that was probably put in for the parent, but could well be appreciated by the child too.  Alongside the amusing style, my favourite aspect were the non-fantastic relationships - between siblings, between the children and Mademoiselle, between Eliza the maid and her young man, and between... no, the last two I shall leave you to find out for yourself.

It was all good fun.  And yet I'm going to throw my copy away.  Because it looks like this now...

Ooops!  TV tie-in paperbacks from the 1970s weren't built to last, were they?

Two lovely children's books to round off 2012.  Just one book left for A Century of Books... a biography for 1970.  Any guesses?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Reality and Dreams - Muriel Spark

I'm away with my family for a few days, out of range of internet - the vicar escaping, post-Christmas Day!  I've scheduled some posts to appear, but I shan't be able to reply for a bit - and hopefully I'll be back with internet in time to write a post about the only one of my Century of Books that I've not yet finished!

If you were thinking that I'd had enough of Muriel Spark during Muriel Spark Reading Week, then think again!  One of the final books I've read in 2012 is her last of the 20th century, and third last overall - Reality and Dreams (1996).

Tom Richards - presumably a deliberately bland name - is a famous film director.  The first line of the novel, and thus the line which kicks off our impression of him, is archetypical Spark: 'He often wondered if we were all characters in one of God's dreams.'  And, with Spark's panache for combining surreality with restraint, she goes no further with that paragraph.  It hangs, so strangely, and we are shepherded straight to the second paragraph - where we learn that Tom Richards is recovering in hospital, having fallen out of a crane whilst directing a scene.  He broke nearly all his bones, but is lucky to be alive.

For the first few pages, reality and dreams swirl, as Tom fades in and out of lucidity.  I often have problems with the ways in which authors try to convey any mental distortion - whether disorientation or illness - as it usually seems clumsy and heavy-handed, or simply unreadable.  Spark, reliably, does it brilliantly.  Even something as simple as this conveys the disjointedness of time:
She poured out some milky tea.  He opened his eyes.  The tray had disappeared.
And then the complicated family arrive.  His wife Claire is patient and unshockable - and has affairs as often as he does, quite casually.  There is his angelically beautiful, but unvivid, daughter from his first marriage (Cora), and stolid, moaning, unattractive daughter from his current marriage (Marigold).  And there is the squabbling, self-absorbed cast of his film, originally called The Hamburger Girl - inspired by a brief sighting of a young woman at a campsite, who captivated Tom.

The various marriages in the family (some disintegrating), the cancelled and re-commissioned film production, the disappearance of one of his daughters and ensuing police search - all come together and interweave, creating a curiously mixed structure.  I think one of the most distinctive qualities in Muriel Spark's writing is that everything is always on the same level.  She refuses to get overly-dramatic about anything - possible kidnap and murder is treated in the same matter-of-fact way as Tom's physiotherapy, or the workings of the film shoot.  For it is, of course, the sphere of cinema which influences Spark's title:
that world of dreams and reality which he was at home in, the world of filming scenes, casting people in parts, piecing together types and shadows, facts and illusions
Apart from the mental disorientation at the beginning of the novel, there is never any wider suggestion that reality and dream might have been exchanged - but there is the possibility that fictitious events are starting, in a distorted way, to become true.  It's never overdone, but is a clever thread through a clever novel.  It's all quintessential Spark, and a perfect reminder of why she's one of my favourite authors.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Books of 2012: A Baker's Dozen

Have a very wonderful Christmas!  I'm going to leave you for two or three days with my Books of 2012.

I always have great fun compiling my favourite reads of the year, and this year was actually somewhat easier than usual.  There were plenty of excellent books (albeit also more duds than usual) but ten stood out immediately as really exceptional.  But then I added another three, because I couldn't face leaving them out.  Even as it is, some really great books aren't making the grade.

My usual rules apply - an author can only feature once, and re-reads aren't included.  And, of course, these aren't just books that were published in 2012.  Because I believe I only read one book published in 2012.  (It was very good, incidentally - Shrinking Violet by my friend Karina Lickorish Quinn.)  And I love making lists, so these are in order.  None of that 'in no particular order' for me!  Clicking on the book title will take you to my original review.

13. The House in Paris (1935) by Elizabeth Bowen
If the whole novel had taken place in the Parisian house, without the half of the novel devoted to flashback, this would have been further up my list - but, still, it's an amazing reassessment of Bowen on my part.  Thanks to Darlene for making me try Bowen again!  An understated and beautiful chance meeting of two children on one day in Paris.

12. At Mrs. Lippincote's (1945) by Elizabeth Taylor
I don't love Taylor quite as much as some, but this novel about a woman and her husband stationed in the absent Mrs. Lippincote's house, during WW1, is both her first novel and my favourite.  Very subtle, moving, and often witty.

11. Three Men on the Bummel (1900) by Jerome K. Jerome
I think I actually prefer this sequel to Three Men on a Boat - all of the same silliness and hilarity, and even less of an ability to stick to the point.  Gloriously funny stuff.

10. All the Books of My Life (1956) by Sheila Kaye-Smith
2012 was a great year for reading autobiographies, and although I've read none of Kaye-Smith's rural novels, I loved her account of her life, told through the books she cherished at different periods.  Filled with great anecdotes, it is her love of books which comes across most strongly - and strikes a chord with me!

