Thursday, 31 January 2013

Hallucinations - Oliver Sacks

Anne Fadiman wrote in Ex Libris that every bibliophile has a shelf (or shelves) of books that is somewhat off-kilter from the rest of their taste.  Mine might be my theology shelf, or my theatrical history shelf, but I think the books (few as they are) most likely to surprise the casual observer would be those on neurology.

When I told my Dad I'd bought and read Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks (after he'd spotted a review and told me about it), he asked "But will you be writing about it on your blog?"  "Of course," thought I - it hadn't crossed my mind that I wouldn't.  But I pondered on it, and thought - would blog-readers used to my love for 1930s novels about spinsters drinking tea also want to read about phantom limbs and Delirium Tremens?

Believe me, you will.  I have almost zero interest in science in all its many and varied forms.  I stopped studying it when I was 16 (except for maths) and found it all very dull before that point.  (Apologies, science-lovers.)  Biology was far and away my least favourite subject.  And yet Hallucinations is absolutely brilliant, as fascinating and readable as his popular work The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.  A predilection for scientific books is definitely not a prerequisite.  Sacks is just as much a storyteller as a scientist.

Before starting Hallucinations, I thought they were mostly terrifying, felt real, and came chiefly with a fever or drug abuse.  While hallucinations can be all these things, I was surprised to learn how often they are benign (even amusing or comforting) and easily recognised as fake.  Strangest still, I hadn't realised that (under Sacks' definitions) I had experienced hallucinations myself.

That's not quite true - I knew I'd had them when I had an extremely high temperature during flu, but I hadn't known that what I'd had repeatedly as a child were hypnagogic hallucinations - those that people get just before going to sleep.  Aged about 5, I often used to see chains of bright lights and shapes (and, Mum remembered but I did not, faces) in front of me - whether my eyes were open or closed - at bedtime.  It turns out hypnagogic hallucinations are very common, and (Sacks writes) rarely unnerving for the hallucinator.  Well, Dr. Sacks, aged five I found them incredibly frightening, and usually ran to mother!

There are so many types of hallucinations that Sacks has witnessed in decades of being a neurologist, encountering hundreds of people and hearing about thousands from his colleagues.  This book just includes the ones who gave him permission.  It would necessitate typing out the whole book to tell you all the illustrations he gives, but they range from fascinating accounts of Charles Bonnet Syndrome (basically seeing hallucinations, often highly detailed, for long or short periods) to hallucinated smells, sounds, and even a chapter on hallucinating doppelgangers.

Almost all of these hallucinations act alongside lives which are lived otherwise normally, and do not suggest any terrible neurological condition.  It is somewhat chilling that Sacks recounts a study which revealed that 12 volunteers, with otherwise 'normal' mental health histories, were asked to tell doctors they were hearing voices - and 11 were diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Sacks is keen to point out how many patients with hallucinations, even when voices, are not suffering from schizophrenia or any other sort of mental illness.  He is deeply interested in how people manage their lives when seeing hallucinations at any hour of the day, and offers up humble praise to those who take it in their stride.

This is what makes Sacks so special.  A few of the blurb reviews describe him as 'humane', which I suppose he is - but the word feels a little dispassionate.  Sacks, on the other hand, is fundamentally compassionate.  He never treats or describes people as case studies.  The accounts he gives are not scientific outlines, interested only in neurological details, but mini-biographies filled with human detail, humour, and respect.  Here's an example of all three factors combining:
Gertie C. had a half-controlled hallucinosis for decades before she started on L-dopa - bucolic hallucinations of lying in a sunlit meadow or floating in a creek near her childhood home.  This changed when she was given L-dopa and her hallucinations assumed a social and sometimes sexual character.  When she told me about this, she added, anxiously, "You surely wouldn't forbid a friendly hallucination to a frustrated old lady like me!"  I replied that if her hallucinations had a pleasant and controllable character, they seemed rather a good idea under the circumstances.  After this, the paranoid quality dropped away, and her hallucinatory encounters became purely amicable and amorous.  She developed a humour and tact and control, never allowing herself a hallucination before eight in the evening and keeping its duration to thirty or forty minutes at most.  If her relatives stayed too late, she would explain firmly but pleasantly that she was expecting "a gentleman visitor from out of town" in a few minutes' time, and she felt he might take it amiss if he was kept waiting outside.  She now receives love, attention, and invisible presents from a hallucinatory gentleman who visits faithfully each evening.
And with this respect and kindness definitely comes a sense of humour - the sort of humour exemplified by many of the people he met.  This detail, in a footnote, was wonderful:
Robert Teunisse told me how one of his patients, seeing a man hovering outside his nineteenth-floor apartment, assumed this was another one of his hallucinations.  When the man waved at him, he did not wave back.  The "hallucination" turned out to be his window washer, considerably miffed at not having his friendly wave returned.
Although Sacks does not compromise his scientific standing, Hallucinations is definitely (as demonstrated by me) a book which is accessible to the layman.  In the whole book, there was only one sentence which completely baffled me...
When his patient died, a year later, an autopsy revealed a large midbrain infarction involving (among other structures) the cerebral peduncles (hence his coinage of the term "penduncular hallucinations").
I'll take your word for it, Oliver.

But, that excerpt aside, Hallucinations was more of a page-turner than most detective novels, paid closer attention to the human details of everyday life than much domestic fiction, and certainly left me with more to think about than many books I read.  I hope I've done enough to convince you that, even if you think you won't be interested, you probably would be.

I have wondered whether my interest in neurology might, in fact, just be an appreciation of Oliver Sacks.  I've started other books in the field and not finished them, though I will go back to one on synaesthesia that I recently began.  Perhaps no other author combines Sacks' talents as scientist and storyteller... but I'm happy to be proven wrong, if anyone has any suggestions?

For now, though, I'm going to have to hunt out my copy of Sacks' Awakenings...

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Readalong Reviews

Do keep discussing in the previous post - a fascinatingly wide range of opinions there, all supported with excellent points - and here are a bunch of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding reviews appearing around the blogosphere.  If you link to your review in the comments on the previous post, I'll add them here...

Alex in Leeds
The Captive Reader
Chasing Bawa
Claire Thinking
Desperate Reader
Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings 
Leaves and Pages
Pen and Pencil Girls
Reading 1900-1950
Tale of Three Cities
We Be Reading
A Work in Progress

Monday, 28 January 2013

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding: Readalong

Right, books at the ready!  I've re-read Cheerful Weather for the Wedding ahead of seeing the new film (which I'll be doing in one week's time, at The Phoenix in Oxford, which has a one-night-only screening) and I'm opening up this post for discussion.  It won't be one of my usual reviews, because I've actually already reviewed the novel (novella?) here, but more of a hub for conversation about it.

But I'll give you a quick overview of my thoughts on re-reading Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.  It might be worth popping over and reading my thoughts in 2009, if you'd be so kind... basically I loved every moment, particularly the hilarious secondary characters.  Most memorable were mad Nellie (who spouts irrelevant conversations she has had with the plumber, while addressing the tea-tray) and brothers Tom and Robert, who come to a contretemps over the latter's unorthodox emerald socks.  (I'm assuming that everyone knows the basic plot by this point - Dolly is uncertainly preparing for her wedding to Owen, with a houseful of eccentrics helping and hindering her - and a bottle of rum within reach.)

