Thursday, 30 May 2013

On Writing - A.L. Kennedy

Although I have never read any fiction by A.L. Kennedy (which is about as inauspicious a way to begin a review as any), I couldn't resist when Jonathan Cape offered me a copy of On Writing to review.  This isn't so much because I intend to be a writer myself (although I have always rather hoped to be - and, I suppose, in some ways I am - just theses and blog posts rather than novels, at the mo) but because I thought it might reveal more about the author's life and processes.

It's just as well that I approached On Writing with this proviso, because it's a bit of a misnomer - there isn't a great deal about writing, particularly not about how to write, but there is a great deal about being a writer. A crucial distinction. Rather than giving step by step instructions, or even general guidelines, Kennedy writes about the life of a writer - which seems to consist almost solely of travelling, getting ill, and running workshops for other people who want to be writers.
No one can teach you how to write, or how you write or how you could write better.  Other people can assist you in various areas, but the way that you learn how you write, the way you really improve, is by diving in and reworking, taking apart, breaking down, questioning, exploring, forgetting and losing and finding and remembering and generally testing your prose until it shows you what it needs to be, until you can see its nature and then help it to express itself as best you can under your current circumstances.  This gives you - slowly - an understanding of how you use words on the page to say what you need to.
So, that explains why she concentrates on other matters.  If, however, you are desperate to read about the act of writing itself, in the minutiae of prose details, then turn straight to chapter 22.  That's precisely what A.L. Kennedy does there - building up the opening sentence to a story, rejecting versions, explaining why she doing so and what thought goes into the construction of each sentence.  Granted, I didn't much like the end result (it didn't encourage me to read her fiction, I must confess), but it was fascinating to observe.

This early part of the book is a collection of blog columns Kennedy wrote for the Guardian, and I found them compulsively readable. I love her sense of humour, the dryness of her writing, and her obvious love for the craft of writing. Occasionally, I'll admit, I wanted her to lighten up a tiny bit - as she often admits, writing is not back-breaking labour - but I suppose that's better than flippancy about writing, in a book about writing.  And while Kennedy writes about the horrors of appearing in public or having her photo taken - being very deprecating about her own appearance - she has the sort of face that, if you saw her on a bus, you'd say "By gad, good woman, you must write!" It's so wry and cynical, and you get the feeling that it would be world-weary if she didn't find every facet of existence ultimately so amusing.

The next section of the book has longer essays, significantly about running workshops - offering a really interesting insight to a world I know so little about, and showing how much thought Kennedy puts into preparing them (as well as her scorn for those who put on workshops without similar levels of thought.)  There is also - of course - more about writing, and I particularly loved this paragraph, which brilliantly demolished a tenet of writing which I have always thought nonsensical:
Personal experience may, for example, be suggested as a handy source of authenticity, perhaps because of the tediously repeated 'advice' imposed upon new authors: "Write about what you know."  Many people are still unacquainted with the unabridged version of this advice: "Write about what you know.  I am an idiot and have never heard of research, its challenges, serendipities and joys.  I lack imagination and therefore cannot imagine that you may not.  Do not be free, do not explore the boundaries of your possible talent, do not - for pity's sake - grow beyond the limits of your everyday life and its most superficial details. Do not go wherever you wish to, whether that's the surface of your kitchen table or the surface of the moon.  Please allow me - because I'm insisting - to tell you what to think."
And finally in On Writing is a piece she refers to often throughout - one which she takes to the Edinburgh Festival, as well as performing around the country.  It's very, very funny - in a rather broader way than the rest of the book, and if it feels less natural than her blog writing, then that is because it is a performance piece. Some of it repeats things she has mentioned earlier, but for a book which is compiled from various sources, and also for a blog-based book, On Writing is remarkably unrepetitive.  I dread to think how repetitive Stuck-in-a-Book has been.  I dread to think how repetitive Stuck-in-a-Book has been.  (A-ha-ha.)

All in all, a great book to have on a bibliophile's bookshelf - perhaps not the first place to go if you are penning your own novel - although if you've got past the 'getting published' stage, On Writing might well be an invaluable guide to the life of the writer.  For the rest of us, it's simply a great read.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

And... more books!

On Saturday I was in London to watch Judi Dench on stage in Peter and Alice - which I will write about soon - but whilst I was there, I also bought some books... well, in actual fact I bought one book, and exchanged a lot.  I took a big bag of unwanted books to Notting Hill Book & Comic Exchange (and loitered outside until they opened at the curious time of 10.25am), was given a fistful of vouchers, and bought this pile of books...

From the top down...

Down The Rabbit Hole - Juan Pablo Villalobos
Somebody is responsible for this being on my radar... Simon Savidge, is it you? 

Screwtop Thompson - Magnus Mills
I don't think I even knew about this Mills novel, but it's a lovely edition, and I'm happy to add to my pile of unread Mills!

The Fifth Child - Doris Lessing
My book group will be reading this later in the year - the only Lessing book I've read before was Memoirs of a Survivor, and jury is very much out...

Knole & The Sackvilles - Vita Sackville-West
I have read through this in the Bodleian, and I do hanker after the beautiful first edition I read there, but this paperback will do for now.

Twelves Day - Vita Sackville-West
Who knew VSW wrote travel literature?  I certainly didn't - but now I do.

1066 and All That - W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman
This has been on my Amazon wishlist for many years, and I finally nabbed a copy when I could.

Young Anne - Dorothy Whipple
This was the one I bought, in an Oxfam in Angel!  Quite a coup, since it doesn't seem to be available anywhere online - and I nearly lost it to the lovely man behind the counter, who hadn't spotted it. We had a quick chat about Whipple, Persephone, and Stella Gibbons - excellent customer service!

The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader 
I've read The Yellow Wallpaper, naturally, but there is plenty more to read, it seems!

My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin
Since I own the sequel, I figure I should get this one too! (And, er, maybe read one or other of them sometime.)

Poor Caroline - Winifred Holtby
Anderby Wold - Winifred Holtby
One of these days I'm actually going to read something by Winifred Holtby, you just see if I don't.