9. The Only Problem (1984) by Muriel Spark
Of all the Spark novels I've read this year, none have come up to the high standard of my favourite (Loitering With Intent), but this eccentric, brilliant novel was the strongest contender.   Who but Spark would combine someone researching the Book of Job with a terrorist organisation?  Mad, but madness dealt in calm doses.  Utterly Sparkian.

8. Art in Nature (1978) by Tove Jansson
Any newly-translated (thank you Thomas Teal) Jansson book is a shoo-in for my Best Reads of the year.  This short story collection is no different - Jansson can turn her eye to anything, but of especial interest to her here are the ideas of artists and creativity.

7. More Women Than Men (1933) by Ivy Compton-Burnett
My favourite ICB novel yet, this is set in a girls' school, rather than her usual sprawling families.  None of the girls get a line, but the in-fighting of the teachers, an unwanted wedding, and a peculiar death all come together to make a very amusing, very Ivy novel.

6. Ashcombe (1949) by Cecil Beaton
A really gorgeously beautiful account of Beaton's fifteen-year lease of Ashcombe house.   His eccentric redecorations, his love for the countryside, and his amusing waggish friends come together to make this an absolute gem of a book - not without sadness, as WW2 rears its ugly head towards the end of his stay.

5. Raising Demons (1957) by Shirley Jackson
The sequel to Jackson's Life Among the Savages is just as uproariously funny - difficult to believe the Gothic-horror-type novelist, best known for one of the most unsettling stories ever, also wrote delightful, hilarious accounts of being a busy wife and mother.  Get hold of these by any means possible.

4. I. Compton-Burnett: A Memoir (1972) by Cicely Greig
Any perspective on my beloved Dame Ivy is welcome, but that of her typist (and friend) is unique. Greig writes understandingly, without rose-coloured glasses, but also as a fan of her writing - it's a great combination of personal memoir and literary appreciation.

3. Look Back With Love (1974) by Dodie Smith
Oh, how spoilt I was with memoirs this year!  A rich, enchanting account of Smith's wide family and happy childhood - including the inspiration for some of her writing, and hilarious accounts of her early attempts at acting.  Everything interests her avidly.  Just delightful - and, even better, three more autobiographical volumes to read later!

2. Blue Remembered Hills (1983) by Rosemary Sutcliff
The best memoir I read this year, and another triumph from Slightly Foxed.  I haven't read any of Sutcliff's novels (and, given my distaste for historical fiction, I'm not especially keen to) but her autobiography is, like Smith's, a total delight.  Despite a very difficult relationship with her mother, and living in and out of hospital through her childhood, there is nothing melancholy or self-pitying here.  Just an absolute joy to read.

1. Guard Your Daughters (1953) by Diana Tutton
I was only a couple of pages into this heavenly book when I knew it would be my book of the year.  Morgan narrates the bizarre life of her isolated family of sisters.  It certainly owes a debt to I Capture the Castle, but is perhaps even better - the most charming, lively, lovable, and eccentric family imaginable, I couldn't believe how good it was, while I was reading.  Others have been quite lukewarm, but causing a mini-revival for this glorious novel has been one of my proudest blogging moments.

And that list again:

13. The House in Paris - Elizabeth Bowen
12. At Mrs. Lippincote's - Elizabeth Taylor
11. Three Men on the Bummel - Jerome K. Jerome
10. All the Books of My Life - Sheila Kaye-Smith
9. The Only Problem - Muriel Spark
8. Art in Nature - Tove Jansson
7. More Women Than Men - Ivy Compton-Burnett
6. Ashcombe - Cecil Beaton
5. Raising Demons - Shirley Jackson
4. I. Compton-Burnett: A Memoir - Cicely Greig
3. Look Back With Love - Dodie Smith
2. Blue Remembered Hills - Rosemary Sutcliff
1. Guard Your Daughters - Diana Tutton

If you've created your own list, do pop a link in the comments.  Happy Christmas, one and all!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Two Entirely Unrelated Reviews

Normally, if I feature two reviews together, there tends to be a reason.  I try to find some links between them, and so forth.  Well, the only reasons that these books are combined is that I've finished them, and need to get all my Century of Books reviews out before the end of 2012.  Maybe unexpected connections will arise by the time I've finished writing about them?  At the moment the only thing I can think is that I didn't really think either of them were great.

Sunlight on Cold Water (1969) is the second novel I've read by Francoise Sagan, after really liking her most famous novel, Bonjour Tristesse, last year.  That short novel focused on a young girl's self-discovery, first love, and developing relationship with her stepmother.  It was all very introspective, but that was totally forgivable in the mindset of a teenager.  In Sunlight on Cold Water (title from a poem by Paul Eluard), this introspection is transferred to a middle-aged man...

