Wednesday, 31 July 2013


A quick post to spread the word about Greene For Gran - an initiative started up by Simon Savidge.  If you're a fan of blogging Simons, chances are that you've also been over to Savidge Reads - his tastes are quite different from mine, but of course I love his blog - and through that, got to know the tastes of Dorothy Savidge, aka Simon's Gran.  We were all sorry to hear about her illness, and that she passed away recently. It is only befitting, for a woman who loved reading, that people get reading in her honour - and Simon S hit upon the excellent idea of #GreeneForGran - that is, reading some books by an author Dorothy loved: Graham Greene.

He mentioned it on Twitter, and a few of us thought it sounded like an excellent plan and spurred him on - and now you can read all about the plans. Basically, read something by Greene during August, and maybe post or discuss during the last few days of the month.  Vintage Books will also be doing the odd giveaway over at Simon S's.

I've only read a couple of Greene books (Travels With My Aunt and Brighton Rock) and strongly recommend the former.  I have a few others on my shelves, and I intend to grab at least one of them during August and have a read.  I do hope you'll join in - and that you'll spread the word.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Oranges (flash fiction)

I've been vaguely intending to include some short fiction on here ever since I started up Stuck-in-a-Book, but wondering how to go about it - it might be a bit of a jolt to those of you expecting a review.  But since I've put up some jovial poetry of late, I thought I might indulge myself with this, called 'Oranges'.  I actually wrote it with my friend Mel's flash fiction site The Pygmy Giant in mind, but that's on hiatus, so... it will be here instead! Be kind :)

The ‘five a day’ campaign was a real blessing to folk like me. I can see people slowing down as they walk past, probably on their way back from a day in the office, counting in their heads (and occasionally on their fingers)… and realising they’re one short. Next thing you know, you’ve sold an apple or a pear or an orange. Half the time it’ll probably go uneaten, put optimistically on the table and left to shrivel up – but that’s not my problem, of course. Once it’s sold, it’s sold.

It’s mid-morning and I’m doing ok today. I’ve stacked up my oranges nicely, and that’s not as easy as it looks. You have to have larger ones towards the bottom, to keep the structure secure – but, of course, customers don’t want to be cheated, and there are plenty who’ll spend five minutes trying to get the largest orange from the bottom of the pile. But today I seem to be doing better with strawberries – two pound a box, bigger and juicier than you’ll get in the supermarket – because the sun’s out. It makes a real difference to our work.

Andy beckons me over. He sells veg on the stall next to mine, and he’s a good lad – although the price he tries to get for leeks is a joke, believe me. I have a quick glance around, to make sure I won’t be missing any sales, and pop over to say hello. But I don’t get the chance – as soon as I’m in whispering distance, I hear the words I always dread.

“They say he’s in the area.”

Oh no. Not today – not with the sun out, and a good day’s business ahead of me. But of course, the sun always is out when he makes his appearances.

“Are you sure? Who’s said?”

Andy just shrugs – but nine times out of ten he’s right, and I know better than to ignore his warning. But what to do?

I sell a couple of boxes of strawberries to a nice old dear who’s a regular, and an apple to somebody who looks late for work, but my mind isn’t on it. I start packing up a few bits and pieces, and Andy has boxed up some tomatoes, but we know there’s nothing we can do really. There isn’t a proper way to prepare for what’s coming.

And, suddenly, it’s all happening. The first sign is the shrieking and shouting, but that only gives you about two seconds of warning before it’s too late – he’s here, he’s on you, at the speed of light – this time on a motorbike – heading straight for (ALWAYS straight for) those beautiful oranges I spent all morning arranging. Fruit is flying everywhere, the awning is torn to shreds, and he doesn’t give a monkey’s. He’s gone as soon as he came, destruction everywhere in his wake.

It doesn’t make any difference now, but I can’t help shaking a fist at the already-distant motorbike.

“Damn you, Mr. Bond!”

Monday, 29 July 2013

Dumb Witness - Agatha Christie

I've mentioned a few times that I have spent the past couple of months immersed in Agatha Christie, being the only author who was able to circumnavigate my reader's block - everything else I tried was abandoned after a page or two, but I could tear through a Christie in a day or two.  Thankfully (for my general reading) I'm now having more success getting past p.1 with other authors, although it's still a bit impeded, but I did enjoy getting into Christie mode and wolfing them down.