This time around, I found the novella a little less amusing, but mostly because I already knew where all my favourite bits were coming.  It is testament to Strachey's humour that Nellie, Tom, and Robert have remained firmly fixed in my mind, down to their individual lines ("Put your head in a bag" still makes me grin) but inevitably surreal moments of humour heavily rely upon novelty.  Her cast of near-grotesques were still a delight, but not quite as much the second time around.

This, however, left me more able to appreciate other aspects to Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (and not just that sublime cover - I kept closing the book just to stare at it for a bit longer.)  I'd appreciated Strachey as a comic writer, but hadn't really noticed how gorgeous some of her other writing is.  Her propensity to describe every character's eyes when they arrive on the scene was slightly unnerving, but depictions of buildings and countryside were really lovely, and contrasted well with the surreal descriptions of people.  I couldn't resist this excerpt...
Dolly's white-enamelled Edwardian bedroom jutted out over the kitchen garden, in a sort of little turret.  It was at the top of the house, and reached by a steep and narrow stairway.  Coming in at the bedroom door, one might easily imagine one's self to be up in the air in a balloon, or else inside a lighthouse.  One saw only dazzling white light coming in at the big windows on all sides, and through the bow window directly opposite the door shone the pale blue sea-bay of Malton.

This morning the countryside, through each and all of the big windows, was bright golden in the sunlight.  On the sides of a little hill quite close, beyond the railway cutting, grew a thick hazel copse.  To-day, with the sun shining through its bare branches, this seemed to be not trees at all, but merely folds of something diaphanous floating along the surface of the hillside - a flock of brown vapours, here dark, there light - lit up in the sunshine.

And all over the countryside this morning the bare copses looked like these brown gossamer scarves; they billowed over the hillsides, here opalescent, there obscure - according to the sunlight and shadow among their bronze and gauzy foldings.
It can't just be me who wants to move in immediately?  But I couldn't leave you without a moment of Strachey's wonderfully wicked humour...
"How are your lectures going?" asked Kitty of Joseph, a kind of desperate intenseness in her voice and face.  This was her style of the moment with the male sex.
And now over to you!  If you post a review of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding during the week, please pop a link in the comments (I'll probably do a round-up later in the week) but I'd also like this to be a place for discussion - do reply to each other's comments, and I'll join in, and it'll be FUN.  I won't post for another two or three days, to give everyone a chance to see this.

Here are some questions to start things going:

  • Did you enjoy the novel, for starters!?
  • What do you think Julia Strachey was trying to achieve - what sort of book was she trying to write?
  • Why do you think Strachey made it so short?  Would it have worked as a longer novel?
  • Who were your favourite characters?
  • If you're re-reading, how did you opinion change this time?
  • How do you think it will translate to cinema?

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Song for a Sunday

This week's song is suggested by special guest Susan!  You'll probably know her as Susan in TX - one of most beloved members of the blog-reading community, I'm sure you'll agree.  Here is a song her family have been listening to, Kicking and Screaming by Third Day.

Friday, 25 January 2013

House of Silence - Linda Gillard

The aftermath of A Century of Books definitely seems to be a sudden dash towards 21st century books, particularly those I've had on hold for a while.  And few books have hovered more determinedly around my consciousness than Linda Gillard's House of Silence (2011).  I'd read her first three novels, and enjoyed them all - one to this-is-incredibly-I-love-it standards. Although I've never met Linda Gillard, we used to be in the same book discussion list, and we're friends on Facebook, so I'm putting this kind gift in Reading Presently.  Them's my rules.  And it's not even the first time she's given me a copy of the book.

As many of you will know, Linda Gillard is a runaway Kindle bestseller - we're talking 30,000 copies of House of Silence here, let alone her other Kindle titles - and has a devoted audience around the world.  And then, lolloping up behind them, wearing too many belts and clearly thinking the calculator in his hand is a mobile phone, comes me.  I don't have a Kindle, or any of the other-ereaders-are-available.  I don't want one even a tiny bit.  The only advantage they have, in fact - and this has quite genuinely appeared on my mental pros/cons list - is access to Linda Gillard's novels.

Yes, yes, I know.  Kindle-for-PC.  I downloaded it; Linda kindly gave me a download of House of Silence.  I tried to read it.  I read the first page every now and then... and got no further.  It was like standing outside a bank vault and not having the combination - because, try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to read an e-book.  It took me months to read the one my good friend had written, which even thanked me in it.

And then - praise be! - Linda published it as a POD paperback, and sent me a review copy of that.  Huzzah!  I read it, and, dear reader, it was good.  Which is just as well, after all that.

(Incidentally, isn't the cover gorgeous?  Unlike most self-published authors, Linda Gillard goes the extra mile with design and aesthetic, paying a designer for this beautiful look.  What a shame that easily her best novel, A Lifetime Burning, should also have easily her worst cover... but the new cover for the Kindle edition is beautiful.)

House of Silence has been advertised as Rebecca meets Cold Comfort Farm - both traits I could identify, and which can definitely be no bad thing - but, more than that, it felt reliably Gillard to me.  In terms of period, event, and even genre Linda is versatile - but certain ingredients stand out as characteristic.  The most dominant of these is the feel of the book and the characters, vague as that sounds - with Linda Gillard's novels, you know you're going to get strong emotions and passionate people, trammeled by everyday experience, but refusing to lie entirely dormant...

Guinevere (known as Gwen) works alongside actors, in the wardrobe department.  Already, I'm sold - you might know how I love books which feature actors, and Gillard uses Gwen's knowledge of fabrics to ingenious effect as the novel progresses.  It is in this role that she first meets Alfie, who is having some issues with his breeches... one thing leads to another, and they end up dating.  Which, in turn, leads to her spending Christmas with him and his family, at beautiful old Creake Hall in Norfolk.  He's a little reluctant for her to join him, but eventually is persuaded.

And what a group of eccentrics they find!  Chief amongst them - although appearing very little on the scene - is Alfie's mother Rae.  Her mind is wandering, and her grasp of time and people is never strong, but she is still regularly producing her series of children's books about Tom Dickon Harry.  This little chap has made her famous - and is based on Alfie himself, who (in turn) rose to notoriety after appearing in a documentary about the books when he was eighteen.  The irony is, Alfie explains, that he actually grew up with his father, who divorced Rae - and now he only sees his sister and half-sisters once a year, at Christmas.

Those sisters include loveable, scatty Hattie - who is forever making quilts, and babbling away without any real sense of boundaries.  Viv is less open, but still welcomes Gwen into the family.  Throw in two visiting sisters, in varying states of life-collapse, and things are bound to be interesting.  And Creake Hall is a wonderful setting.  Who doesn't love an Elizabethan manor for a mysterious, slightly unsettling novel?  What makes it most unsettling is that the reader shares with Gwen the feeling that Alfie isn't telling us everything... why was he so reluctant for her to stay?  What secrets does he hide?  What secrets are hidden by the house of silence?