Gilles Lantier is depressed.  Depression is such a difficult thing to convey, since it involves such listlessness and the deadening of emotions.  I was impressed that Sagan was going to give it a go and, if it didn't make for very compulsive reading, at least it was sensitive and thought-provoking.  But... then it wasn't.  He meets a woman.  He starts having an affair with her (she's married).  He worries about his mistress back in Paris; he worries about being good enough for his new mistress.  And so on, and so on.  This sort of writing filled the book:

"That's not it at all," he said, "I've left out the main thing.  I haven't told you the main thing."The main thing was Nathalie's warmth, the hollow of her neck when he was falling asleep, her unfailing tenderness, her utter loyalty, the overwhelming confidence he felt in her.  Everything that this semi-whore of a kept woman with her cockneyed perversions couldn't even begin to understand.  But in that case, what was he doing here?
Lovely, isn't it?  (Er, no.)  I'm afraid I am not remotely interested in the elaborate musings of a man who may or may not be in love, talking about the sight, sounds, and smells of his various love exploits.  It's not Fifty Shades graphic or anything like that, but, boy, is it tedious.  This is the only excerpt I jotted down which I thought a bit clever:

"Could you love a man who was so rotten?""You don't choose the people you love.""For an intellectual, you're not afraid of platitudes.""I'm only too afraid of them," she murmured, "they're nearly always true."
But, still.  Total dud for me, I'm afraid.  Only about 140 pages long, and dragged for ages.  Perhaps it's my own lack of tolerance for this sort of novel, but I found it meandering, self-indulgent, whiney, and dull.  If I can find a Francoise Sagan that has nothing to do with introspective love affairs, then I'll give her another go - because I so admired Bonjour Tristesse.

*  *  *

And onto the other novel.  I'm still not seeing any connections.  It's The Simmons Paper (1995) by Philipp Blom.  I bought it in a charity shop, because the cover struck me as delightfully eccentric, and the topic appealed.

After his death, Simmons is discovered to have left behind a manuscript detailing his work in compiling the section P in a Definitive Dictionary.  Blom's conceit is that the manuscript has become a famous, much-discussed piece of work - and this novella is framed as though it were an edition of the essay, footnotes and all.

Simmons is totally besotted with his work.  Most of The Simmons Papers concerns his daily life of researching words, philosophising about the role of dictionaries, and raging against neologisms.  He believes P to be 'the most human letter in the alphabet', and manoeuvres through various interesting facets of the letter and its history.  I love anything to do with linguistics, and it's a rare novel that assumes you know all about Saussure.  I'm also rather drawn to novels where the main character gets obsessive and increasingly unbalanced (c.f. also Wish Her Safe At Home.)  Simmons certainly doesn't disappoint in this regard - quite genuinely obsessed with the letter P (every section opens with a word beginning with P, and Simmons takes to eating mostly peas):
I must confess that in a sense even I am a victim of this daunting work.  Invariably the study of words, their history, meaning and evolution, etymology, connotations and formation, must impress on any mind its seal, especially since some words will resound for a certain person more than others and come to exercise a considerable influence of their own on any mind connected with them.  The long-winded proem which I am now engaging in now seems necessary before I can tell what I hardly dare admit: that I am subject to daydreams, voices and visions.  Words, p-words, emit and emanate images, stories, pictures and fantasies, which ultimately are impossible to keep at bay.
So, The Simmons Paper had all the ingredients of a novel I'd really like - and is packaged in a really attractive edition, incidentally.  So why didn't it really work for me?  Well, it's rather too close to what it is pretending to be.  The faux-introduction is amusing, some of the footnotes are really enjoyably silly if you spend a lot of time reading literary criticism - (cue interrupting my sentence for a long example of a footnote)
The pseudonym 'P' has been the cause of much controversy.  In the interpretation of Mandelbrodt and his followers, P designates 'paradigm', a notion which, in this reading, the text sets out to deconstruct by showing its inherent limitations and contradictions.  'The indefensible stronghold of the face of the dying Kronos falters from the owl, its death-ode on the phallus and His contemporaneous demise.  The giant turns back in agony and the very power against himself is the very powerlessness against this power' (Mandelbrodt, The Question of Femininity, pp.345-6).  According to this reading, the destruction of the paradigm of male hierarchical order is what the text 'which is by no means fiction, but an emanation of the act of writing in its existential peril itself' (ibid.) sets out to prove.  While A. Rover takes P as quite simply Simmons' own initial, Richard Silk suggests that it stands for 'pater'.  'Simmons addressed his father with this name, traditionally used by public boys for "father", throughout his life until "pater" died in 1946' (The Dramatic Personae).
- but parody has to go further than imitation.  Examples like the quotation above do seem to work in this way, but, as a whole, the novel didn't feel all that much like a novel.  It got a love interest towards the end (but not in the traditional sense) - but a lot of it read like critical theory.  And I read plenty of that for my day job!  There wasn't enough novel in the novel.  I thought The Simmons Paper had real potential to be a little-known much-loved novella for me - have I ever told you about my fascination with dictionaries?  I wrote a thesis on them once - but I found the style a little clogging, and the thread of spoof rather one-note.  Good, but still disappointing.  Yet I will say this for it - it was much better than Sunlight on Cold Water.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Highlights of Stuck-in-a-Book 2012

I know I should probably round-up other people's blogging highlights, and normally I do try to point you all off in various bloggers' directions, but today I wanted to point you to a few of my own posts through 2012.  Although, thinking about it, most of these were highlights because of their collaborative nature.  You all know by now how much I love the community of bloggers, so I have them to thank for most of the joy of blogging in 2012.