I haven't blogged about them, partly because Christie novels are often very similar and partly because you can't say much without giving the game away - but in the spirit of my Reading Presently project (reading and reviewing 50 books in 2013 that were given to me as presents) I shall write about Dumb Witness, because my lovely colleague Fiona gave it to me when I left my job at OUP (which, incidentally, I am missing furiously.)  It was (is?) published in the US under the rather-better title Poirot Loses A Client.

We had quite a lot of chats about Agatha Christie over the months, but the reason Fiona picked Dumb Witness as my leaving gift wasn't only because she knew I hadn't read it - it was because of the dog on the cover.  We had lengthy cat vs. dog arguments (publishers, it turns out, tend to prefer dogs - librarians and book bloggers definitely fall down on the cat side) and this was Fiona's funny way of making a point - so, of course, I used a bookmark with a cat on it.  Sherpa, in fact, painted on a bookmark by Mum.

Dumb Witness is a Poirot/Hastings novel, which is my favourite type of Christie after a Marple-takes-centre-stage novel (she is sadly sidelined in a few of her own novels).  You may recall an excerpt I posted from Lord Edgware Dies, in which the delightful relationship between Hastings and Poirot is perfectly illustrated.  More of the same in Dumb Witness - Hastings constantly makes suppositions and conclusions which Poirot bats away in frustration, never revealing quite why Hastings is wrong (other than his touching readiness to believe what he is told by almost anyone) and holding his own cards close to his chest.

I shall say very little about the plot, because (unlike most novels I read) the plot is of course crucially important in a detective novel - so I'll just mention the premise.  Poirot wishes to follow up a letter he has received Miss Emily Arundell, asking him to investigate an accident she had - falling down the stairs, after tripping on her dog's ball.  Her letter isn't very coherent, but she seems to be suggesting that it may not have been an accident... Although she recovers from the minor injuries sustained in this fall, by the time Poirot receives the letter - mysteriously, two months later - she has died from a long-standing liver complaint.  Poirot decides to accept the posthumous commission into attempted murder...

As far as plot and solution go, Dumb Witness has all the satisfying twists, turns, and surprises that we all expect from a Christie novel - it certainly doesn't disappoint on this front, and this is one especially excellent twist, albeit with a few cruder details that are not worthy of her name on the cover.  But, alongside that, I loved Poirot's determination that attempted murder should be investigated and prosecuted, whether or not the victim was dead - Hastings, for all his gentlemanly bluster, can't see why it is a matter of importance.  Poirot's moral backbone is one of the reasons I find him such a fantastic character.

And the dog?  Yes, Fiona, the dog (Bob) is rather fun, and Hastings is predictably wonderful about him - although I did find the amount of words put in the mouth of Bob a little off-putting.  It reminded me of Enid Blyton's technique of including passages along the lines of "'"Woof', said Timmy, as if to say 'They've gone to the cove to fetch the boat'."  There, I believe, I have spotted the major flaw with Dumb Witness - or at least, an aspect where it could be improved.  It would be a far superior novel, had it featured a cat.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Song for a Sunday

I'm a big Siobhan Donaghy fan, so was delighted when I heard that she would be reuniting with the other original members of (hideous band name alert) the Sugababes.  For those not in the know, Mutya Buena, Keisha Buchanan, and Siobhan Donaghy founded the Sugababes when they were about 15 with the fantastic song Overload, then left and were replaced one by one, so that the Sugababes now has no original members.  So the originals reformed, under the nicer but less imaginative name Mutya Keisha Siobhan, and will soon be releasing this lovely track - Flatline:

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Red House - Mark Haddon

What with reader's block, moving house, and not having internet for a bit, it's been a while since you had a proper review from me.  And today is no different, because I'm handing over to somebody else to write about The Red House by Mark Haddon, which I was sent as a review copy.  Tom (who recently married my best friend) spotted it on my shelves, and commented on it, so I decided it would find a better home with him.  Whether or not he ended up agreeing, you can discover below... Tom, by the by, can also be found at the blog Food, Music, God.  Over to you, Tom!

I promised Simon a while back that I'd read Mark Haddon's The Red House and review it for him, and have sincerely been reiterating that promise to him ever since whilst getting distracted by other tasks like getting married or trying to qualify as a teacher. However, the other day my mother rang me up and told me that my father had recently read The Red House and she had just started it, and so it occurred to me that now might be the time to take action and stop anyone else having to read it ever again. That way, we can pretend that it didn't happen, that Mark Haddon can still write novels with razor-sharp characters and compelling narrative, and that this clichéd series of adolescent writing exercises is the work of someone else.