Over to you, as always!  Let me know if you've read any of these - or if any grab your fancy.  I certainly think it was an impressive haul for a net total of £3.99 and a bagful of books I didn't want!

Monday, 27 May 2013

The Cynical Wives Brigade (A Woman of My Age - Nina Bawden)

When Karen mentioned that she'd bought some Nina Bawden books, I commented that I had a few on my shelves, but had never got around to reading her - and, hey presto, a joint readalong of A Woman of My Age (1967) was born.  Karen's already posted her review here, but I have to admit that I have yet to read it - because I wanted to give you my thoughts before I discovered hers.

I didn't know what to expect from Nina Bawden - I've never even read her famous children's books - so I started the novel with more or less a blank canvas. Elizabeth is the heroine (if the term fits... which it doesn't, really) and is in Morocco with her husband of eighteen years, Richard.  The heat is stultifying and their companions a trifle wearying - the obese, overly-friendly Mrs Hobbs and her quiet husband, and the unexpected friend from home, Flora. Unexpected to Elizabeth, anyway...

As their journey across the country continues, the web between these characters gets more and more complex, as secrets are revealed and alliances kindled - but the mainstay of the narrative is Elizabeth's musings on her past life, as her marriage to Richard is slowly documented, and considered in minute detail.  For Elizabeth is nothing if not introspective - she's even introspective about being introspective, which does lead to one amusing line at least:
She peered appraisingly at herself in the mirror, pulling faces as if she were alone, and I was embarrassed by her candour. (Though I have as much interest in my appearance as most women, I feel it is somehow degrading to admit it.  Before we came away, I bought a special cream supposed to restore elasticity to the skin, but I destroyed the wrapper on the jar and the accompanying, incriminating literature, as furtively as I had, when young, removed the cover of a book on sex.)
Before I go further, I should put forward the weak statement that I quite enjoyed A Woman of My Age, because I'm going to harp on about the things I didn't much like.  So, while I do that, please bear in mind that Bawden's writing is always good, her humour (when it comes) is sharp and well-judged, and her characters are generally believable.  There is even some pathos in the account of Elizabeth's ageing relatives, but I shan't comment much on that - because they are pretty incidental.

Elizabeth's age, referred to in the title, is 37.  She has been married for nearly half her life, and is obviously rather dissatisfied.  We know this, because she often tells us.  Sometimes (in this mention of her early married life) it is almost laughably stereotypical:
We were bored with our husbands.  They were sober young men, marking school books, studying, advancing into an adult world of action and responsibility.
This is, I shall admit now, my main problem with the novel - and that which inspired my title to this post.  Elizabeth is a card-carrying, fully-paid-up member of the Cynical Wives Brigade.  You may remember how little I liked Margaret Drabble's The Garrick Year - you can read my thoughts here - and a lot of A Woman of My Age is cut from the same cloth. Perhaps it's because I've never been a wife, and because I wasn't around in the 1960s, but I find this gosh-is-my-privileged-life-wonderful-enough unutterably tedious, not to mention the casual adultery that all these characters indulge in.  Adultery seems, at best, a stimulus for another tedious, introspective conversation or contemplation.  Children, as with Drabble's novel, are included simply to show the passage of time, and none of the adult characters seem to have any particularly parental instincts.

Was this a 1960s thing?  Well, Lynne Reid Banks's The L-Shaped Room (1960) is one of my favourite novels, but I can't deny that it is very introspective - but Jane isn't a wife, so she manages to escape the Cynical Wives Brigade.  I haven't read many novels from this decade, but already I get the idea (supported by this novel) that it's full of this type of navel-gazing, morally-lax types.  For someone born in the 1980s, incidentally, there were a couple of moments which are very of-their-time, and rather shocking to me. (Were these views still acceptable in the 1960s?? Both are from Elizabeth's point of view, and neither seem ironic.)
As a result, I drank more than was sensible in my condition: like a lot of women, I always felt more unwell during the first three months of pregnancy than afterwards, and alcohol went to my head very quickly.
I was surprised at the violence of his remorse - after all, he had only hit me
I suppose I can't blame Bawden for that, if those were still prevalent opinions and actions in the time.  But what I can blame her for is making an interesting scenario and potentially interesting characters get so dragged down by the dreariness of reading about Elizabeth's self-pity and moping. To do her justice, another character in the novel does accuse her of exactly these faults. I cheered when I read this:
If they are a sample of your usual conversation I'm not surprised that he doesn't listen to you.  You're no more worth listening to than any bored, spoiled young woman, whining because the routine of married life has gone stale on you.  It really is very provoking, to a woman of my generation.  When I was thirty, we didn't have the vote, we had to fight for a place in the world.  Now you've got it, most of you don't bother to use it.  I daresay it's dull, being tied to a house and young children, but it was a life you chose, after all, you were so eager to rush into it that you didn't even take your degree.
I'm always curious when authors incorporate criticisms of their novel or characters into the narrative itself.  Is it a moment of self-awareness, to distance themselves from the voice of the narrator?  Is it the belief that recognising one's faults is the same as correcting them?  Or is simply a moment of regret, for the direction a novel should have taken?

(I should make clear - a lot of the things Elizabeth complains about are probably genuine issues. But complaining does not a novel make.)

And I haven't even mentioned the big twist at the end.  I don't really know what to say about it.

I'm still glad that I read Nina Bawden, and I'll have a look at the other one's on my shelves to see if they're any less frustrating.  Right now I'm off to see what Karen thought... come join me?

A very, very quick Bank Holiday post...

25 signs you're addicted to reading?

I reckon we'll all tick at least 20. Aaaaaand... go!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Great Gatsby: What Next?

I thought, with The Great Gatsby (1925) being a big film at the moment, there might be people out there who are looking for other novels of the 1920s to enjoy. I haven't seen the film, and I have to admit that I wasn't particularly impressed by the novel when I read it a decade ago, but I do know a thing or two about the 1920s.  So do a lot of you, of course, but I thought, nonetheless, in case people stumble across Stuck-in-a-Book wanting to read more from the 1920s, I create a little decade Stuck-in-a-Book best-of (clicking on the title takes you to a full-length review).  Most of these don't have much in common with The Great Gatsby except for decade of publication, but - whisper it - I'd argue that they're all better.