Gwen is rather younger than Linda Gillard's previous heroines - she is in her mid-twenties, in fact.  At no point does she come across as that young, though - which I thought might be a failing on Gillard's part, until I got to the part where she asked Marek to guess her age:
"Older than you look.  Younger than you sound."
One of the main aspects of Gwen's personality is that she has had to be old before her years.  I suppose that's what happens when you lose your entire family during adolescence - to drugs, alcohol, and AIDS - including finding your mother, dead, on Christmas.  Yup, Gwen has had it tough.

Oh, and Marek, you ask?  He is the gardener, known as Tyler to everyone (because every gardener has been known as that) and is warm, a good listener - he used to be a psychiatrist - and generally a safe place for Gwen to retreat.  He's also (I quote Lyn's review) 'gorgeous, sexy, and irresistible.'  I have mental blocks for big age gaps with fictional couples - even Emma and Mr. Knightley is a combination which makes me wince a bit - so I'll sidestep any potential entanglements here, and leave those quandaries to your imagination.  I will say that Marek reminds me a lot of Gavin from Gillard's Emotional Geology, that he lives in a windmill (far from the only thing which reminded me of Jonathan Creek), and plays the cello - which led me in the direction of this beautiful piece.  It's Rachmaninov's Sonata in G Minor, Opus 17 No.3, Andante.  (Sorry, I have no idea how one is supposed to phrase the titles to music.)

I refuse to give any more of the plot away.  I've left it all deliberately vague, because it's the sort of novel where the plot does matter.  One of the reasons it reminded me of an episode of Jonathan Creek, in the best possible way, is that you're desperate to find out what happens - and twist upon twist come, so that everything is plausible but unguessable.  The 'reveals' are entirely consistent with people's behaviour throughout the novel; character is never sacrificed to plot - indeed, the explanation of what has happened is also an explanation of why the members of this family are the way they are.

It's all beautifully, addictively done.  I stayed up far later than I should, devouring the second half of the novel. I was unsure, in the beginning, whether it would match up to the compulsive quality of Gillard's other novels, and the action doesn't quite kick into gear until we've arrived at Creake Hall - but, after that, hold onto your hats.  It is a mark of Linda Gillard's talent that her novels are both versatile and identifiable - no matter what genre she turns her hand to (and I believe her next was a paranormal romance), I would be able to recognise a Gillard at a hundred paces.  And, although she may be one of the new wave of successful Kindle authors, thank Heaven she's found a way for the Kindless to enjoy the dizzying, thoughtful extravaganza that is House of Silence.

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"House of Silence is a compulsively readable book. It’s a compelling story of family secrets & lies, set in a crumbling Elizabethan mansion at Christmas in the depths of a freezing Norfolk winter." - Lyn, I Prefer Reading

"This is a book in which it is so easy to lose yourself, at once emotional and mysterious." - Margaret, Books Please

"The book has romance, bubbling away underneath, it deals with mental health issues so effectively and considerately that you actually do not realise until reflecting back on the book." - Jo, The Book Jotter

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Winter Book - 99p!

Another rush by - just wanted to pass on the info (to which Linda Gillard alerted me) that Tove Jansson's The Winter Book is Amazon's Kindle deal-of-the-day, for 99p: click here.  Unless you're ethically against Amazon and whatnot, but at least you can make a fully-informed decision now!

This collection of short stories is my favourite Jansson book, and she is one of my favourite writers, so you can imagine how much I love it!

[this is probably for UK readers only... not sure...]

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Comments (again)

Just to say, I'm afraid I've put word verification back on.  I didn't mind getting lots of spam when Blogger detected it (although it was tiresome deleting them all from my inbox), but now they're getting through to the page.  Sorry if word verification means some people have trouble commenting, but needs must!

Monday, 21 January 2013

What are you reading?

An Interior With A Woman Reading - Carl Larsson
Just so you know that I'm not dead in a ditch - just rather wiped out from a cold that doesn't feel like going away - I thought I'd ask you all what you're reading at the moment?

I've just finished a very gripping modern novel (more anon) and started Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, who is being reliably fascinating so far.

And over to you!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Lots of Provincial Ladies

Be prepared for me to be pretty flexible in my Reading Presently project, folks.  I mostly won't be including re-reads, but I will be more inclined to if I'm reading the gift for the first time - i.e. first time in that particular edition, but not first time overall.  And, in the first days of the new year, I re-read E.M. Delafield's The Diary of a Provincial Lady for the umpteenth time, and loved it just as much as ever.  I'm amazed by how consistently wonderfully Delafield writes it, with almost every line making me smile or laugh.  Just flicking through a copy, here is an example, because I feel she should get to say something in this post:
Write letters.  Much interrupted by Helen Wills [the cat], wanting to be let out, kitten, wanting to be let in, and dear Robin, who climbs all over the furniture, apparently unconscious that he is doing so, and tells me at the same time, loudly and in full, the story of The Swiss Family Robinson.
As I say, I've read it many times - this is probably the eighth or ninth time in ten years - but this is the first time I've read the particular edition given to me by (drum roll, if you will)... Thomas at My Porch!  Yes, that adorable man knew that I had something of a collection of Provincial Lady editions, and sent me this beauty:

Isn't it fab?  I was so grateful, especially since it's an edition I've never seen on my bookshop travels in the UK.

Whilst we're here, I thought you might fancy a little tour around my other editions, no?  If nothing else, it'll make you feel better about your own book buying compulsions.  You'll feel a model of restraint and good sense, by comparison.

This is the first ever edition that I bought, having read The Provincial Lady Goes Further from the local library (large print edition - the only E.M. Delafield book they held).  This is the edition I've read most often - in fact, it's always on my bedside table - and the spine has fallen off.  It's all four Provincial Lady books in one, with an introduction by Kate O'Brien.  It would have originally had a lovely dustjacket - like the one pictured in Christine's post here - but mine came, instead, with a cup mark.

Over the years, I've bought up cheap editions of the various books in the series, when I've stumbled across them.  That accounts for this little pile - two copies of The Provincial Lady Goes Further, and one of The Diary of a Provincial Lady - which, interestingly, has a bunch of pages duplicated in the middle, and thus must be worth.... um, nothing.

One of the reasons I buy these, other than because they're simply lovely, is for the fantastic Arthur Watt illustrations:

And then, of course, I have the Virago Modern Classics edition, with Nicola Beauman's introduction.  I couldn't not have that, could I?  But... I suppose I didn't medically need to get this two separate editions of this omnibus, simply for the different covers... (second photo not mine, pinched from Christine's site - because I forgot to take a photo of it, and it's in Somerset.)

And, finally, when shopping in one of my favourite bookshops - Malvern Bookshop in Malvern, Worcestershire - I came across the Folio edition of the first book.  I don't think the illustrator really interprets the book in the way I would, but Folio books are so beautifully produced that I couldn't leave this one on the shelf now, could I?  No.  No, of course I could not.