The novel is about two families united by estranged siblings who are trying to reconnect with one another after the death of their ferocious mother. There's Richard, the hospital consultant who remarried recently but doesn't really know how to talk to his new wife Louisa, and may have A DARK SECRET. His estranged sister, Angela, who's haunted by the ghost of her stillborn daughter, but of course she can't tell anyone about that, and married to Dominic, who seems reasonably normal but may also have A DARK SECRET. Richard's kids - Alex, a sex-obsessed teenager; Daisy, a buttoned-up Christian who also thinks rather more about sex than she'd like; Benjy, who is eight (I think) and I can't remember much more about. Angela's daughter Melissa, who is a self-obsessed cow who's kind of hot and whom Alex fancies, of course. Then there's the house itself, allegedly the conduit for all of these stories for some reason, although that's arguably just an excuse for the fact that Mark Haddon couldn't decide which character to focus on. The house seems to know quite a lot of poetry, and it talks like a travel guide written by James Joyce.

If you think that sounds like a lot going on, you'd be right, and that's part of the problem. It's a shame, as there are some good ideas here, especially with the teenagers in the cast - Daisy's struggle with her sexuality and where it fits with her faith is clearly aiming for some wider significance, for example. Alex and Melissa's teenage angst is sharply drawn, if rather aimless, and the differences in Angela and Richard's approach to their upbringing and the effect on their families could have been channeled into something effective in the manner of Jonathan Franzen. However, it just doesn't feel like it's been edited into any kind of coherent shape. It's this huge splurge of styles and influences and this, rather than seeming ambitious, comes across as amateurish instead. It doesn't build, it doesn't have much of a climax to speak of, and the central narrative just isn't strong enough to provide any real mooring.

It's also overwritten and laden with unnecessary detail. What is one supposed to make of a passage like this:

Louisa works for Mann Digital in Leith. They do flatbed scanning, big photographic prints, light boxes, Giclée editions, some editing and restoration. She loves the cleanness and precision of it, the ozone in the air, the buzz and shunt of the big Epsons, the guillotine, the hot roller, the papers, Folex, Somerset, Hahnemühle. Mann is Ian Mann who hung on to her during what they called her difficult period because she'd manned the bridge during his considerably more difficult period the previous year.

It's like Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian", that, only about photocopying. And that's not even the worst linguistic crime in the book - reading about Angela reading modern poetry, with snippets of Robert Browning woven through the text, is pretty painful, as is Richard's attempt at reading ancient Greek poetry, not to mention the inexplicable quoting of something that seems to be an encyclopaedia about lorries.

Or what about this:

Richard slots the tiny Christmas tree of the interdental brush into its white handle and cleans out the gaps between his front teeth, top and bottom, incisors, canines. He likes the tightness, the push and tug, getting the cavity really clean, though only at the back between the molars and pre-molars do you get the satisfying smell of rot from all that sugar-fed bacteria. Judy Hecker at work. Awful breath. Ridiculous that it should be a greater offence to point it out. Arnica on the shelf above his shaver. Which fool did that belong to? Homeopathy on the NHS now. Prince Charles twisting some civil servant's arm no doubt. Ridiculous man.

If you can find another novel in which you can find a narrative reason to justify spending this much time on one of the characters brushing his teeth, I'd be interested to hear about it. It's a testament to the way that The Red House is written that the author thought that this belonged, but it is apparently a novel about the mundane and the ordinary (or so the blurb says), and so there's plenty of that. Again, perhaps it's an attempt at being clever; to impart some wonder into the everyday processes of how peoples' minds work. If you feel a sense of wonder at the above, I'd be interested to hear about that too.

You should not read The Red House. Tell your friends not to read it. If people suggest taking it on holiday, don't. If you find it in your holiday home, leave it there. It's not a good holiday book. It's not good literary fiction. No, it's not lightweight, and yet it also doesn't seem to mean anything. It's shockingly dark in places (and shockingly dull in others) and it doesn't seem to known what to do with that darkness. Curious Incident was (and still is) magnificent, thanks to an exceptionally strong narrative voice. A Spot of Bother was flawed, but still gripping and surprisingly visceral in places - and the characterisation was second to none. In The Red House, despite a couple of strong passages such as Richard's disastrous run out on the moors, there's nothing to make this stand out. It's an ambitious experiment, and perhaps an admirable one; to his credit, at least Mark Haddon is still pushing his craft and trying new things. However, it's a huge disappointment that in doing so he has moved so far away from his strengths.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Our future king is born!