1920 : Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
To see how the Bright Young Things were behaving on the British side of the channel - or, rather, the Bright Middle-Aged Things - you can do no better than Benson's hilarious series Mapp & Lucia, featuring the warring heroines and their sniping, fawning, and eccentric associates.  But don't be one of those people who starts with Mapp and Lucia, the fourth book - start at the beginning, with queen bee Queen Lucia.

1921 : The Dover Road by A.A. Milne
If you've never read any of AAM's books for adults, or never read a play, or both, then this is a great place to start. It was P.G. Wodehouse's favourite play, and is definitely one of mine too - an eloping couple stop for the night in a hotel, and curiously can't leave in the morning... it's all very funny, ingeniously plotted, and surprisingly poignant in the end.

1922 : The Heir by Vita Sackville-West
A short, powerful novella about a man who inherits a house unexpectedly, and slowly falls in love with it.  There is more passion in this tale than you'll find in most romances, and if you can find the beautiful Hesperus edition, all the better.

1923 : Bliss by Katherine Mansfield
The link is a slight cheat here, since it goes to Mansfield's Selected Stories, but I had to include KM somewhere. Her writing is modernist without being inaccessible, and she is one of a tiny group of authors whose short stories satisfy me whatever mood I'm in. Observant, striking, entirely beautiful.

1924The Green Hat by Michael Arlen
The British equivalent of The Great Gatsby, at least in terms of parties, glitz disguising melancholy, and an enigma of a central character.  Also rather better, I'd say - although a writing style which perhaps takes some getting used to.  I described it as 'like reading witty treacle'.

1925 : Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett
If you've never tried any of Dame Ivy's delicious, divisive fiction, this is a good litmus test. Set in a boys' school, it's Ivy-lite. If you like it, you'll love her richer works - if you don't, then you'll know to steer clear forever.

1926 : As It Was by Helen Thomas
A biography/autobiography by the poet Edward Thomas's wife (followed later by World Without End) - together they are exceptionally good accounts of marriage, in all its pitfalls and peaks, and subsequently its fragility.

1927 : The Love-Child by Edith Olivier
One of my all-time favourite novels, this tells of a spinster who inadvertently conjures her childhood imaginary friend into life. From this premise comes a very grounded narrative, which is heart-breaking as well as an increasingly clever manipulation of a fanciful idea.

1928 : Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay
Rose Macaulay is one of those bubbling-under authors - both from critical acceptance and middlebrow adoration. She deserves better in both categories, I think, and this delightful, thoughtful novel about a lightweight novelist and an aspiring highbrow woman is both funny and clever.

1929 : A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
You've probably heard of this essay, and you probably know its central tenet (about women needing an income and a room of their own, in order to write) but if you haven't read it, you're missing a real treat. If you find her fiction too flowery, this is a perfect place to sample her exemplary writing.

I hope you've enjoyed that quick whirl through the 1920s!  Why not do the same mini project for the 1920s - or any other decade - on your own blog?  Pop a link in the comments if you do...

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Help (in which I step off my high horse)

I recently read The Help by Kathryn Stockett - I shan't bother giving a full review, since I'm so late to the party that nearly everyone seems to have read it already, but it does provide a useful opportunity to talk about a general trend in my reading.

Very briefly, for those not in the know, The Help is about 1960s America - Jackson, Mississippi, specifically (which to me is chiefly notable for producing Eudora Welty and this wonderful song) - and the racial tensions of the time.  Particularly those between maid and employee - the cast of characters is almost exclusively women, including the three narrators Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter Phelan.  All three narrators are marvellously engaging, the whole novel is a terrific page-turner without sacrificing any narrative polish, and all in all it's a very good novel.  If it weren't tremendously popular already, I would be waxing evangelical about it to all and sundry.

It's not a flawless novel.  You think the characters are complex (and some are) but then you realise that some of the racist characters are unrealistically bad in all ways - and there is an incident involving a naked man and a poker which needn't have been in the novel at all (and isn't nearly as unpleasant as I've realised that sentence sounds.)  But it's an extremely impressive debut novel, and it's bewildering that 50 agents turned it down.

Simply to create three characters so empathetic and engaging (that word again; but it is appropriate) is an exceptional achievement.  Novels were multiple narrators usually end up having one who isn't as vibrant as the others, or one who is head and shoulders above the rest - not so, in Stockett's case.  I was always delighted to see any of them turn up in the next chapter - with perhaps a slight preference for irrepressible Minny. No, wise Aibileen might come top. Oh, but what about Skeeter's enthusiastic confusion and determination?  Oh, hang it, I love them all.

So why am I writing about The Help without reviewing it properly?  To expose one of my failings, I'm afraid.

I had assumed, since it was so popular, that it would be very poor.  If it hadn't been for my book group, I wouldn't have read it - and I'm grateful to the dovegreybooks ladies for giving me a copy (although I don't know which of the group it was!)

You can excuse me - or at least understand where I'm coming from.  If you've found your way to Stuck-in-a-Book, I wouldn't be surprised if you've experienced a similar thing.  Seeing Dan Brown and his ilk at the top of the bestseller charts, it's difficult to believe that anything of quality could sell millions of copies, in the way that The Help has.

I did love The Time Traveller's Wife, but other bestselling representatives of literary fiction have proven singularly disappointing to me.  Ian McEwan's recent output has been rather 'meh'; Lionel Shriver's fantastically popular We Have To Talk About Kevin was so dreadfully written that I gave up on p.50.  Things like The Lovely Bones and The Kite Runner weren't exactly bad, but I found it difficult to call them good, either.  Bestselling literary fiction is usually vastly better than bestselling unliterary fiction (yes, Dan Brown, I'm looking at you) but it doesn't excite me.