Ok, dear reader, I know what you're thinking... I don't have the Cath Kidston edition which Virago published a year or two ago!  And you're right, of course.  I imagine one day, when I find it cheaply, I'll add it to my collection.  'Collection' sounds better than hoard, doesn't it?

Well, my name is Simon, and I am addicted to editions of the Provincial Lady.  Thomas is my enabler.  I'm well aware that I couldn't stop any time I wanted to.  I'm not even trying to go clean.   Don't LOOK at me, I'm SO ASHAMED.

(I'm not.  Not at all.)

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Cold, Cosy, Cat

I'm not going to be very wordy today, as I have a cold and a late night... but I just wanted to post you in the direction of a new blog!  A new blog, but not a new blogger... lovely Darlene, who we once knew as Roses Over a Cottage Door, is now blogging at Cosy Books.  Pop by and say hello - because the first book she's written about there is brilliant.

And, because this post feels absurdly short, here is a little photo diary of what happened when Sherpa spotted my camera cord...

Hopefully more posts this week, depending on how beleaguered I'm feeling!  But they may be short...

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Rethinking Darcy

At present, I am in the midst of listening to Sebastian Faulks' Faulks on Fiction, which I intend to write about more fully when I've finished - not least because it is the first audiobook I've listened to properly since I was about 11 - but I thought I'd respond to something he said about Pride and Prejudice. He divides the book into thematic sections, and Darcy & Elizabeth take their place in the Lovers portion of the book (alongside such luminaries as Tess Durbeyfield and Lady Constance Chatterley.)

Faulks mostly gives plots and some gentle, often personal, analysis, but he takes rather a brave leap with Darcy - suggesting that he suffers from intense depression, and wants Elizabeth almost wholly as 'lifelong Prozac', replacing Mr. Bingley in this function. And Darcy definitely comes in for the worst of Faulks' censure where the proposal scene is concerned. The first one, that is (er, spoilers alert.) Faulks think he is utterly wrong, in everything he says - not just the way he says it.  Here are a couple of examples of how it has been done on film - I shan't be sullying my blog with the ridiculous travesty that is the proposal scene in Joe Wright's 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Rarely has a scene been so misjudged from page to screen... mini-rant over.

As you see - and as I'm sure most of us are familiar - Darcy is usually depicted in this proposal scene as having reached the very nadir of his arrogance, pride, and rudeness. That's certainly the way it has been acted (except, I should add, by Laurence Olivier), and it's how Sebastian Faulks interprets the book. But... I wonder.

I'm sure I'm not the first to say this, and I'd cite my sources if I could remember any, but... Darcy's proposal is super-genuine! He really is being astonishingly sacrifical. Let's not forget that he is willing to marry beneath him - an act which Lizzie herself dismisses, having been cautioned against it by Aunt Gardiner, when she considers Wickham. He is throwing away all manner of things, all for the love of Elizabeth.

What does he say in the proposal that is not true? What does he say, in its aftermath, which is not justifiable (to his period, not to our 21st century sensibilities, that is)? Could she expect him to rejoice in the inferiority of her connections? Would it have been better if Darcy had, in the manner of most romantic heroes of the time, lied through his teeth during proposal, or at least exaggerated every virtue and sidelined every qualm to the extent that he might as well be lying? Elizabeth is entirely justified to reject him on the basis of his treatment of Jane - but this, too, is really the misreading of her intentions, and thus an act of kindness to his best friend. Certainly not, as Faulks suggests, simply to keep Bingley to himself.

I think film and television adaptations have tended towards seeing Darcy as the villain-made-good, and Elizabeth as the woman who makes him good. She may be a bit impetuous (this line of thought goes), but essentially she is the one in the right, and he comes to realise this. I think Jane Austen is much cleverer than this. Elizabeth's shortcomings are not incidental or irrelevant - she really has as far to travel as Darcy, in terms of her character, before the match is equal. Yes, she is always a delight to the reader - but that is neither here nor there, in terms of morality or character defects. Which of us does not adore Emma? Yet which of us would say she needs no reforming?

There is a common acknowledgement that Lizzie needs to reform her character defects - that she can be proud and she can be prejudiced - but, in practice, or at least in adaptation, interpretations of her encounters with Darcy all suggest otherwise. And most especially the proposal. His bluff manner does not make him wrong; her eloquent outrage does not make her right. If we allow ourselves to think only in the context of the period - how generous Darcy is! How ungrateful, Elizabeth! And how wonderfully both reflect upon the scene, and - accordingly - change themselves for the better, and for each other. But let's recognise that Darcy's change is not a 360 reversal, and Elizabeth's, on the other hand, is not inconsiderable.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Yours Sincerely - Monica Dickens & Beverley Nichols

When my e-friend Sarah mentioned that Monica Dickens and Beverley Nichols had co-authored a selection of light essays called Yours Sincerely (1949), can you really imagine me not immediately buying a copy?  If you answered 'yes' then you're either new around these parts, or you have a stronger sense of my self-control than is just.

So, back in autumn, it arrived - and I started reading it in a gradual way, such as befits this sort of book.  It is great fun.  I don't know quite where the articles came from - they're quite varying lengths, and don't seem to have been written specially for this volume, but cover topics in the same line as Rose Macaulay's Personal Pleasures.   Everything from 'Planting Bulbs' (reminiscent of Provincial Lady, no?) to 'Sensuality'; 'Talkative Women' to 'Coddled Men'; 'Losing Your Temper' to 'Brides in White.'  All the sort of topics of middle-class chatter in the 1940s - but feeling, somehow, old-fashioned even for the 1940s.

Indeed, Beverley Nichols has no qualms in describing himself as 'old-fashioned, out-of-date, and generally encrusted in lichen'.  Even when I agree with him, he's so curmudgeonly that I felt like I wanted to distance myself from him...  it's enjoyable to read, but not quite the laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating whimsy that I'd expected - and which Monica Dickens delivers in spades.  Sometimes he was just too saccharine and worthy for my taste...
You can't bruise a plant and feel aggrieved because it grows up stunted or deformed or "odd."  The slightest twist or wound, in it infancy, grows and swells, till in the end the plant is an ugly wretched thing that you have to throw onto the rubbish heap.

It is the same with children.  A lie, an injustice, a cruelty - these get under the skin.  And they too grow and swell, till at last a miserable man or a wretched woman is rejected by society.
Undeniably true, but... am I bad person for wishing that he'd been jollier?  I still haven't read any of his books, and now I'll be rushing towards them a little less eagerly.

Whereas Monica Dickens, after getting all serious in The Winds of Heaven, is on fine form in Yours Sincerely.  Lots of smiles all round, and never too earnest.  Just the sort of light essay which I adore, and which doesn't seem to happen any more.  Here she is on proposing...
We've all dreamed much the same dreams, I expect.  You know - you're in a diaphanous evening dress of unearthly beauty.  You're the belle of the ball.  You've danced like a disembodied fairy and now you drift out on to a moonlit terrace, mysterious with the scent of gardenias. 
He follows, in faultless evening dress, no doubt (mine sometimes used to be in white monkey jackets), and says - IT.