So, here are some of my personal highlights from Stuck-in-a-Book in 2012 - do pop back and read the posts, if you missed them the first time, and why not feature your own blog highlights as 2012 comes to a close?  In no particular order, of course.

1.) My Mum and I had a very public disagreement about Daphne du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek - I posted my review here, and Mum's riposte the next day.  Most of you sided with her, and her love of Jean-Benoit... and we all had a very fun time!  (Give or take some rampant sexism.)

2.) I unleashed my wicked side a little, and I stuck my claws into Mary Webb and Dewey: The Library Cat (separately... can you imagine the treatment The Webb would give Dewey?  "Sleak and shimmeringly glossy of coat, he stole, unafraid as the lark, towards the humble owner whose nature he so trustingly adored - with the adoration offered by speculative birdsong at dawn" &c. &c.)  Luckily, you didn't desert me in your masses - and everyone seemed to enjoy seeing me be a teeny bit vicious.

3.) Flushed from success in my new-found role of Comedy Blogger (well, I hope there's always some of that), I decided to turn my hand to Television Recaps - more precisely, The Great British Bake Off.  Only the last four episodes, that is - here, here, here, and here - it was super fun, and those posts are now among my top ten most-viewed.  (The top place is taken by a post my housemate wrote, so that puts me in my place.)

4.) 2012 saw not one, not two - oh, no wait, it was two - series of My Life in Books, so that's another 30 bloggers revealing their favourite books throughout their lives, and then trying to guess their co-participant's characteristics, based on their book choices.  I'm so grateful to the bloggers who participated, particularly those who enthusiastically spread the word on their blogs, Twitter etc.  You can see the index of My Life in Books posts by clicky-click-clicking here.

5.) Although I've been blogging for a while now (2012 saw me pass my 5th birthday, and I suppose I'm nearer my 6th now), I'd never quite had the courage to inaugurate a week devoted to a single author.  What if nobody joined in, I thought?  I needn't have worried - you lot were amazing.  Harriet and I co-organised Muriel Spark Reading Week, and we got eighty reviews that week, covering all of Muriel Spark's novels.  They're all indexed here - and special thanks to Christine for going all out to speed through The Mandelbaum Gate at the end of the week, when she spotted that it was the only outstanding novel.

6.) And I couldn't do a round-up without mentioning my recent post On Commenting.  It got more comments than anything else I've ever posted, and seemed to strike a chord.  I felt rather zeitgeisty, and really appreciated the feedback - and have spotted a rise in commenting around the blogging world of late.  Well done everyone!

Thanks so much for reading Stuck-in-a-Book in 2012, and for your own fab blogs (if you have blogs).  It's been another wonderful year in the blogosphere, and I've really needed it this year.  You'll never really know how much I've appreciated bloggers and blog-readers this year!

My Books of 2012 will be appearing soon - once I've managed to whittle down my list!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Reginald in Russia - Saki

Most of the times that I've mentioned Saki in the past few years, it's been about his novellas.  Quite a few of us were reading The Unbearable Bassington a while ago, and earlier this year I read When William Came.  It's about time that I return to the form which introduced me to Saki, and for which Saki is best known: the blackly funny short story.  I've only read Beasts and Super-beasts in full (and love it to pieces) - Reginald in Russia filled in 1911 for A Century of Books.

I haven't actually read the earlier collection called simply Reginald, so I was prepared to be rather bemused by his adventures in Russia, but it turns out that (unlike that first collection) Reginald only appears in the first story, arguing with a Princess.  The rest of Reginald in Russia covers vast territories - including someone accidentally shooting someone else's fox, a feud between next-door neighbours, a werewolf, and a man trying to extricate a mouse from his trousers in a train carriage. It's all rather mad, and often dark, but delightfully so.

My favourite story ('The Baker's Dozen') is actually in the form of a play, where a widow and widower (once in love) meet again on a boat and decide to re-marry - but realise that between them, they now have thirteen children and stepchildren.  This, naturally, is an inauspicious start to marriage for the superstitious, and one of their tactics is attempting to palm off a child on fellow passenger, Mrs. Pally-Paget:

Mrs. P.-P.: Sorry for me? Whatever for?Maj.: Your childless hearth and all that, you know.  No little pattering feet.Mrs. P.-P.: Major!  How dare you?  I've got my little girl, I suppose you know.  Her feet can patter as well as other children's.Maj.: Only one pair of feet.Mrs. P.-P.: Certainly.  My child isn't a centipede.  Considering the way they move us about in those horrid jungle stations, without a decent bungalow to set one's foot in, I consider I've got a hearthless child, rather than a childless hearth.  Thank you for your sympathy all the same.  I daresay it was well meant.  Impertinence often is.
You see the sort of frivolous style that Saki excels at - which makes the darkest topics he approaches (including a boy being eaten by a werewolf, for example) never feel remotely scary or even unsettling.  It's all just delightful, because Saki is so brilliant at that peculiarly 1910s combination of whimsy, hyperbole, and litotes - the sort of thing which Wodehouse managed to stretch out for decades, but which thrived most in those innocent pre-war days.