Remember a little while ago I posted that quotation from Diana Athill, about the two types of reader, and how the second type created the bestseller?  Well, my experience had led me to believe that I'd never find a chart-topping novel that I really loved and admired.  Perhaps a few would be page-turners, but I couldn't imagine any would actually bear closer analysis too.

Well, reader, I was wrong.  While Kathryn Stockett isn't (yet, at least) on the scale of great prose writers like Virginia Woolf, she is certainly a cut above the usual.  I'm delighted that I stepped down from my high horse long enough to enjoy it - or, let's face it, that I was pushed off against my will.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Some books...

Wow, thanks for all your comments on the previous post - I will reply to them soon, but basically it seems like we all make wishlists somewhere or other, and I'm very impressed by how organised some of you are!

And I thought I'd treat you with a little pile of books which have recently come to Stuck-in-a-Book Towers... let's work from the bottom up, shall we?  (I hadn't realised until I put these together for the photo quite how blue books have dominated of late...)

London War Notes 1939-1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes
I thought this book was absolutely brilliant, and essential WW2 reading, when I reviewed it earlier in the year - but I didn't actually own a copy. When an affordable one came up in my abebooks alerts, I high-tailed it to... well, the internet. But the book is mine now, and I'm thrilled!

Selected Poems by Anthony Thwaite
The Norman Church by A.A. Milne
The Man in the Bowler Hat by A.A. Milne
These all came via a connection Claire/The Captive Reader brought to my attention - as you might know, A.A. Milne is one of my favourite authors, and the first one I loved wholeheartedly in my adult reading. 2012 was Claire's year of discovering AAM, and she read many of his books - and Ann Thwaite's exceptionally good biography A.A. Milne: His Life.  I've read it a few times, in pre-blog days, but haven't posted about it yet. Anyway, Ann Thwaite spotted Claire's review and commented on it that she's looking to sell some of AAM books - read her comment on this post - and I got in touch with her.  We had a chat on the phone, and she was lovely - and I bought the Milne books mentioned here. The collection of poetry by her husband came as a surprise bonus, and I must write to thank her soon :)  I can't tell you have special it feels to have these books come from the author of a biography which affected my reading so much.

The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill
This one was a recommendation by a SiaB reader, Tina, as mentioned in my previous post.

Symposium by Muriel Spark
One of the few Spark novels I didn't already own. very kindly given to me by Karen. It might well be my next Spark read...

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
Coming Up For Air by George Orwell
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept by Elizabeth Smart
I bought these in the brilliant Amnesty Book Shop in Bristol last weekend - I did already have a copy of the Macaulay, but not in this gorgeous NYRB Classics edition... I'm not the sort of person who could resist that, as well we all know.

Mel recommended the Catherine O'Flynn, and the other two are books I've been intending to read for ages. Well, actually I just want to read more Orwell in general, and had hoped to find The Clergyman's Daughter, but this will more than do.

Letters of Lewis Carroll
Well, why on earth not? (Also timely, as I am going to see Judi Dench in Peter and Alice this weekend. Can't wait!)

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Wish lists?

In the comments to my previous post, Christine made a comment about wish lists - and about how she was thinking about keeping a notebook for books to look out for, rather than little bits of paper, which are all too easy to lose.

And, of course, it made me want to widen the net, and ask all of you how you keep track of books on your wish list?  (I am, of course, assuming that almost all of us are beset by books we want to read on a daily - nay, an hourly, basis. For those of you who aren't... well, just thank your lucky stars that your bank balance isn't under similar threat.)

As for me, I don't actually have a physical wish list anywhere.  I tend to go to Amazon and add things to my wish list there - which explains why there's about a hundred items on it - simply for my own benefit.  My memory is utterly appalling, and it helps to add things there - although quite often I can't remember at all why a book is there.

Mostly, though... well, I just go and buy the book straightaway online.  Bad Simon.

I'd love to know whether you carry around a notebook with suggestions, keep an online list, commit titles to memory, or a mixture of all three - or if, like me, you give your aching memory a rest by simply cutting out the middle man and buying things as soon as you get the idea. (Speaking of which, an impulse Amazon buy the other day was The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill, as SiaB-reader Tina got in touch to tell me I'd love it... anybody else read it?)

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Library at Night - Alberto Manguel

I have already included quite a few excerpts from Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night (2006) on Stuck-in-a-Book, and I might well include some more in the future (you can read them all here), so this review has been spread thinly over many months!  Suffice to say, I loved it - thank you Colin for giving it to me! - and it's not a book to read quickly.  I started it about 18 months ago, picking up and reading a bit here and there, soaking in Manguel's thoughtful brilliance, and have only recently finished.  I've had A Reader on Reading on the go for even longer, so... look out for a review of that sometime in 2018!  Basically, this preface is a warning that I'm not going to write a proper review; I'm going to give you some more of his quotations, and a brief glimpse of the myriad world Manguel has created.

Manguel considers libraries from many different angles - having shared, at the beginning, that 'libraries, whether my own or shared with a greater reading public, have always seemed to me pleasantly mad places'. With this delightful proviso, Manguel devotes chapters to 'The Library as...'  Myth, Order, Space, Power, Shadow, Shape, Chance, Workshop, Mind, Island, Survival, Oblivion, Imagination, Identity, and Home - each starts in his own library (pictured at the top of this post) and gradually unfolds to the world - encompassing incredible amounts of research and information about libraries around the world and throughout history - as well as branching out into all manner of philosophy, psychology, and memoir.

Paramount is Manguel's interest in the very concept of a library - of giving order to books.