Or, he says IT on the boat-deck of a liner gliding through phosphorescent tropic seas, or on a Riviera beach, or sometimes at the crisis of some highly improbable adventure.  He's just rescued you - or you him - from a fire.  You're besieged in an attic firing your last round at the enemy now battering at the door below.  You're a beautiful nurse and he's a dying soldier - but not irretrievably dying.

There are endless variations but always the same theme song : "Will you marry me?"  The implication is that when one is very young the actual moment of proposal is one of the high-spots of marriage.

I used to pester my mother over and over again to tell me how my father proposed.  I couldn't believe she wasn't holding out on me when she swore that he never really had.  She couldn't remember when he started saying and writing : "When we're married we'll do so and so."
I have a small section of a shelf devoted to light essays - it is only a small section, because I haven't managed to find very many.  Alongside this and some by Rose Macaulay are Angela Milne's Jame and Genius, A.A. Milne's various offerings in this genre, J.B. Priestley's Delight, Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, Christopher Morley's Safety Pins, and probably one or two others which have slipped my mind.  Any suggestions?

In the meantime, Yours Sincerely isn't groundbreaking or even exceptionally good, but it's a jolly, enjoyable contribution to that often-overlooked form of the familiar essay, and so steeped in the mores of the early 20th century that a flick through fills me with nostalgia for an age in which I never lived.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Song for a Sunday

This is a rather lovely little song called 'Concrete Wall' by Zee Avi. Innovative 'percussion'!

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend y'all!  Hope everyone is very well.  I spent my Friday evening watching a great 1945 film I Live in Grosvenor Square with Rex Harrison and Anna Neagle - and, the reason I watched it, Dame Irene Vanbrugh!  It was the inaugural film in Andrea & Simon's Film Club (basically a fancy name for my friend Andrea and I taking it in turns to choose films) - I'll keep you posted if we watch anything really great.  And maybe I'll do a proper post on I Live in Grosvenor Square one day.

1.) The book - could have your name in it!  A youtuber I was watching mention U*Novels ('you star novels') which allows you to have specially printed editions of classic novels where you choose the names of the cast.  This could make a really fun gift.  Want to put your husband in as Mr. Darcy?  Fancy taking a trip to Wonderland and having your friends appear as the caterpillar or Chesire Cat?  It sounds silly and fun to me.

2.) The blog post - Melwyk over at The Indextrious Reader has started up a really interesting Postal Reading Challenge - reading books with postal themes (e.g. collections of letters - those of you who got excited about Maxwell/Welty or Maxwell/Warner collections could jump on board!)  Head over here to find out more.

3.) The link - I just wanted to remind you to WATCH THE LIZZIE BENNET DIARIES if you're not already.  (A re-telling of Pride and Prejudice through vlogs - I first wrote about here.) It's got so good recently - and Lydia Bennet's channel is also brilliant.  Mary Kate Wiles (along with the writers) has really fleshed out Lydia to be a very sympathetic, thorough character, rather than the silly, flighty girl that Lizzie sees (and thus that we see in the novel.)   Lydia's channel is here, and Lizzie's is here.   There are quite a lot of videos to watch, but I'll make it easy for you to start - here is ep.1 of Lizzie's channel.

Friday, 11 January 2013

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty & William Maxwell

The third Reading Presently book was a really lovely surprise gift from Heather, who reads my blog (but doesn't, I'm pretty sure, have one herself.)  She saw how much I'd loved the letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and decided (quite rightly) that I should also have the opportunity to read William Maxwell's letters to another doyenne of the printed word - Eudora Welty.

Although no collection of letters is likely to compare to The Element of Lavishness in my mind, this is still a really wonderful book.  The dynamics are a little different - both are on the same side of the Atlantic (Maxwell can write to Welty 'And warm though the British are, one needs to have them explained to one, and everything is through the looking glass') ; both go more or less through the same stages of their careers - with Warner, Maxwell was always the young enthusiast, even when he was essentially her boss.  Here is more a meeting of equals, sharing some literary friends (especially Elizabeth Bowen) and loving and respecting each other without the need to impress (which brought out the very finest of Maxwell's writing, to Warner.)

It was a delight to 'meet' Maxwell's wife and children again, and to see the girls grow up once more - and fascinating to see how this is framed a little differently in the different books.  For her part, Welty's relationship with her homeland (Jackson, Mississippi) is really interesting - a definitely conflicted relationship, cross with the attitudes of her neighbourhood, but loving home.  It's pretty rare that 'place' makes an impact on me, let alone somebody's engagement with their individual city, but this was certainly one of those occasions.

Just as Warner's letters stood out more for me in The Element of Lavishness, it was Maxwell's turn to take the foreground in What There Is To Say We Have Said (which is a lovely title, incidentally - a quotation from the penultimate letter Maxwell sent.)  So I jotted down a few Maxwell excerpts, but nothing from Welty - who, though wonderful, turned out to be less quoteworthy.  I love this from Maxwell, about wishing for a Virginia Woolf audiobook:
What wouldn't you give for a recording of her reading "To the Lighthouse," on one side and "The Waves" on the other.  It's enough to unsettle my reason, just having imagined it.  I'll try not think about it any more.
I mostly love how impassioned (and funny) he is - and I'm probably going to be peppering my conversation with 'it's enough to unsettle my reason'.  It rivals that immortal line from the TV adaptation of Cranford: "Put not another dainty to your lips, for you will choke when you hear what I have to say!"  (Note to Self: I must watch Cranford again...)

Maxwell is, of course, a great novelist on his own account - but I think one of his most significant contributions to literature is his panache as an appreciator.  Even when he was turning down Warner's stories for the New Yorker, he managed to do so with admiration dripping from every penstroke of the rejection.  He so perfectly (and honestly) identifies what the author was hoping would be praised, and describes the raptures of an avid reader.  Here is his beautiful response to Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples:
At one point I was aware that I was holding my breath, a thing I don't ever remember doing before,  while reading, and what I was holding my breath for is lest I might disturb something in nature, a leaf that was about to move, a bird, a wasp, a blade of grass caught between other blades of grass and about to set itself free.  And then farther on I said to myself, this writing is corrective, meaning of course for myself and all other writers, and almost at the end I said reverently This is how one feels in the presence of a work of art, and finally, in the last paragraph, when the face came through, there was nothing to say.  You had gone as far as there is to go and then taken one step further.
Which author would not thrill to this letter?  Can a better response be imagined?  There is never any sense, in his praise to Welty or Warner, that he is exaggerating or being sycophantic - he simply expresses the joy he feels, unabashed, and the women he writes to are sensible enough to accept his praise without undue modesty.  Welty returns compliments on Maxwell's writing more than Warner ever did - c.f. again the youthful admirer / fond sage dynamic which was going on there.

If this collection does not match up to The Element of Lavishness, it is because it does not have the magic of Warner's letter writing.  But to criticise it for that would be like criticising chocolate cake because it wasn't double chocolate cake.  This is a wonderful, decades-long account of a friendship between literary greats - and is equally marvellous for both the literary interest and the testament (if I may) of friendship.  Thank you, Heather, I'm so grateful for this joy of a book  it, and they, will stay with me for a while.  Now, did William Maxwell write to anyone else...