He reviled and railed at fate and the general scheme of things, he pitied himself with a strong, deep pity too poignant for tears, he condemned every one with whom he had ever come in contact to endless and abnormal punishments.  In fact, he conveyed the impression that if a destroying angel had been lent to him for a week it would have had very little time for private study.
These stories are between two and six pages long each - brief, fun, easy to chuckle and turn to the next one.  Reginald in Russia isn't as good as Beast and Super-Beasts, for my money, but you don't have to take my word for it - if you click on either of those, it'll take you to Project Gutenberg where you can sample them yourself.  Perfect for a winter evening.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Virago Secret Santa!

I've opened my first Christmas present - not illicitly, it was Opening Day for a Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing Secret Santa.  My Secret Santa was especially Secret.  I guessed who it was as soon as I saw their comment, in the thread about it all, that they knew their Santee had too many books already.  An accurate description of moi, non?  And then my Santa - who also happens to be my supervisor in the Bodleian - texted and asked when my last day was before Christmas.  The clues, they accrued!  I told Verity my suspicions, and... she threw me off the scent for a day or two.  But I was right ;)

And today I opened up a lovely Slighty Foxed edition of The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone.  I know that anything SF publish will be wonderful, so I'm excited about it - and, as I flicked through, I discovered that the first two chapters are set in East Bergholt.  It's a beautiful Suffolk village that my grandparents lived in for about forty years, so I know it pretty well - a lovely coincidence.

Can you tell that I'm delighted with it?  Christmas has begun!

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

On The Other Side by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg

Yesterday I wrote about Monica Dickens' The Winds of Heaven, and told you that it was towards the fluffier end of the Persephone Books canon - and promised to take you to the other side of their spectrum today.  Well, here it is - one of Persephone's non-fiction titles, On The Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg, translated by her daughter Ruth Evans, and first published in 1979. 

On The Other Side is effectively Mathilde's diary, framed through letters to her children in Britain (although she never sent them), and documents what life was like in Germany during the Second World War.  Despite having read a lot about the British Home Front, the German equivalent is a perspective I have never read firsthand.  It helps that Mathilde is a delightful person, easy to empathise with - what other response would we have to someone who would say this?
Life would have no purpose at all if there weren't books and human beings on loves, whose fate one worries about day and night.
This is going to be one of those 'reviews' which are, in fact, mostly quotations from the book - because the excerpts I've selected give such a comprehensive overview of the diary that it would be a waste of time for me to try and paraphrase them. 

Rather naively, I hadn't really realised that people like Mathilde existed in wartime Germany.  I thought the German public would have been divided into those who supported Nazism, those who were apathetic, and those who lied to so much by Nazi propaganda that, though not sympathetic to those views, had no way of knowing what was going on.  But Mathilde shows that there were many exceptions:
Practically everyone knows that all that bluff and rubbish printed in the newspapers and blazoned out on the wireless is hollow nonsense, and when big speeches are made nobody listens any more.
Indeed, the account she gives of the appalling public life of Jewish Germans could scarcely be bettered by a textbook in its fullness, nor its empathy
Perhaps you cannot imagine what life is like for Jews.  Their ration cards are printed on the outside with a large red J, so that everybody knows at one that they are non-Aryan.  All women have to add the name Sarah to their first names, the men Israel.  They never get special rations, such as coffee, tea or chocolate, nor do they received clothing coupons.  After 7.30 at night they are not allowed out into the street; their radios and telephones have been removed.  Practically every shop and restaurant has a notice saying 'Jews are not wanted here.'  It is so vile and mean that I can only blush with embarrassment while I write this.  But you and your children must know of this, that things like this are possible in Germany under our present regime.  You will hardly credit all this, or the fact that we others have stood by and said nothing.  And there are much, much worse things.  Many people have committed suicide because they could not bear this indignity.  Then, like vultures and hyenas, they [the Nazis] rush in and grab the belongings of the dead; honest names are smeared with filth, and decent Germans have been driven to emigrate by the thousand.
When reading about the war from the perspective of a British person (or, I daresay, the French, Belgian etc. - I haven't read their accounts) there is much pain and anguish, but little internal conflict.  Love of country and hatred of the enemy can be expressed in a single breath, without contradiction.  While individuals may question the point of war as a concept, or the political manoeuvres of those in power, this couldn't compare to the conflict Mathilde experienced with love of country and hatred of Hitler.
But however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany.  It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope.  Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed.  And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being 'chosen by God'.  May he and his followers be caught in just retribution.
However engaging and thought-provoking On The Other Side was for Mathilde's accounts of the war, the actual events were very similar to those in Britain - shortages, bombings, fear for loved ones.  It is certainly all moving, but it has become familiar ground in fiction and non-fiction.  The part I found most fascinating concerned Mathilde's experiences after the war was over; it was, again, something I had never read about from a German's perspective.
6 May 1945: It is Sunday and I almost hesitate to put pen to paper.  Too much has happened in the few days since last I wrote.  The whole world has changed and part of the crushing nightmare that oppressed us for so long has been lifted during these five days.  I have listened quite openly to an American and to a British radio station, no longer threatened with the death sentence for this.  I can go along the road and proclaim loudly, "Adolf Hitler, the most evil criminal in the world," and nobody will tell me to shut up.  Can you imagine that?  And can you picture our Andreasstrasse full of English trucks and private cars; on the pavements and in the front gardens a milling crowd of English soldiers - and it is a Welsh regiment, Ruth dear.  They serenely patrol the district: one is sitting in the middle of the road playing with a dog, another one is playing a recorder on a balcony; a couple tumble in and out of the house, for downstairs a captain has moved into the bottom flat.  What a lot of coming and going!
Although Mathilde and her husband welcomed the end of the war, and were very grateful for being in the British-controlled part of Germany (apparently other areas, particularly that under the rule of Russia, suffered greatly), the British army were, probably understandably, reluctant at first to sympathise with the German public. This was perhaps the most moving passage in the book:
He [her husband] was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for.  Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach.  And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people?  Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers?  Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population?  Who was it, I ask you?  We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence.
As I promised at the start, I have mostly quoted from the book, rather than giving my own views.  It's one of those books which I believe is too important to have me weigh in on it.  I couldn't say that I loved Mathilde's voice as much as I love Nella Last's, but they are books which ought to be read alongside each other.  On The Other Side couldn't be much further from The Winds of Heaven, but both exemplify what makes Persephone Books wonderful - books which enrich the reading life, whether through delightful fiction or thought-provoking non-fiction.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Winds of Heaven - Monica Dickens