Ordered by subject, by importance, ordered according to whether the book was penned by God or by one of God's creatures, order alphabetically or by number or by the language in which the text is written, every library translates the chaos of discovery and creation into a structured system of hierarchies or a rampage of free associations.  Such eclectic classifications rule my own library.  Ordered alphabetically, for instance, it incongruously marries humorous Bulgakob to severe Bunin (in my Russian Literature section), and makes formal Boileau follow informal Beauchemin (in Writing in French), properly allots Borges a place next to his friend Bioy Casares (in Writing in Spanish) but opens an ocean of letters between Goethe and his inseparable friend Schiller (in German Literature).
By which we realise that Manguel is, unsurprisingly, a polyglot.  My entire non-English section rests in one copy of Harry Potter et la prisonnier d'Azkaban, but it's still a topic I find amusing and interesting, even if it is essentially a case of coincidence.  I even blogged about it, with some photos from my shelves, back here.
Manguel isn't interested solely in the arrangement of books, of course. He is a phenomenally well-read and bookish man, who would probably feel quite at home in the blogosphere - albeit probably the most highbrow member of it, because his intellect and knowledge is rather dizzying.  And yet... how could someone who writes the following excerpt not be at home with any and every bibliophile?

Some nights I dream of an entirely anonymous library in which books have no title and boast no author, forming a continuous narrative stream in which all genres, all styles, all stories converge, and all protagonists and all locations are unidentified, a stream into which I can dip at any point of its course.  In such a library, the hero of The Castle would embark on the Pequod in search of the Holy Grail, land on a deserted island to rebuild society from fragments shored against his ruins, speak of his first centenary encounter with ice and recall, in excruciating detail, his early going to bed.  In such a library there would be one single book divided into a thousand volumes and, pace Callimachus and Dewey, no catalogue.
As I say, this isn't a thorough review of The Library at Night - it's too wide-ranging to permit that - but it's a general rallying call to any of you who haven't got a copy yet.  We all love reading, and most of us also love books and libraries too - well, friends, Manguel knew this, and has written a book just for us.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

OxfordWords Limerick Competition

A quick link to a fun competition over at OxfordWords - craft a limerick about mothers (or, I suppose, one mother in particular), and you'll be in with a chance of winning an iPod Touch!

I love my job :)

[Sorry! Link now fixed - thanks for pointing it out, Susan]

Monday, 13 May 2013

Bassett - Stella Gibbons

When I attended a middlebrow conference last year, my friend Terri was talking about boarding house novels - and one particularly grabbed my attention.  As you'll have guessed from the title of this blog post, it was Bassett by Stella Gibbons - whose Cold Comfort Farm I, of course, love, and whose Westwood was wonderful in a very different way. Clicking on those titles will take you to reviews which explain what I loved about them... and now I can add Bassett to the fold, thanks to my friend Barbara giving it to me for my birthday last November.  Indeed, if it had just been about the boarding house, this would be on my 50 Books You Must Read list, and I'd be screaming from the rooftops.  Read on, dear reader...

Bassett (1933) kicks off with the glorious Miss Hilda Baker, and I think the best way to describe her is: imagine Paul Gallico's Mrs. 'arris if she were written by Stella Gibbons. Which, of course, she is. 'She dressed neatly and badly in ugly little hats and ugly little necklaces', works cutting patterns for a dressmakers, and her one vocation in life is identifying when other people are 'sassing' her, and reprimanding them for it. Miss Baker has managed to save some money, and is intrigued when she sees in a paper that another lady is looking to turn her home into a boarding house, and is looking for someone to run it with her.  Determined not to be cheated out of her savings, but intrigued, Miss Baker writes to The Tower, Crane Hill, Bassett - and receives this wonderful reply, which is too wonderful not to quote in full (with strong reservations about one racist sentence, of course):
Dear Miss Baker,
After much earnest thought I have decided that yours is the most suitable letter I have received as a result of the notice which appeared in Town and Country.  I am sure that the house could be made a success.  It is not damp.  Some of the letters were most unsuitable.  There was one from a Mr. Arthur Craft.  Frequent buses, but rather a long walk to them! ! !  It is so difficult, in these days, to know what to do for the best.  Mr. Craft suggested a Club.  I have a geyser and there are beautiful views.  Perhaps we could lay out the tennis court again in the field behind the house.  We are six miles from the station, but the buses run past the bottom of the hill.  I thought we might take Indians (not Negroes of course) as guests.  Is afternoon tea included do you know?  I believe not.  Perhaps you will let me know what you think.  Or perhaps it would be better if you came down one Saturday.  It is easier to go to Reading and take the bus.  I could meet you, if we decided to meet in Town, at half past three in the Clock Department.  Perhaps you would suggest a day, if Saturday doesn't suit you. (This Saturday is not good for me I am afraid, as I have my W.I.)  But of course, they close on Saturday afternoons.  Will you let me know, by return if possible, whether you will meet me as arranged.
Yours faithfully, Eleanor Amy Padsoe.
P.S. - It is on clay soil, but some of it is on chalk.  Very healthy! ! !
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Miss Padsoe - and isn't she a wonder?

As with Scoop, which I wrote about recently, incompatibility makes a great start for a comic novel.  Long story short, after going to see The Tower (and finding Miss Padsoe as barmy as the letter suggests), Miss Baker decides against the venture - but is then made redundant and can't think what else to do.  So, off on a train she hops to Bassett once more.  Here's an indication of their current assessment of each other...
And she thrust herself half out of the window again, waving vigorously and giving a false, toothy smile, and wishing Miss Padsoe looked a bit smarter.  Like a rag-bag, that's what she was, and an old-fashioned one at that.

And Miss Padsoe, greeting Miss Baker with a convulsive flutter of her umbrella-less hand and an equally false and toothy smile, found time to wish amid much mental distress that Miss Baker did not look exactly like an under-housemaid.
Miss Padsoe's mental distress is caused chiefly by her mother-and-daughter cook and maid, who have been cheating and neglecting her, and have now locked her out of her own house.  The sass of servants is like a red rag to a bull for Miss Baker, and she goes off to sort things out... It's all very funny, filled with the sort of nonsensical dialogue I love ("'Remember'? I'll give her 'Remember'!") and all rather touching too - the first signs that Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe will become friends.  It's not as rammed-down-your-throat heart-warming as that sounds (and as it might threaten to be in the hands of Paul Gallico, much as I love him!) but it's rather lovely.

As I said at the beginning of this review, had Bassett concentrated exclusively on these ladies setting up their boarding house, with Gibbons' delicious turn of phrase and moments of irony, this would be one of my all-time favourite novels.  Sadly, Bassett is diluted by the goings-on of another family in the village, and this takes up most of the second half of the novel...