Wednesday, 9 January 2013


This innocent little picture from the back of my diary reveals so little of the anguish and torment which it represents...

When someone suggested The Sea, The Sea for my book group last September, my initial thought was "Oh, good.  I wasn't sure whether or not I liked The Sandcastle, and now I'll be able to have another try with Iris Murdoch."

And then I saw how long it was.

Well, nothing daunted (ok, a little bit daunted), I started to read it.  And it's really beautifully written.  It all starts off with a retired theatre director in his new house by the sea, discussing his hectic past and his embrace of solitude.  And his meals.  Always his meals.

(This, incidentally, will not be a review of the book.  I don't have the stamina.)

My experience - nay, my journey - with The Sea, The Sea was very strange.  I started off thinking I'd cracked Murdoch.  All those unread novels by her, sitting on my shelf, could now be read.

And then...

Well, that beautiful prose got rather cloying after a while.  There is almost no dialogue, because Charles Arrowby lives alone.  Even at the best of times, I prefer well-written dialogue to well-written narrative - one of the reasons I love Ivy Compton-Burnett so much - and I felt rather beleaguered by it all after a while.

And then...

Then it got mad.  By a series of bizarre coincidences, every woman Charles has ever romanced ends up in the same village - including the love of his youth, now a dowdy old woman.  He is still bewitched by her, or the memory of her, and is determined to 'free' her from her cruel husband.  She admits that he has been cruel... and changes her mind a bit about it... so Charles (great sage that he is) decides the best thing to do is kidnap her, hold her against her will in a locked bedroom, and tell her how much she loves him.  He wants to free her, by imprisoning her.

Ok, so Charles is insane.  But nobody else much seems to mind.  The husband busies himself with gardening, various other people have highly-detailed lunches and bathe in the sea.  There's even a half-hearted murder plot thrown in for good measure.

Most bizarre of all, once the woman is finally let out of her locked room (Charles still determined that they love one another), she goes back home and nobody seems to mind either.  She even lets him come to tea.  IT ALL MAKES NO SENSE.

I finished reading it.  I was hoping there would be some big pay-off.  It's a first-person narrative, so I was expecting a big unreliable-narrator twist - did any of it happen?  Is Charles insane?  But, instead, it just petered out.  There was no indication that the events were only in his mind - which is the only way that the novel would make any sort of sense.  I even wondered if The Sea, The Sea held the first clues of Iris Murdoch's dementia, but she wrote quite a few after this, so I suspect not.

Rarely have I been so cross with a book.  Yes, any individual sentence or paragraph was beautifully written - but a series of beautiful sentences do not a novel make.  And nobody at book group could explain it to me either.

So... I'm willing to give respected or recommended authors three attempts.  That's how I came to love books by Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, and E.M. Forster.  Iris Murdoch - you've had two swings and two misses.  Third strike, and you're out.  We'll see, we'll see...

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Young Ardizzone

As I mentioned before Christmas (in the post from which I swiped this photo) I got a lovely Slightly Foxed edition of Edward Ardizzone's The Young Ardizzone (1970) from my Virago Secret Santa, and I took it away with me for my few days of indulgent reading at the end of 2012.  It was the first book I finished in 2013, and it amuses me that the year I found most elusive for A Century of Books was the first one I completed in 2013 - not that I'm doing that project this year.  BUT it is going on Reading Presently.  And what a lovely gift it was!  It is - but of course - wonderful.

There are lots of teenage girls out there who go mad for Justin Bieber, or young boys who idolise football players (I'm afraid I can't name any who weren't playing back in 1998).  In my own off-kilter way, I'm in danger of becoming a total fanboy for Slightly Foxed Editions.  They're just all good.  There are other reprint publishers I love, as you know, but I think these are the most consistently wonderful offerings.  No duds.  Excuse me while I put a photo of the editorial team on my wall.  Ahem.

Edward Ardizzone's childhood seems to have been rather unusual, where parenting is concerned.  He was born in 1900, in Tonkin, Vietnam, but moved to Suffolk, England when only five.  His father, however, stayed behind, moving around Asia - visiting England at intervals, moving his family around the country (for he was certainly still married to Ardizzone's mother, who spent four years out in Asia with him when Ardizzone was at boarding school) but playing minimal part in Ardizzone's childhood.  The chief figure was his tempestuous grandmother - Ardizzone often describes her going 'black in the face with rage', but adds that she 'was normally gay, witty and affectionate'.  More diverting relatives!  Lucky Ed.

I always love reading about people's childhoods, but I loved Ardizzone's more than most, because it   took place in East Bergholt.  I'd initially thought, flicking through the book, that only a chapter or two took place in East Bergholt - but he is, in fact, there for a few years.  It's the village where my grandparents lived for about 40 years, and Our Vicar's Wife was there for her final teenage years, so I know it pretty well.  I even recognise the house Ardizzone lived in from this little sketch.

A very lovely village it is too.  Here are some of his recollections:
Yet certain memories are with me still.  A particular picnic in a hayfield during haymaking; a fine summer afternoon in a cornfield when the stooks of corn became our wigwams.  A certain rutted lane with oak tree arching overhead and hedges so high that the lane looked like a green tunnel leading to the flats below.[...]Not far from the old parish church, with its strange bell cage planted down among the tombstones, was a round bounded on one side by a very high red brick wall.  Set in this wall was a small gothic door.  It was of wood and decorated with heavy iron studs.  Beside this door was a wrought-iron bell pull.
It's all quite simply told, but works well with the simple pictures.  The name Ardizzone meant nothing to me when I received the book, but I did recognise his illustrations - although I don't know where I encountered them - which are throughout the book as a delightful accompaniment.  I must confess, to my unlearned eyes his draughtsmanship is not the very finest, and the comparisons Huon Mallalieu's Preface makes with E.H. Shepard and Beatrix Potter seem a trifle generous.  But, even with those reservations, his illustrations enhance the memoir no end.  It is almost all done with lines and crosshatching, just a dot or two to suggest facial expressions.

Ardizzone didn't enjoy school greatly - there are some incidents of bullying which seem to me quite shocking, but he only really mentions them in passing, without any suggestion that they have scarred him for life.  And, indeed, his various school exploits take up most of the book - with plenty of cheerful moments, especially when describing respected schoolteachers.

I only wish Ardizzone hadn't whipped quite so quickly through the final section of his autobiography - where he explains (in three or four pages) his progression from being shown by the London Group, favourably reviewed at the Bloomsbury Gallery, commissioned to illustrate a Le Fanu collection, and finally a successful children's author/illustrator.  He rattles through it all at breakneck speed, which is a shame, as it sounds a fascinating period in his life.  So many autobiographers find their own childhood much more interesting than the rest of their life, and many of their readers would find everything interesting.  Oh well.  Mustn't grumble; I'll accept what Ardizzone has given us.  And what he is given us is rather lovely.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Song for a Sunday

Happy Sunday, folks.  Bridget Jones's Diary is one of only three films that I have seen twice at the cinema, and it has a pretty fab soundtrack (once you let Geri Halliwell quietly out the back door).  Here's Rosey and 'Love'.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Welcome to the first Weekend Miscellany of 2013!  I hope you had a lovely Christmas and New Year, whoever you were with.  As of Thursday, I'm back in Oxford, having refuelled on cat, countryside, and family.