Firstly, just thought I'd let you know that I'm back in the blogosphere (after two or three days of not reading much) and have replied to all recent comments, including all the wonderful and interesting comments on the On Commenting post.

Having recently got all excited about Persephone publishing their 100th title, I decided to check my unread Persephones against my A Century of Books list, and see how many blank spaces could be filled.  I have loved doing A Century of Books, but there's no denying that some of those blank spaces are frustratingly elusive.  However, this cross-referencing did fill up two gaps - which happened to cover the whole cross-section of Persephone's ethos.  Today's book is at the light, frothy end of the scale - the book I'll review tomorrow is serious and important.  I'm very glad to have read both.

My parents gave me The Winds of Heaven (1955) for my birthday a year or two ago, and it's been on my large pile of books I'm looking forward to reading - especially since I am already a huge fan of Monica Dickens' semi-autobiographical, very hilarious One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet.  But haven't yet, somehow, read Mariana.  Anyway, The Winds of Heaven is very different from those - gone is the humour, gone is the absurdity, and present instead is one widower's lonely, awkward life, bustled from pillar to post (those pillars and posts being represented by three rather selfish daughters.)

Lest we be in any doubt that those heavenly winds of the title be metaphorical, the opening paragraph is this:
When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into the gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are; but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching miserably at their hats and hair.
Louise Bickford is certainly of the creep-about variety.  She is recently a widow, left with enormous debts by an unscrupulous and selfish husband, and must spend her days living with one or other of her three daughters, on rotation.  In this novel, Monica Dickens draws her characters with broad strokes.  Having recently read V.S. Pritchett's complex and brilliant delineation of his father, it was even clearer that Louise's husband Dudley is essentially a cartoon villain.  Louise is downtrodden by him, and throughout the novel he looms in her memories like a bogeyman, apparently unkind and cruel from their honeymoon onwards.  Indeed, nobody would read The Winds of Heaven for its range of subtle character portraits - every marriage in the novel has at least one 'bad'un', and sometimes two.  On the flipside, some characters are just hopelessly nice.  Here are the various daughters and families:

1.) Miriam - sharp, pre-occupied, but not cruel.  Husband Arthur - cross, irascibile.  Daughter Ellen - sensitive, withdrawn, kind.  Other children Simon and Judy - young, excitable.

2.) Eva - bohemian.  Lover David - unreliable.

3.) Anne - lazy.  Husband Frank - adorable.

I'm being a little unkind to Monica Dickens, and I should point out that none of this prevented me enjoying The Winds of Heaven to the utmost.  It just isn't a finely-drawn, perceptive novel - it's light and broad and completely, wonderfully entertaining.  It reminded me a great deal of Richmal Crompton's novels, which I love but which (I now recognise) are far from great art.  Indeed, the relative staying with various families is a plot Crompton uses more than once, and to great effect in Matty and the Dearingroydes.

Having called this novel entertaining, I should add that its themes are often sombre.  Chief amongst these is Louise's situation - being loved but unwanted by her family, an awkward imposition wherever she goes.  In the hands of Elizabeth Taylor this would be a subtly crafted, very moving story - in the hands of Monica Dickens, it is moving but never heartbreaking.  Serious themes do not a serious novel make.  Indeed, the novel is still more entertaining than it is cautioning or saddening.  In fact, I'm trying to work out why it was so fun to read, when there is almost no comedy in it, and the events are all rather melancholy - from miserable affairs to accidents with farm machinery.  I think it's the same experience one has when watching a soap opera - the events are so over the top, and the characters embodying individual traits (Anne might as well just be a sign saying Selfish and Lazy) rather than complex personalities, that it's impossible to feel distraught for them, and instead you can settle down to guiltless enjoyment of the spectacle.