Queenie is a 20-something girl who has come to live as a companion to Mrs. Shelling - and gets to know her children George and Bell, who are about her age.  They have progressive views about morality and romance, as does Queenie, and... well, one thing leads to another, and it becomes about Queenie falling in love with George, and the struggles this causes, involving class, morality, aspirations...

Apparently Queenie and her situation was very autobiographical, but I have to say that I found the whole thing a bit of an unnecessary addition.  It certainly wasn't awful, and my response might well only be my impatience and boredom with any novel focuses on the anxieties of youthful ardour, but it seemed such a shame to take the attention away from such interesting and amusing protagonists.  And despite some attempts to combine the two strands, Gibbons's seems to give up at one point, and from then on just writes about Queenie et al - the two storylines don't blend at all neatly.

But that is a fairly small reservation, caused chiefly by the excellence of the first half of Bassett - so not a bad fault to have, all things considered!
Vintage Books have brought Stella Gibbons' books back into print, some with absolutely glorious covers - Bassett is one of those which is only (I believe) Kindle or print on demand, so doesn't get the same beautiful cover illustrations, but I'm not going to quibble - I'm so grateful to Vintage for making this brilliant novel accessible, and to Barbara for giving me a copy!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book at Felixstowe Literary Festival

A very quick weekend miscellany to say that you can now buy tickets for the Felixstowe Literary Festival, including tickets for the conversation between Elaine and I about blogging!

If you can come, go here and click through to book tickets - we're 'Blogging and Books' on 15 June from 3 o'clock to 4 o'clock.  And I'd love to meet up with anybody afterwards, if SiaB readers can come!

Also, pop over to the festival blog to read an interview with me!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Simon's Dos and Don'ts of Blogging

Quite often new bloggers email me and ask if I have any tips about blogging - I imagine quite a few of you have received similar emails, or questions in person - and usually I just do my best to encourage, and mention the first two of the points below (being the most important ones).  But today I thought I might extend my tips a bit... let me know what yours are!  (Oh, and the picture isn't relevant...)


Do... participate in community - by reading other people's posts and commenting, having a blog list on your blog (so important!), and by answering comments when you can.  Nothing puts me off more than a selfish blogger, and nothing makes me cheerier than when seeing bloggers celebrate the community we all love.

Do... post regularly - but not necessarily frequently. Just so long as people know when they can expect new posts - be that everyday, every week, every month...

Do... have pictures - it just helps!

Do... acknowledge other people's suggestions - I don't much care if you say whether or not the book you're writing about came as a review copy (although it seems polite to mention it) but I do like it when people explain why they're reading that particular book - especially if it's because they saw it featured on someone else's blog. Again, yay community!

Do... have fun - whether you have fun writing in-depth reviews everyday, or pictures of kittens.


Don't... second-guess yourself too much - if you're always checking that people are enjoying your style or your type of posts, chances are you're not enjoying the whole process.  Relax, it's supposed to be fun!

Don't... be too minimalist - I know this is a reaction to those blogs which had thousands of links in the sidebars and widgets everywhere... wait, this is sounding like my blog... but I think it's possible for the ethos of white space to go too far. If you end up with just an inch of text in an ocean of white space, then not only does it look like nobody's home, it also looks like every other white-space blog out there!

Don't... feel obligations - I've found that bloggers tend to get to the 18 month mark, and feel weighed down by blogging obligations. Blobligations? When I got to that stage, I was anxious about reading all the books I was sent, and posting everyday, and finally I decided just to relax. I wanted Stuck-in-a-Book to reflect my reading tastes - which isn't an exclusive diet of modern novels, however kind it is of publishers to send them - so I started reading what I wanted to read, and blogging what I wanted to blog.  Result: happiness!  I may have lost some readers who wanted something else, but the ones I've got are here because (presumably!) they want to read what I want to write.  Thank you!

Don't... pay any attention to this if you don't want to!  There aren't any hard and fast rules, and you might disagree with all of mine.  That's absolutely fine :)

Over to you...

Do you have any blogging tips for new bloggers - or experienced bloggers, come to that - which are different from mine?

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Scoop - Evelyn Waugh

A few bloggers seem to have been reading Evelyn Waugh at the same time as each other - Rachel wrote about Decline and Fall and Ali wrote about Vile Bodies - only my review is coming rather belatedly, as I finished Scoop (1938) about a month ago. Oops. But it's great, and very funny, so better late than never, I'm getting my review specs on (they're the same as my usual specs, by the way.)

This is my fourth Evelyn Waugh novel, and I still haven't read Brideshead Revisited.  I found the first couple too cruel for my liking, then thought The Loved One had the perfect mix of barbed wit and affection.  Well, Scoop continues in this vein - ridiculous and farcical things happen, people are mean and selfish, but always with a covering of good-humour - helped, chiefly, by the incredibly loveable lead character.

Like Decline and Fall, Scoop opens with a series of coincidences and misunderstandings (unlikely, but not impossible) which propel the central plot.  Unlike Decline and Fall, these misunderstandings are not malicious - but they end up with the wrong Mr. Boot being sent to the Republic of Ishmaelia by the Daily Beast.  Instead of the pushy young John Boot who's been badgering the absolutely wonderful character Mrs. Stitch (the novel opens with her multi-tasking - on the telephone, directing the painter, answering correspondence, doing a crossword, and helping her daughter with her homework at the same time) to get him sent out there, it is William Boot, writer of the rural matters column Lush Places, who is accidentally sent.  Boot is an affable, quiet, honest young man (supposedly in his 20s, but he never comes across as younger than 45) who wants to live out his life in rural peace.  Who better to mire in the world of sensationalist foreign reporting?