Moving house has had its usual effect on blogging, but I just had to put up a celebratory post for the royal prince!

Very, very thrilling - a great and momentous day in the life of our nation.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Song for a Sunday

I've spent the past few days packing, and must have listened to this about forty times.  It just gets better with every listen - 'Losing You' by Solange.  (N.B. do not interpret this mournful title with my feelings about moving house - this time, I'm actually really excited!)

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Leaving OUP (and which Jane Austen character are you?)

It feels as though it's only just started, but my time as blog editor of OxfordWords came to an end yesterday.  I was there on maternity cover, and the lovely woman who'd had her beautiful baby came back to the fore.  Although I was only there for just under six months, I've made some very dear friends, and was incredibly touched by the leaving gifts and cards I got.  As you'll see from my selection, I certainly didn't keep my love of the Queen (and kittens) quiet...

Notice also that my friend Fiona is feeding my Agatha Christie habit - and deliberately picked one with a dog on the cover, because of our long-running feud of cats v. dogs.  (This feud manifested itself almost entirely in sending each other cute pictures of our preferred animal.)

Luckily for me, they say I can still write for OxfordWords now and then, as an external writer, and I have one in the pipeline which isn't at all literary.  Today, though, to commemorate the anniversary of Jane Austen's death, my parting gift to OxfordWords was a 'Which Jane Austen character are you?' quiz - go and take it, and let me know who you ended up as!

(I'm Mr. Darcy, it turns out. Since I wrote the quiz, I could be accused of making sure of this... but I actually would have preferred to be Mr. Bingley...)

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Oh, Hastings

I seem to be experiencing a bit of reader's block at the moment, struggling to 'get into' any novel I pick up (and it doesn't help that most of them are in boxes, as I'm moving house this weekend.)  One author is working for me, and I am chain-reading her... it's Agatha Christie.  I've read five in quick succession (Five Little Pigs, Crooked House, Cat Among the Pigeons, Lord Edgware Dies, and A Pocket Full of Rye) and I've just started The Secret of Chimneys.  I shan't blog about all of them, because they've gone back to the library, and anyway it's very difficult to write about a detective novel properly, but I did want to share an excerpt from Lord Edgware Dies.

Is there anybody who has read an Agatha Christie novel in which he appears who does not love Captain Hastings?  He is so adorable - yes, he is essentially a Watson to Poirot's Holmes, but without Watson's adulation of Holmes.  Hastings can't ever quite shake the feeling, during investigation, that Poirot's best days might be behind him, or that his European ways are letting the side down.  I love their dynamic, and nowhere is it better illustrated than this fantastic exchange:

"No human being should learn from another.  Each individual should develop his own powers to the uttermost, not try to imitate those of someone else.  I do not wish you to be a second and inferior Poirot.  I wish you to be the supreme Hastings.  And you are the supreme Hastings.  In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated."

"I'm not abnormal, I hope," I said.

"No, no.  You are beautifully and perfectly balanced.  In you sanity is personified.  Do you realise what that means to me?  When the criminal sets out to do a crime his first effort is to deceive.  Who does he seek to deceive?  The image in his mind is that of the normal man.  There is probably no such thing actually - it is a mathematical abstraction.  But you come as near to realising it as is possible.  There are moments when you have flashes of brilliance when you rise above the average, moments (I hope you will pardon me) when you descend to curious depths of obtuseness, but take it all for all, you are amazingly normal.  Eh bien, how does this profit me?  Simply in this way.  As in a mirror, I see reflected in your mind exactly what the criminal wishes me to believe,  That is terrifically helpful and suggestive.

I did not quite understand.  It seemed to me that what Poirot was saying was hardly complimentary.  However, he quickly disabused me of that impression.

"I have expressed myself badly," he said quickly.  "You have an insight into the criminal mind, which I myself lack.  You show me what the criminal wishes me to believe.  It is a great gift."

Monday, 15 July 2013

Sketches from Year Six

I passed my sixth anniversary back in April, and since then have been intending to put together my annual collection of sketches. I always intended these to be a running part of Stuck-in-a-Book, but they come and go, depending on me remembering I do them, finding time to do them, and if anyone says nice things about them!