All of which sounds like I'm damning Monica Dickens with faint praise - but I have admiration for authors who can create an action-packed, page-turning novel, with underlying seriousness, and still produce a credible narrative.  Dickens' writing is never poor, and Louise herself is rather a well-drawn character - just one surrounded by characters who aren't particularly.  And which of us lives on Elizabeth Taylor alone?  It is no mean feat to produce a loveable, engaging novel.  It's the light end of the Persephone scale, but it's perfect for a winter evening when you want something relaxing and enjoyable, with just the right amount of thought-provoking paragraphs laced into the mix.  Thinking about it, The Winds of Heaven is the literary equivalent of The Archers... and that, my parents would assure me, can be no bad thing.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

A Quick Note

There's me, making a stand on being active in the blogosphere - and I go and disappear for a while.  I'm afraid I'll be ducking under the radar until Monday, and then I'll be back with pizzazz - replying to all your wonderful comments etc.  Family time at the moment - including our village sketch show, where I played newsreader Donald McTrevor (with a sort of Yorkshire accent, for some reason.)  More anon.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Thank you!

(Firstly, apologies if my review of Love at Second Sight, see below, appears twice in Google Reader etc. - I published it early by mistake, then deleted and republished!)

I've found the discussion on yesterday's post so, so interesting and helpful - thank you so much for joining in, if you did.  I hope it was clear that my post was talking to myself, as much as anyone, and that I was trying to address a more general point about the blogosphere, rather than just my blog.  I'm glad so many of us are going to make the same commenting resolution for 2013!  (Although this particular little post can probably be ignored, commentingwise ;) )

Just an update - I recently reinstated the word verification (having had it off for ages) because I was sick of getting dozens of spam comments everyday.  Blogger works out that they're spam, and they don't appear here, but they fill up my inbox.  However, after feedback yesterday, I've removed the word verification - as that does seem to make quite a difference to people's experience of commenting.

Happy Thursday!  I'll be spending much of my day on a train - but it'll be worth it, cos I'm going hoooome for Chriiiiistmas!  I'll reply to all of your comments (another thing which seems to make a difference, and which is a heck of a lot more fun for me than deleting spam emails!) as soon as I can.

Love at Second Sight by Ada Leverson

Whilst rooting around for a 1916 title for A Century of Books (you should have seen me, scrabbling through my books, opening covers, reading publication details, reshelving huffily) I stumbled upon Love At Second Sight by Ada Leverson.  It's the third book in The Little Ottleys, of which I have previously read the first - Love's Shadow - which was rather brilliant.  This is the only time A Century of Books has really rather compromised my reading plans - in that I skipped past the second title in the trilogy (Tenterhooks) straight to the third.  But someone had spoken on The Little Ottleys at a recent conference, and given away the plot, so it wasn't as calamitous as it could have been.

Look away if you don't want to know what happened in the first two novels... but they've (to be very brief) set up the fairly loveless marriage of Edith and Bruce; Edith falls in love with Aylmer Ross, but will not leave her husband, even when he asks for a divorce himself (having run off with another woman); he comes back to her, and everything settles down into what it had been before - which is to say, an amusing, charming, patient woman, and an exasperating man.  Bruce is best summed up by this wonderful quotation from Love's Shadow: "He often wrote letters beginning "Sir, I feel it my duty," to people on subjects that were no earthly concern of his."  As for the lovely Edith, I'll hand over to Leverson to describe her.  An author should show and not tell, as a rule, but all these qualities in Edith have been exemplified in previous books, so it is forgiveable that Leverson wants to let us know what a wonder she is, so that we can get on with the show.
She was a slim, fair, pretty woman, with more vividness and character than usually goes with her type.  Like the boy, she had long-lashed grey eyes, and blonde-cendre hair: her mouth and chin were of the Burne-Jones order, and her charm, which was great but unintentional, and generally unconscious, appealed partly to the senses and partly to the intellect.  She was essentially not one of those women who irritate all their own sex by their power (and still more by their fixed determination) to attract men; she was really and unusually indifferent to general admiration.  Still, that she was not a cold woman, not incapable of passionate feeling, was obvious to any physiognomist; the fully curved lips showed her generous and pleasure-loving temperament, while the softly glancing, intelligent, smiling eyes spoke fastidiousness and discrimination.  Her voice was low and soft, with a vibrating sound in it, and she laughed often and easily, being very ready to see and enjoy the amusing side of life.  But observation and emotion alike were instinctively veiled by a quiet, reposeful manner, so that she made herself further popular by appearing retiring.  Edith Ottley might so easily have been the centre of any group, and yet - she was not!  Women were grateful to her, and in return admitted that she was pretty, unaffected and charming.

Love At Second Sight opens with a scream.  The Ottleys' son Archie has, it seemed, used Madame Frabelle's mandolin as a cricket bat, and she is not best pleased.  And who might Madame Frabelle be, you ask?  The Ottleys want to ask much the same thing.  Their delightfully forgetful and absent-minded friend Lady Conroy introduced them (although later denied ever having heard of her, and in fact asks for an introduction herself) - and Madame Frabelle arrives for a visit.  Which has lengthened itself into many, many weeks.  She is charming, a great listener, given to understanding people - noticing their subtlest of thoughts, predicting their actions, and invariably being wrong about everything.
Indeed Edith did sincerely regard her opinion as very valuable.  She found her so invariably wrong that she was quite a useful guide. She was never quite sure of her own judgement until Madame Frabelle had contradicted it.
Madame Frabelle is determined that Edith is in love with Mr. Mitchell, another of the Ottleys acquaintances.  What neither Madame Frabelle nor Bruce notice is that Edith is in love - with Aylmer, who has returned from fighting in France with a broken leg.  Edith has to face a quandary - whether or not to leave her husband...