Before he sets sail, there are my favourite scenes in the novel - where William Boot is meeting with an editor of the newspaper, Mr. Salter.  William thinks that he is going to be reprimanded for his sister mischievously exchanging 'badger' and 'great crested grebe' in his copy - which leads to a brilliant cross-purposes conversation with Mr. Salter, who has never stepped a foot outside London, and has the impression (shared by so many Londoners today!) that people from the countryside do nothing but drink pear cider and lean on gates.  As a staunch countryside person at heart, I laughed heartily at the limited views of the town-dweller, and the horror he felt when the great crested grebe reared its great crested head...

But things are sorted out, of course, and off William goes to the Republic of Ishmaelia (when it is suggested to him that he might well be fired if he refuses to go.)  Before we get there, I want to share this wonderful snippet of the way Mr. Salter deals with the newspaper's proprietor:
Mr. Salter's side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent.  When Lord Copper was right he said, "Definitely, Lord Copper"; when he was wrong, "Up to a point.""Let me see, what's the name of the place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn't it?""Up to a point, Lord Copper.""And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn't it?""Definitely, Lord Copper."
So practical! So wise! So deliciously funny on Waugh's part.  It's also a taste of his satirical tongue - for that is what the rest of Scoop essentially performs; a satire on journalism.

Boot and a dozen or so other journalists land in Ishmaelia, where nothing whatsoever seems to be happening, and have to send back copy in the form of telegrams.  While some journalists are fabricating spies and making the most out of the smallest incident, this is a telegram Boot sends back:
Waugh has great fun crafting the telegrams from both sides, and it is here that his satire of journalism is both loudest and (I daresay) closest to the bone - with words like 'ESSENTIALIST' and 'SOONLIEST' abounding, not to mention 'UNRECEIVED' and 'UPFOLLOW'.

The satire becomes rather a farce, as most of the journalists head off to a place which doesn't exist, and the most famous reporter sends in his copy without even visiting the country.  It's all very amusing and enjoyably broad, which makes the inclusion of a romantic interest (even one who is desperate for him to store rocks for her, and suggests that he marry her so that her extant husband can become British by extension) feels a little out of kilter, and I wouldn't have been sad if Kätchen hadn't been included.

Indeed, despite the focus of the novel being Ishmaelia - and Boot being adorable - I preferred the scenes set in England.  Perhaps that's because I could understand a comedy on office politics, rural matters, and eccentric families (about a dozen bedridden relatives and servants fill his country pile) better than foreign reporting, or perhaps Waugh was on firmer footing himself.  Either way, I was always pleased when things turned back to Blighty.

As a round-peg-in-a-square-hole story, Waugh could scarcely choose a man less fitted for the role he is forced into - and that, of course, is the intended crux of Scoop's humour.  It's just a bonus that he does everything else so well on top of this - otherwise the joke would probably have worn thin.  And, as I say, there is enough good-humour and camaraderie in Scoop to prevent Waugh's mean streak from dominating, and so gentle souls like me are left entirely free to revel in the farcical hilarity, and not get anxious about the victims!

Monday, 6 May 2013


43. Skylark - Dezső Kosztolányi

I've been reading some pretty brilliant books recently, and not finding time to write about them, so prepare yourselves for some enthusiastic reviews coming up soon.  And let's start the ball rolling with Skylark (1924) by Hungarian novelist Dezső Kosztolányi, translated into English by Richard Aczel, and a heartfelt köszönöm to him for doing so.  It's gone on my list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.

Skylark came to my attention when Claire/Captive Reader put it in her Top Ten Books of 2011.  I added it to my Amazon wishlist, and waited... it felt, for some reason, like the sort of book which should really come as a gift.  Lucky for me, Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife spotted it there, and it arrived in my Christmas stocking last year.  So, consider this a tick on the list for my Reading Presently project (where I'm intending to read, in 2013, 50 books which were gifts.)

Before I get on to the wonderful writing and moving story in Skylark, I have to talk about the book itself.  If I'm ever asked why I don't want a Kindle, my one word reply will now be: "Skylark".  This NYRB edition is quite stunningly beautiful - not just the lovely colours and image on the front, and that turquoise/mint green I love so much on the spine, but the feel, the flip-flop of the pages, the perfect flexibility-to-sturdiness of the cover... the physical book is a work of art here, and I am so pleased that the content matched up.

The novel starts as a not-quite-young-any-more woman called Skylark leaves her provincial town for a week, to stay with relatives.  Actually, it starts while her parents are packing for her departure:
The dining-room sofa was strewn with strands of red, white and green cord, clippings of packing twine, shreds of wrapping paper and the scattered, crumpled pages of the local daily, the same fat letters at the top of each page: Sárszeg Gazette, 1899. 
The stage is set for the importance of the home - and the way that it is subverted and disturbed by Skylark's departure.

One might expect (I did expect) that a novel which starts with a character getting ready to leave her home will follow that character on her travels.  Particularly so in a novel whose title bears the name of that character.  What Kosztolányi does so cleverly is, instead, focus on the effects of her absence, leaving the reader to bear witness to the unsettled lives of Skylark's father (Ákos) and mother (known simply as Mother or 'the woman' throughout.)

They have a very obviously unhealthy dependency upon their daughter - but, at the same time, long more than anything for her to marry.  A man who has been polite enough to smile at her is built up into a potential - and then a definite - suitor; when he fails to follow up on this non-existent intimation, he becomes a figure for bitter hatred, much to his confusion.  Mother and Father can barely cope with Skylark leaving town for a week, let alone forever, but this is still their aim in life, even while they realise that it is almost impossible.

And why?  Because Skylark is ugly.  Extremely ugly.  Not horrendously disfigured or anything, simply deeply unattractive.  From what we see of her before she leaves, and hear about her, Skylark also seems domestically very capable (if unambitious), unimaginatively kind, practical, and pretty dull.  But her parents, of course, love her dearly.

This narrative is so clever and subtly written.  It is a mixture of quite pathetic inability to manage in their daughter's absence, with a glimpse of what life would be like without her.  They eat interesting foods at restaurants and talk to their neighbours; Ákos gets drunk at a local club (which resembles the Freemasons in some fashion), and this leads to the most moving, vital, and brilliant scene of the novel - where all the couple's unspoken fears and thoughts come tumbling out.  Kosztolányi gives the viewpoint of both husband and wife, so we see the scene through two sets of eyes simultaneously.  It is heartbreaking and extraordinary, but it is not the sort of confrontation that 'changes things forever'.  Things cannot really ever, we sense, be changed.