1.) The blog post - lovely Thomas at My Porch has had a clear-out, and (as well as admiring his lovely shelves) you can put your name in the draw for his duplicate Dorothy Whipple books.  US residents only, though, since he wanted to keep the Whipples in a country where they're difficult to find.  It's open til 31st January.

2.) The link - I've yet to listen to it, but Mary has passed on the info about a Radio 4 programme on the incredible Margaret Rutherford.  Click here for it.  If I had a time machine, I'd probably (mis)use it just to go and see her on the stage as Miss Hargreaves.  What bliss that would be...

3.) The book - I really loved The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice (it was in my top books of 2008), so I was very excited to receive a review copy of her new book, The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp - with a lovely note from Eva too.  My reading will be taken up by Vanity Fair for the foreseeable future, but Eva Rice's is one of many 21st century books I've been holding off until A Century of Books was finished.  If it's half as good as The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, then I'll adore it!

And not forgetting... the readalong of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is coming up soon!  A lovely lot of people seemed keen - see here for details - I suggest we post reviews sometime in the week beginning Monday 28th January, and I'll post links and have a discussion here.  Fun fun!

Friday, 4 January 2013

2012 in First Lines

I seem to have all manner of year-in-review posts appearing or in the pipeline, but I can't resist the one Jane reminded me about, which started with The Indextrious Reader, I think.  It's quite simple - use the first lines of each month on your blog, to give an overview of your blogging year (albeit one which is amusing rather than very useful!)  This probably isn't the ideal meme for me, since I tend to start my posts in a meandering way, eventually getting to the point after a paragraph or two...

January: "I have set myself the 2012 challenge of reading a book published in every year of the twentieth century..."

February: "I didn't come back from Hay-on-Wye empty-handed (surprised?) and I thought I'd share my spoils with you."

March: "The first book I read from my recent Hay-on-Wye haul was Kay Dick's Ivy & Stevie (1971) about Ivy Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith."

April: "I feel I should do an April's Fool... but I can't think of anything.  So let's have a Song for a Sunday as normal, eh?"

May: "A very quick post today - in case you missed it on my previous post, Annabel/Gaskella has taken up the challenge of nominating another author for a reading week, and designing a great badge, and so... Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week will be hitting the blogosphere June 18-24!"

June: "There has been a bit of a theme on SiaB this year, hasn't there?"

July: "I had a lovely break in Somerset, and was surprised by how well my little sale went - I'll head off to the post office tomorrow, laden with parcels."

August: "One of the weirder tangents my thesis has taken me on is the depiction of Satan in 20th-century literature..."

September: "Saturday night was a big barn dance for my parents' wedding anniversary and my Mum's birthday, with about 100 people coming."

October: "Time for the third and final update on how A Century of Books is going!"

November: "Stu is otherwise known as Winston's Dad, and knows more about literature in translation than anyone I know."

December: "Happy Weekend, one and all.  And happy December, no less."

Well, wasn't that productive?  Do have a go yourself - and let me know in the comments if you have done so!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Reading Presently

thanks to Agnieszka for making the badge!

This will be the page for 2013's project, where I'll list my 50 Reading Presently books - books that were given to me as presents, along with their givers.  I will never use the word 'gifted' as a verb, or 'gifting' at all.  *Shudder*

1. Moranthology by Caitlin Moran - from my brother Colin
2. The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizonne - from Verity
3. What There Is To Say We Have Said : Eudora Welty & William Maxwell - from blog-reader Heather
4. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield - from Thomas
5. House of Silence by Linda Gillard - from Linda
6. A Spy in the Bookshop ed. John Saumarez Smith - from Lucy
7. Return to the Hundred Acre Wood by David Benedictus - from Verity
8. Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart - from Lucy
9. How The Heather Looks by Joan Bodger - from Clare, maybe??
10. Room at the Top by John Braine - from John H.
11. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn - from Ruth
12. The Easter Party by Vita Sackville-West - from Hayley
13. The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright - from Nichola
14. Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi - from Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife
15. Bassett by Stella Gibbons - from Barbara
16. The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel - from Colin
17. The Help by Kathryn Stockett - from dovegreybooks reading group
18. Four Hedges by Clare Leighton - from Clare
19. Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer - from Charley
20. Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym - from Mum
21. Virginia Woolf by Winifred Holtby - from Lucy
22. Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross - from Dee
23. Oxford by Edward Thomas - from Daphne
24. Young Entry by Molly Keane - from Karyn
25. Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie - from Fiona
26. The Flying Draper by Ronald Fraser - from Tanya
27. A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins - from Carol
28. The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills - from Mel
29. The Queen and I by Sue Townsend - from OUP colleagues
30. Mr. Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim - from Rachel
31. Six Fools and a Fairy by Mary Essex - from Jodie
32. Cullum by E. Arnot Robertson - from Clare
33. Symposium by Muriel Spark - from Karen
34. Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan - from Colin
35. Pink Sugar by O. Douglas - from Clare
36. Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell - from Barbara
37. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson - from Becca
38. Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet - from Clare
39. Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks - from Mum and Dad
40. The Compleat Mrs. Elton by Diana Birchall - from Diana
41. The Underground River by Edith Olivier - from Jane
42. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris - from Laura
43. A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel - from Lorna
44. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh - from Colin
45. My Grandfather and Father, Dear Father by Denis Constanduros - from Mum and Dad
46. The Best of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis - from Barbara
47. Ten Days of Christmas by G.B. Stern - from Verity
48. Together and Apart from Margaret Kennedy - from Rob
49. Midsummer Night at the Workhouse by Diana Athill - from Mum
50. Black Sheep by Susan Hill - from Colin

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Caitlin Moran is basically Dickens.

I’m going to start this review by getting all hipster – bear with me one moment while I put on my oversized specs and dig out some ironic vinyl records – and say that I loved Caitlin Moran before it was cool to love Caitlin Moran. Granted, I don’t buy a newspaper myself, or subscribe to The Times online, but my father and brother regard The Times as second only to Scripture and I flick through it when I visit either of them. More specifically, I have read Caitlin Moran’s columns for years. I don’t always agree with her, but I always find her brilliantly, ingeniously funny. The sort of funny that makes reading a newspaper actually fun.