Clicking on the picture will, in each case, take you to the post in question... (the cartoons below include quite a few two-parters, but that should be obvious in each case...)











Sunday, 14 July 2013

Song for a Sunday

My favourite singer, Kathryn Williams, is back with a lovely, lovely song - 'Heart-Shaped Stone'.  She made my all-time top two favourite albums (Old Low Light and Little Black Numbers) and this single is very promising for the next...

Friday, 12 July 2013

Young Entry - Molly Keane

I usually run a mile from Irish novels of a certain period - memories of The Last September make me shiver at the thought of Irish Troubles novels - but I was attracted by Molly Keane's Young Entry (1928), very kindly given to me by Karyn when we met up in Oxford last year. Any sort of political upheaval seemed a distant irrelevance to the carefree heroines of Keane's first novel (written at the sickeningly young age of 20) - a dollop of romance, high-spirited teasing, and countryside dalliances seemed a fitting antidote to the more serious or tragic end of Irish literature (for which there is, of course, a place - but that place is not on my bookshelf.)

Well, the heroines did not disappoint - except perhaps in an unexpected name. Prudence and Peter (yes, they are both women) are described thus - first Prudence:
Her demeanour in public places was totally perfect.  Had she been a boy one would have looked at her and at once said - Eton.  As it was, those who knew her, if they saw the back of her head and shoulders across a crowded room, said: "Prudence Turrett - couldn't be anyone else."  And those who did not know her asked immediately who she was.
And lest you think she's a totally passionless society great, I rather loved this description earlier in the novel:
A ladder in a favourite silk stocking could reduce her to tears, just as a phrase of wild poetry made her drunk with ecstasy, or a witty story moved her to agonies of mirth.  She did things to distraction - always.
And then, more level-headed, there is Peter (it is so strange thinking that Peter is a woman, given it is Our Vicar's name - I've known a Peta or two, but are any women called Peter?):
Having long ago come to the conclusion that young men did not sparkle in her company, she very wisely restrained all impulse in herself to sparkle in theirs; and left matters at a satisfactorily comfortable companionship. 
These companionships were many.  Brilliant young men liked Peter, because she gave them time to make their cleverest remarks.  Lazy men liked her because she never attempted to stir them to energy.
I'm usually one to value character over plot, and Keane's characters were a joy - showing all the signs of a young writer, in both a positive and negative way.  Good, that they were lively and enthusiastically drawn, and bad, that they were emotionally rather immature and over the top.  And yet, above and beyond this, the plot defeated me.

Much of Young Entry I enjoyed, particularly when it concerned the friendship of Prudence and Peter, and even their budding (and unlikely) romances - but, as Diana Petre points out in her introduction to the Virago reprint, a 20 year old Molly Keane could only write about the limited world she knew, and that was the society hunting set.

And so there is a lot about hunting.  I'm not just ignorant about the ins and outs and mores of hunting, I actively loathe it.  I have no problem with culling foxes humanely - I am a country boy at heart, and I know that country life is not all fluffy bunnies; I trust farmers to know what needs doing on their land.  What makes me shocked and angry and everything within me recoil is the idea that killing should be turned into a game or a sport.  It's not often that I demonstrate such strong feelings on this blog, and I don't want the comment section to become and to-and-fro on the topic of hunting, but I wanted to explain why there were reams of Young Entry that I could not enjoy.  Extracts like this one...
Peter was different.  More of a purist than Prudence; the hounds and their work was her joy, her interest and delight.  It supplied for her the poetry of existence.  She rode a fast hunt well enough; but in a slow one, with hounds working out each yard of a stale and twisting line, almost walking after their fox, she was nearly as happy.  While Prudence fretted and chafed, longing to get on, Peter - her eyes alight, alert for every whimper, watching, always watching - was content to see hound-work at its prettiest and most difficult.  Her soul blasphemed in chorus with that of the huntsman, when his hounds were pressed upon; and was with him also in ecstasy when the line was hit off afresh after a successful cast.
There are many scenes of hunting, and many which require knowledge of hunting.  They didn't simply bore me, in the way that depictions of sporting matches would do, they upset and ired me. So when major plot points and character movements concern the social correctness (or otherwise) of hunting in certain areas, and Keane seems to think we will both know and agree with these principles, I was left rather lost.