As I say, I haven't read Tenterhooks, where a similar story takes place, so I can only contrast this with the first book in the trilogy.  In that (again, c.f. my review here), we see a marriage which is irksome and unequal, but in a comic fashion.  All the will-they-won't-they plot concerns a multitude of other characters, none of whom have stayed in my mind, and the central Ottley marriage is stable, if awful.  Bruce's absurd lack of self-awareness is hilarious, and his terribleness as a husband is darkly humorous - in Love At Second Sight, more is at stake, and more than a punchline is likely to come out of this incompatible couple.

Which is not to say that the novel isn't funny.  It is very amusing, especially when Lady Conroy wanders onto the scene.  Ada Leverson was friends with Oscar Wilde, and his influence is apparent - if anything, rather more so than in Love's Shadow, because she turns to the epigram rather more frequently in Love At Second Sight - par example, 'she was a woman who was never surprised at anything except the obvious and the inevitable'.  Sometimes this clash of serious storyline and comic prose was a little disconcerting - I thought the balance worked better in Love's Shadow - but  this is still a wonderful little book.

Of course, what you should do is get the trilogy and read them in order!  I'll read Tenterhooks one day, and then everything will fall into place properly...

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

On Commenting

This might seem like a navel-gazing post, but I'm going to try hard to make it more general.  It's responding to something I've noticed in the literary blogosphere at large - I think it is a wider phenomenon - which is the decline in comments on blog posts.

Speaking specifically about Stuck-in-a-Book, the number of comments I anticipate getting, particularly on a book review, has actually decreased slightly from four or five years ago, despite the fact that my stats counter tells me I'm getting ten times as many readers now.  I'm lucky if 0.5% of the people who visit each day leave a comment, which seems an extraordinarily low percentage - and I've seen this trend around my favourite blogs, whether they have large or smaller audiences.  Perhaps nobody else thinks this is the case, in which case this post may end up discussing something unique to my blog, but do let me know (ha!) in the comments if you do or don't agree with my observation.

Personally, I always find it hard to realise that people have read a post if they don't comment.  Although I see that my blog is getting however many thousand hits a week, in my head it's only the tens of commenters who register.  That's not intended to be a gripe, it's just an illumination of the curious way my mind works - but perhaps yours does too?

I want to write in praise of comments.  Like many bloggers, I am passionate about the community in blogging - I beat the drum for community, and try to get involved as much as possible.  That's why I join in with readalongs, or start my own; that's why I have run three series of My Life in Books so enthusiastically, and why I celebrate people like Kim, who is currently running a series of Bloggers' Best Books of 2012.  Obviously a lot of blogging is necessarily done alone, and presents an individual's take on their personal reading life - but the reason we're all writing and reading on the internet, instead of jotting our thoughts in a notebook, is because we want to share the experience with others.

When I'm reading other people's blogs, all too often I forget how important the comment box is.  Today's post is directed at myself, as much as anyone else.  I read the post with interest, and appreciate the bloggers' perception or humour.  I might well jot down the title of the book somewhere, or even head straight off and buy it.  But, although I comment a fair amount (as do many of you), too often I move off somewhere else without having written anything.  It's a bit like leaving a party without thanking the hostess.

The comment box is a portal.  It stops the blogger being isolated, and brings the reader to their side.  It makes what might seem the loneliest of pursuits into a two-way conversation and a bustling world of long-distance friends.  Sometimes it adds information to the exchange, and that is wonderful; mostly it just adds appreciation or recognition - or even contradiction, which is, in fact, another form of recognition.  Sometimes I think, "But I don't have anything to say."  And what I probably mean is, "I don't have any personal knowledge on this topic", which isn't the same thing at all.  A comment needn't be the product of research.  A comment, any comment, demonstrates the time, energy, and thought put into writing is worthwhile - but is also rewards the reading time; it puts the reader in dialogue with the writer, and it elevates them both.  Even a humble "this sounds interesting" feels like a warm smile, and a "great review" like a bearhug.

Perhaps it is because there are so many blogs now, and people don't want to scatter their responses too prolifically.  Perhaps (more prosaically) it is because signing up and word verification have got so much more complicated.  But, on behalf of myself and every other blogger out there, I want to champion the commenter and laud the comment box.  It is the lifeblood of the blogosphere, and I apologise for forgetting that myself.  I'll be making a New Year's Blog Resolution to comment more often as I read around the blogosphere, and maybe some of you will too.  Perhaps some of you have never commented on a blog before - perhaps 2013 can be the year you step across the great divide!  I'd love to know the thoughts of any blogger or blog-reader, on the topic of comments?  I'd hate for that side of blogging to slope away - let's continue to support one another, and make blogging the wonderful, intelligent, friendly, joyous, constructive conversation it can be.