Following on from the success of How To Be A Woman, which I have borrowed but have yet to read, a selection of her columns has been published under the title Moranthology. Geddit? Good. Her topics are widespread – a lot of celebrity-culture and arts & entertainment, but also just the world around her, from new dresses to Gregg’s pasties to tax (she’s pro.) Here’s how she glosses her inspirations in the introduction:
The motto I have Biro’d on my knuckles is that this is the best world we have – because it’s the only world we have. It’s the simplest maths ever. However many terrible, rankling, peeve-inducing things may occur, there are always libraries. And rain-falling-on-sea. And the Moon. And love. There is always something to look back on, with satisfaction, or forward to, with joy. There is always a moment when you boggle at the world – at yourself – at the whole, unlikely, precarious business of being alive – and then start laughing.
And that’s usually when I make a cup of tea, and start typing.
Caitlin Moran and I are unlikely ever to be friends. This is largely – though not entirely – because all her friendships seem to be assessed on the willingness with which said friend will breakdance, drunk out of their minds, in seedy clubs at four in the morning – or how much they admire Ghostbusters, which I’ve never seen. But, should our paths ever cross – at, say, 7.30 am, as she is stumbling back from a faux-Victorian strip club with Lady Gaga, and I am blearily crawling to the corner shop to get milk for my morning tea, not wearing any glasses because for some reason that only feels like a viable option in a post-caffeine world – should we meet, perhaps we would bond a little. Bond about our love of books (she champions libraries wonderfully; ‘A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival’) and our distrust of the Tory Party. Maybe even about how great Modern Family is, although that’s not mentioned here. But that might be it. I’ve never seen Sherlock, and I don’t much care for Doctor Who - these admissions are probably enough for Moran to cement-bag me to the bottom of the Thames, a la Mack the Knife. The columns where she reviews or goes behind the scenes of these shows are near-pathological in their adoration.

And, of course, there are plenty of other things we don’t agree about, or enthusiasms we don’t share. That’s beside the point. Moran could write about how much she likes dead-heading roses to make bonnets for foxes, and she’d make the hobby seem not only amusing, but rather bohemian and cool. Because Moran just is cool, without seeming to try at all. The sort of cool which entirely embraces self-deprecation and wears absurd foibles as badges of honour – and makes everything she writes seem adorable and awesome. (The only time I felt disappointed by Moran was when she referred to the ‘anti-choice’ movement. However strongly people may disagree over the issue of abortion, I’ve always deeply admired the almost-universal respectful use of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ by those who oppose either one. Because, Moran – as well you know – absolutely nobody takes an anti-life or an anti-choice stance. That is never their objective.) But, that aside, she doesn’t put a foot wrong. She can babble about Downton Abbey, declare her hatred of children’s book/TV character Lola, or opine on her holidays to Wales, and it’s all just brilliant. And it’s brilliant because she has her tone down pat – a way with simile that is always innovative and hilarious (she, for instance, describes X Factor alum Frankie Cocozza as having ‘a voice like a goose being kicked down a slide’) and a clever mix of high and low registers which is positively Dickensian – throwing slang in with perfect judgement. Because (see above) she’s so cool.

And that mention of Dickens isn’t careless. Caitlin Moran is basically a 21st-century Dickens, with crazy awesome hair. In amongst all the hilarious columns on the ugliness of fish names or how someone stole her hairstyle, Moran gets in some serious social politics. So, like Dickens, she is incredibly funny – but uses the humour to slip in social commentary; the difference being that Dickens would give us a plucky urchin at the mercy of Sir Starvethechild. It would be glorious, but his point would be rather lost in a thicket of the grotesque. Moran, give or take some emotive wording, just tells it as it is.

Moran grew up on a council estate with eight siblings and parents who were on disability benefits. As she says, ‘I’ve spent twenty years clawing my way out of a council house in Wolverhampton, to reach a point where I can now afford a Nigella Lawson breadbin.’ But she still knows what poverty was like firsthand, and writes movingly, sensibly, and brilliantly about various issues to do with cutting benefits or alienating the poor.
All through history, those who can’t earn money have had to rely on mercy: fearful, changeable mercy, that can dissolve overnight if circumstances change, or opinions alter. Parish handouts, workhouses, almshouses – ad-hoc, makeshift solutions that make the helpless constantly re-audition in front of their benefactors; exhaustingly trying to re-invoke pity for a lifetime of bread and cheese.

That’s why the invention of the Welfare State is one of the most glorious events in history: the moral equivalency of the Moon Landings. Something not fearful or changeable, like mercy, but certain and constant – a right. Correct and efficient: disability benefit fraud is just 0.5 per cent. A system that allows dignity and certainty to lives otherwise chaotic with poverty and illness.
Who but Moran could write about her hatred of creating party-bags, her love of David Attenborough and her friend with schizophrenia who has to move cities in order to retain state-given accommodation? Not in the same column, you understand, but I wouldn’t put it past her. Moran has won all sorts of awards, I believe, and I would say that she deserves them – but, quite frankly, she is the only columnist I ever read. I’ve been enjoying her columns for years (some in this book are, naturally, revisits for me) and I’m so delighted that they’re now available as a book. I’ve got my fingers crossed for another, since this can only represent a small percentage of her output. But I’ll count my blessings with this one (thanks Colin for giving it to me!) and urge you to seek it out. Like I said, Moran is basically Dickens. Hilariously funny, socially conscious, rocks some impressive sideburns. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

More Statistics!

Happy New Year!

You'll be sick of these soon... but what is the new year for but to share book-reading statistics?  I'll be revisiting the meme I started a few years ago - quite a simple one.  I'll be doing some comparing with the results I got in 2011.

Number of Books Read
135 - rather more than the scant 106 I managed last year.

Number of Books Bought
I don't know, and you shouldn't guess.

Fiction/Non-Fiction Ratio
95 fiction, 40 non-fiction - a higher percentage of non-fiction than ever before, which seems to be a growing trend - but does not reflect the books I have waiting on my shelves...

Male/Female Authors
45 books by men, 90 by women.  My reading is always slanted towards female authors, but not usually this much.  Maybe I should make 2013 the year of the male author.  But I won't.

Only 9 this year, and most of those were for my thesis.

Biggest turn-around in opinion
How could I not have realised how brilliant One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes was the first time?

Oldest book read
Castle Rackrent (1800) by Maria Edgeworth.  And I didn't like it.

Newest book read
My friend Karina's Shrinking Violet (2012).  And I loved it!

Shortest title
Mamma by Diana Tutton.  Which unwittingly reveals my confession that I have read it, and never wrote about it!  It's not very much like Guard Your Daughters.

Books in translation
Only 8, which is far fewer than I'd imagined - from French, Swedish, Spanish, German, and Czech.

Most books by one author
6 each by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Muriel Spark - no surprises there, since I wrote a chapter on Sylvia Townsend Warner and co-led Muriel Spark Reading Week.

Place names in book titles
The Abbess of Crewe, Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris, Mrs. Harris Goes to New York, The Westminster Alice, Brighton Rock, The House in Paris, Lovers in London, Reginald in Russia.

Animals in book titles
Dear Octopus, When God Was A Rabbit, His Monkey Wife, Dewey the Library Cat, Lady Into Fox, Gentleman Into Goose, The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies.

Strange things that happened in the books I read this year
I loved doing this bit last year.  Ok... A donkey played chess, a man turned into a teapot, another man turned into a bug, several people turned into flowers, parliament turned up with Alice in Wonderland, a ring turned people invisible, someone sought lots of Mr. Browns, someone sought lots of Mr. Blacks, a woman was haunted by a reappearing corridor, a nunnery was bugged, and a man married a monkey.

If this all sickens you completely, go and enjoy C.B. James' irreverent take on end of year stats!