I'm still very grateful to Karyn for giving me this novel, as it was fascinating to see where Keane's writing career began and spot the seeds of what was to come - but, let's just say I'm glad that she didn't stop here.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Further poems about authors

Many of you were kind enough to say nice things about my previous little poems about authors, and so, in this hot weather, I have turned my attention to writing a few more... I hope you enjoy them!

Not relevant... but nice.

A reductive reading of Dorothy Parker
Poems, journalism, more -
Yet you are remembered for
Advising, to the finer sex,
A total abstinence from specs.

Men apparently declare
Their love based on a woman's hair.
That is all they need, to choose
(according to Anita Loos.)

You're my favourite of the three
And yet you have the faintest fame.
To generations you will be:
'Charlotte, Emily, whatshername'.

My Problem With Alfred
Reading Dead White Men is fun,
Unless, of course, it's Tennyson.
Among his literary powers
Is not included a respect for line length or stresses or anything so long as he can mention flowers.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Oxford by Edward Thomas

I think most book bloggers will identify with this situation: THE book we read and never got around to reviewing.  Of course, there are dozens that would fit that category, but I imagine we all have one in particular which we wish we'd reviewed at the time - either because it was so good, or because we've wanted to link back to it on many occasions.  But the memory of reading it has simply faded. That book, for me, is Oxford by Jan Morris, given to me by my father when I came up to Oxford - and read about five years later, which isn't bad going for my reading schedule.  It's absolutely fantastic, that much I remember - but not much else.

In order for it to avoid a similar fate, I shall now write about Oxford (1903) by Edward Thomas.  Imaginative titles, these fans of Oxford come up with, no?  This was a gift from my friend Daphne, although I can't remember quite when.  Being published in 1903, perhaps I should have saved it for a tricky year when I do A Century of Books again in 2014 (this is still the plan!) but instead it's come under Reading Presently (I'll give you a proper update in due course.)

All I knew about Edward Thomas before reading this came from Helen Thomas's excellent biographies/autobiographies, and having read one or two of his poems (i.e. 'Adelstrop', twice).  Well, Oxford didn't teach me a lot about him either, as - understandably - he doesn't write very much about himself.  But his sensibilities are in every line.  Supposedly he writes about Oxford past and present, through the lenses of the students, the dons, and the servants - but really he is writing prose-poetry.  There are anecdotes and portraits, true, but he is clearly a poet rather than an historian or chronicler, still less the creator of a guide book (although he would later write some).
Would any of those professions give space for this description of a college garden?Old and stories as it is, the garden has a whole volume of subtleties by which it avails itself of the tricks of the elements.  Nothing could be more romantic than its grouping and contrasted lights when a great, tawny September moon leans - as if pensively at watch - upon the garden wall.  No garden is so fortunate in retaining its splendour when summer brusquely departs, or so rich in the idiom or green leaves when the dewy charities of the south wind are at last accepted.
It's lovely, and accordingly I love it (as mentioned before, I am much more at home with poetic prose than poetry) - but you will understand why I shan't try to give a factual précis of the material Thomas covers, because the writing is everything here.  I read Oxford very slowly, over the course of a few months, and I think that's the best way to read it.  It certainly shouldn't be taken out on the High Street if you want to find the bus station, not least because the book is over a hundred years old.

I have lived in Oxford for nine years, but there was very little in here that I recognised as being here today - perhaps the fields in Grandpont, and the view over Port Meadow (for now...), but not the rest.  The people have changed, the environment is no longer the way Thomas saw it.  Things change more slowly in Oxford than elsewhere, perhaps, but the ignorant rich no longer have access to Oxford (whatever the tabloid press might suggest.)  Legions of servants who know each undergraduate by time are similarly products of a bygone era.

Having said that, his portraits of personality types in 'undergraduates of the present and past' did hit home.  Once the trappings of the 1900s were tidied away, there still exist, in outline, the figures he depicts.  The mediocre student who does a bit of sport, a bit of studying, a bit of everything... the arrogant 'intellectual' who becomes disillusioned by the ignorance of his tutor... the man who speaks at the Oxford Union, 'There and at afternoon teas with ladies he is known for the lucidity of his commonplaces and the length of his quotations'.  I wonder which of Thomas's portraits was I... This section of the book was probably my favourite.  Not as poetic as the rest, but the only section where his aim was humour - and very amusing it was.

So, for a guide to Oxford, Oxford is hopeless.  Even as an historic record, it is hugely flawed.  But as a beautiful book, occasionally funny and always luxuriously written, it is a huge success, and I heartily recommend it.  For a more cogent and calm history, with writing beautiful in a very different way, make sure you also pick up Jan Morris's Oxford.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

There are three people I routinely refer to as my best friend (playing fast and loose with my superlatives) - one is my lovely brother Colin, one is my dear friend Washington Wife, and the third is wonderful Mel.  (Since her blog isn't updated, I can link instead to a review she wrote for me, that was for a long time the most read page on my blog.)  They're all enormously brilliant people, and I am very blessed to know them - and only one of them is biologically predetermined to like me.

I bring this up only because today is Mel's wedding day, and I'm off to usher (ush?), give a reading, and probably cry.  I'll leave you with a whole range of links, rather than the usual book, blog post, and link (because there are so many this week), but first of all - I've done the prize draw for Stephen Leacock's Literary Lapses and the winner is Pam from Travellin' Penguin!  Email me your address, and I'll get it in the post.  I so enjoyed reading everyone's favourite things about Canada, and it's made me even more determined to visit one day.  And how serendipitous that I chose Canada Day to hold the draw!  Right - some links:

1.) You'll love this list of 'book titles with one letter missing', and accompanying illustrations.

2.) I wrote again for OxfordWords - this time, 5 Words That Are Older Than You Think.  Go and be surprised!

3.) So did Hayley!  She's written all about the language of whisky.

4.) AND Washington Wife, aforementioned!  A really fantastic article on 'journalese'.

5.) Margaret sent me this fascinating article about the letters received after Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' was first published in the New Yorker.  Warning: spoilers, so make sure you read the short story (which you can do here) first.

Have a great weekend, all!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Of Love and Hunger - Julian Maclaren-Ross

It's no secret that the novels I tend to like are by women, about women, and (some would say) for women - just think of the Provincial Lady, the novels of Jane Austen, and any number of other examples.  Of course, my favourite novel is by a man (Miss Hargreaves) but I don't think anybody would guess that from reading it.  And yet, dear reader, I seem to be developing an affection for a new variety of British literature: men of the 1940s.

The first Proper Grown Up novel I ever read (besides teenage books and the odd Agatha Christie) was Nineteen Eighty-Four, at the relatively late age of 13.  I loved it then, and I loved it on re-reading it a few years ago.  It's entirely plausible that my tastes would have developed along Orwellian lines first, rather than wavering off - but better late than never, I have discovered a deep admiration for quite a few novels of the downtrodden, 1940s, lower-middle-class-hero[ine] variety. Most notably Patrick Hamilton's extremely brilliant The Slaves of Solitude - and it was my love of this novel which led Dee (from LibraryThing's Virago Modern Classics group) to send me a distinctly non-Virago novel: Of Love and Hunger (1947) by Julian Maclaren-Ross.

A long intro to a short book - Of Love and Hunger (which takes its title from Auden and MacNeice's Letters From Ireland) concerns Richard Fanshawe, a vacuum cleaner salesman who is always in debt and never in luck.  I don't believe the novel has a 'message' (it's too sophisticated for that) but this quotation does rather set the tone:
Straker said: "Doesn't seem much place for fellows like us, does there?""No.""What I mean, we're kind of out of things.  Nobody seems to want us much.  Fellows who've been out east, I mean.  We don't seem to belong any more."
Fanshawe has spent some time 'out east', and found that the return home is not a welcome for heroes.  He is stuck in a dead end job, behind with the rent on his flat, and without any particularly close friends - but, before you vow never to read a word of Of Love and Hunger, this isn't a particularly despondent novel.  Maclaren-Ross was a few years too early to be an Angry Young Man, and instead is one who embraces the bohemian, and shows the fundamental ordinariness of man.  Not the fundamental goodness - Fanshawe is not good - but nor is he bad.  He lives day to day, trying to earn his keep (and, if possible, keep his keep), and being friendly with people when he gets the chance.

One of the people he befriends is Sukie, who is (I quote the blurb) 'dark, desirable - and married to his friend'.  Which makes the novel sound a bit like a love triangle - and, although it is a bit, it's not pivotal.  More important, to my mind, are the men he meets through work.  There are some very amusing depictions of the bureaucracy and farce of vacuum selling that reminded me of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (albeit rather less hyperbolic) and I had a soft spot for Heliotrope - larger than life and twice as crooked - who is full of gusto and deceit, but a friendly face (and prolific offerer of raw onions.)

For the most part, nothing momentous happens.  Maclaren-Ross depicts an ordinary life that can't get much better and won't get much worse - the daily trundle to keep the wolf from the door, and the lack of ambition or drive that means Fanshawe will never be a rags-to-riches story (not least because he's never been as low as 'rags' implies).  But somehow Of Love and Hunger isn't hopeless.  It isn't a celebration of the everyday, or raging against it, but simply a depiction of it - and it is the truly great writers who can show us the ordinary, and wish to do no more.  I'm used to many exceptionally good (and not so good) writers doing that when 'the ordinary' is a tea table in a drawing room - I've only recently started finding them elsewhere.

It's always nice, not to mention a little ego-boosting, to read an introduction and discover that one has had the same thoughts as the Noted Expert (in this case, D.J. Taylor, who writes cogently and informatively, all too rare in introductions). I read it after I'd finished the novel, of course, and was pleased to see that he also mentioned Patrick Hamilton and George Orwell.  Of course, it was really Dee who spotted the connection, and she was right.  And fans of those writers will find much to admire in Of Love and Hunger.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Agatha Agatha

Sometimes you just need to read an Agatha Christie, don't you?  Well, I do.  When I was getting bad headaches still (they seem to have worn off now, for the moment at least) I needed something that didn't require much thought, but which still would be good - and so I picked up Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie.  You may remember, from my report of a talk at Folio HQ, that Christie's biographer Laura Thompson considered Five Little Pigs her best novel, and so I had to give it a go.

I shan't write that much about the novel, because I really want to use this post to find out which one you think I should read next, but I'll give you a quick response to Five Little Pigs (1942).  Well, for starters, I don't think it's her best.  Laura Thompson admired the way in which character and plot progressed together, and depended upon one another.  I agree with that in the abstract - but not in the way that the novel actually reads.

Poirot is investigating a murder that took place 16 years previously - on the commission of the daughter of the woman who was convicted.  Carla is the daughter, Caroline is the supposed murderer, and Amyas - Caroline's husband; Carla's father - is the artist who died of poisoning.  Shortly before she died in prison, Caroline wrote to her daughter to say that she was innocent... Carla, although only a young child at the time, believes her mother is telling the truth.  Poirot agrees to investigate... and narrows down the search to five people.  

The title Five Little Pigs is based on a nursery rhyme.  To quote Wikipedia: "Poirot labels the five alternative suspects “the five little pigs”: they comprise Phillip Blake ("went to the market"); Philip's brother, Meredith Blake ("stayed at home"); Elsa Greer (now Lady Dittisham, "had roast beef"); Cecilia Williams, the governess ("had none"); and Angela Warren, Caroline’s younger half-sister ("went 'Wee! Wee! Wee!' all the way home")."

The conclusion is clever and believable, and the characters well drawn (especially the contrasts between their present personalities, and the personalities shown in everyone's accounts of the fateful day.)  The big problem with the novel, for me, is how repetitive it is.  Poirot goes to interview each of these five in turn, and he then receives written accounts from each of them (which are given in full).  That means we get ten accounts of the day, one after another.  Ten.  Five felt like it was pushing it; ten was simply dull by the end.  I get that Agatha Christie wanted to show how perspective can shed different lights on events.  But... too much.

Still, this is Agatha Christie.  It was still very enjoyable, and pretty compelling reading, but I don't usually want to skip chunks when I read her.  Contrary to what Laura Thompson said, this is probably one of my least favourite Christie novels...

...and now I want you to suggest which one to read next.  Whenever I read one Christie I want to read more straight away.  I asked on Twitter, and got some great recommendations which I'm definitely keeping in mind, but I want to see which one would be most popular - so do comment with a recommendation even if someone else has already mentioned it.  To help you out, the following are the novels by Christie I HAVE read, so you don't need to suggest these... oh, and I know the twist to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, so I don't really want to read that one just yet.  Over to you (thanks in advance!)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Murder at the Vicarage
Peril at End House
Murder on the Orient Express
Why Didn't They Ask Evans?
The ABC Murders
And Then There Were None
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
The Body in the Library
Five Little Pigs
The Moving Finger
A Murder is Announced
They Do It With Mirrors
A Pocket Full of Rye
Hickory Dickory Dock
4.50 From Paddington
The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side
A Caribbean Mystery
At Bertram's Hotel
Endless Night
Sleeping Murder