They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang.  Somehow the name had stuck, and she still wore it like an outgrown childhood dress.
That passage is from early in the novel, and I marked it as being the one which suggested to me that I'd be onto something special.  It was also the first sign of something I thought throughout Skylark, which was that Kosztolányi's writing reminded me of Katherine Mansfield's - which is about the highest compliment I can pay to writing.  He has the same delicate touch, and the same way of showing ordinary people stepping outside of their normal routines, even slightly, and finding that everything is changed thereby, however unnoticeable this is to others.  The subtlest shift in the way acts are performed - the way Skylark holds a birdcage; the seasoning Ákos puts on his risotto - are shown by Kosztolányi to hold enormous significance.

Like a short story by Katherine Mansfield, I imagine Skylark would benefit from being read in one sitting.  At 221 pages, it could be done.  I, sadly, seemed to read almost all of it on bus journeys to and from work, and thus the reading experience was too broken up.  I will have to read it again when I have an entire afternoon to spare.

The only part of this edition I didn't much like was the introduction by Péter Esterházy, since it barely spoke of the novel at all.  Apparently he is one of the most significant contemporary Hungarian writers, but I wish he'd written this introduction more as a fan of Skylark, and less as a fan of his own thoughts.

I've been thinking about the style I aim at on Stuck-in-a-Book, and how I want my posts to be a bit amusing - but it's very hard to be funny when I have nothing but praise for a novel.  So instead, I'll finish by saying that I went to a 1970s murder mystery party on Saturday (the one I mentioned I was writing), and somebody said that I looked like a fraudulent spiritualist from an Agatha Christie novel - must have been the floral bandana that did it.  With that image in your mind... go and buy a copy of Skylark; make it this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

And the weekend comes at the end of the week which, in Britain, finally brought warm weather!  We seem to have skipped spring altogether, and moved straight to summer - which is a shame for me, because spring is easily my favourite season.  Ho-hum.

Today I'll be going to a 1970s-themed murder mystery party... which I'm also writing.  And that tense is used intentionally, since I still haven't finished writing it... eek!  Best get a move on; just time to tell you about a blog post, a book, and a link.

1.) The book - isn't new, but is a mini-project between me and Karen / Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings, which we're inviting everyone to join in with.  I love doing little readalongs with other bloggers, so if I see that they've recently bought a book I've been intending to read, I quite often pop a comment in, seeing if they'd like to read at the same time.  Karen and I talked about reading Nina Bawden together (an author I've yet to read, although I have a few of her books) and the only one we both owned was A Woman of My Age.  So we'll be both be reading it, and probably posting about it sometime towards the end of the month.  Do join in!

2.) The link - I have got so obsessed BuzzFeed of late... yes, the cute animals, but also myriad other addictive lists.  I do love a list.  Most recently, I have been amazed by these optical illusions (particularly numbers 11 and 14).

3.) The blog post - read about the postal book group I'm in, and the fantastic book Danielle sent around this time, in her blog post here.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Books lost in the mind

Do you ever read a book so slowly, over so many breaks, that you sort of lose any sense of what you thought about it?

No?  Really?

Well, I do.  (And maybe you did say 'yes' too.)  This is a side effect of reading so many books at once - some will, inevitably, be lost along the way - and picked up later - and finally finished, some months after they were started.  Dozens of books will have been read in between, and even a short narrative will have had hundreds of other characters tangled into it.

It's a fascinating idea, actually - the narrative, which should ideally go from page to brain in a more or less straightforward matter of read-interpret-remember, actually encompasses many other characters and stories along the way (and is clever enough to separate them) - and that's not even thinking about the millions of other stimuli along the way.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I enjoyed The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright, very kindly given to me by Nichola (an internet book friend, whom I have met a couple of times, but who seems to have disappeared - Nichola, are you out there?), but I didn't read it in ideal circumstances.

Which is to say that I didn't simply lose the book in my mind... I literally lost it.  For about 18 months, it disappeared - and turned up when I moved house, as things tend to.  I was about two thirds of the way through when it disappeared, so... I just finished it, without going back to the beginning.

The Saturdays is a children's book about a family of siblings who form a club, to pool their pocket money and do something exciting together with the proceeds each week, taking it in turns to decide.  It's good fun, very charming, and with all the over-the-top events and mixture of morals and cynicism which characterise the best children's books.  It's probably better read as a child, or to a child, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot.  I think I finished it off during one of my headachey periods, and it's the perfect sort of light book for that.

But I'm not equipped to write a proper review, so this is instead mostly a pondering on how the reading (and losing) process affects the way we take in a book.  And how each novel comes with the illusory promise of a narrative we can ingest - but that no reader is ever the ideal reader in that sense; stories and characters must weave their way around all the other narratives (real and fictional) in our lives, and cope with all the broken moments of reading, and distractions and forgetting.  And, out the other side, we usually still think of the book as a whole, entire and separate from our haphazard methods of reading.

All a ramble, and not put together with any forethought (I have broken up my blogging as well as my reading; I have been answering people on Facebook and writing a murder mystery party) but perhaps something interesting to think about and to discuss...?

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Comments, consider yourself answered

Another night where I haven't managed to write a review - the completed books are piling up by my desk, including a few candidates for Reading Presently, although I am getting rather behind with that project.

So, instead, I answered all the comments.  Gosh, I hadn't realised how lax I'd been!  But I had fun looking back through the past posts, and have replied to 115 comments. Gasp!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

A road trip

Book reviews coming soon, promise - and those replies to your great comments which I promised last week.  But for today, I thought I'd show you the outcome of a road trip I took with my friend Mel recently.  We go to places with absurd names, and wanted to visit Kingsbury Episcopi and Curry Rivel (both amazing, no?)  We did manage to see both these Somerset villages, but also stumbled across somewhere rather brilliant on the way... and Mel took this photo: