Saturday, 30 November 2013

Pink Sugar by O. Douglas

One of the shameful things about this year is realising how many books my dear friend Clare has given me over the years which I have yet to read.  Her name has appeared a few times already in my Reading Presently project (as the bestower of Four Hedges, Cullum, and possibly How The Heather Looks) and is likely to appear at least a couple of times more - but, for today, she is the provider of Pink Sugar (1924) by O. Douglas, the pseudonym of John Buchan's sister Anna.  I'll call her O. Douglas in this review, to make things simple.  It's the only Greyladies edition I've read so far, although I'm thrilled that they have reprinted a couple of Richmal Crompton books, including the wonderful Matty and the Dearingroydes.  And, guess what, Pink Sugar is rather fab too.

Kirsty Gilmour is 30 and has made a home for herself in the Borders (so the blurb says for me), taking in an old aunt who fusses and worries, but is rather lovely, and three children Barbara, Specky, and Bad Bill. The novel opens in conversation between Kirsty and her livelier friend Blance Cunningham - Blanche was quite a witty character, and I was sad that she almost immediately departed the scene (she also said wise things like "People who knit are never dull") but we are not at a loss for characters after her departure.

Kirsty is rather gosh-isn't-the-world-wonderful at times, thankfully offset with some quick-wittedness; like Lyn I sympathised more with the minister's unhappy sister Rebecca, and found the characterful novelist Merren Strang more amusing - but Pink Sugar needs someone like Kirsty at its heart, because it is neither an unhappy novel nor a caustic one.  It is emphatically gentle and life-affirming, where a cup of tea and a dose of self-knowledge are the inevitable accompaniments to evening.

The children veer a little towards Enid Blyton territory, but that's no bad thing (especially compared to modern literature, where happy children seem such a rarity), and there is a wildly unconvincing love plot thrown in to tie things up, but Douglas's good writing and refusal to bathe too deeply in sentiment made me able to love relaxing and reading this.

One aspect of the style I couldn't get on board with was Douglas's frequent recourse to Scottish dialect, for the maids, cook, etc.  It was so impenetrable that I ended up skipping forward a few pages every time it appeared, so fingers crossed that I didn't miss anything of moment there...

And in case you're wondering what 'pink sugar' has got to do with anything, as I was for quite a long while, thankfully it is explained by Kirsty in the narrative.  Excuse the rather long quotation, but I couldn't find a neater way to cut it off...:
"I was allowed to ride on a merry-go-round and gaze at all the wonders - fat women, giants, and dwarfs.  But what I wanted most of all I wasn't allowed to have.  At the stalls they were selling large pink sugar hearts, and I never wanted anything so much in my life, but when I begged for one I was told they weren't wholesome and I couldn't have one.  I didn't want to eat it - as a matter of fact I was allowed to buy sweets called Market Mixtures, and there were fragments of the pink hearts among the curly-doddies and round white bools, and delicious they tasted.  I wanted to keep it and adore it because of its pinkness and sweetness.  Ever since that day when I was taken home begrimed with weeping for a 'heart', I have had a weakness for pink sugar.  And good gracious!" she turned to her companion, swept away by one of the sudden and short-lived rages which sometimes seized her, "surely we want every crumb of pink sugar that we can get in this world.  I do hate people who sneer at sentiment.  What is sentiment after all?  It's only a word, for all that is decent and kind and loving in these warped little lives of ours..."
So 'pink sugar' is essentially akin to seeing the joy in life - and is, perhaps, a codified reference to any reader or critic who would sneer at Pink Sugar itself, as a novel.  Admittedly, it isn't Great Literature, nor is it trying to be, but I think Douglas is doing herself an injustice with this sort of self-defence.  Pink Sugar isn't a lightweight romance with no thought given to the style or characterisation.  It doesn't stand on sentiment alone.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"The strength of the book is the atmosphere of village life." - Lyn, I Prefer Reading

"Pink Sugar is a lovely, sweet, frothy concoction of a novel" - Christine, The Book Trunk

"I am so very happy to have made the acquaintance of O. Douglas." - Nan, Letters From a Hill Farm

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Michael Walmer (Publisher)

Many bloggers are lucky enough to receive review copies from publishers; it's something I've found interesting to track through my 6.5 years as a blogger.  At first, only a few publishers thought it was a good idea - then it became quite widespread and we were inundated - then the recession hit, and publishers wisely held back a bit.  I still get offered a fair few, but don't accept very many (and all the unsolicited ones doubtless go to one of the five other addresses in Oxford I've lived at since starting my blog).  Since I don't have an e-reader, that cuts out a fair few review books too, now that people often want to send them that way.

But sometimes I get really excited about a review book offer - and that's when they come from a reprint publisher.  It's no secret that I prefer books from the early 20th century, and I love it when review titles come from Persephone (a little pile waiting to be read, sorry), Bloomsbury, Hesperus, Penguin etc. which are reprints of hard-to-find authors or titles.

Even more exciting is when I hear about a new reprint publisher - and so I was very happy to get an email from Michael Walmer - both the name of the man and the one-man publishing house, I think - and I quote the beginning of his blurb from his website:
Michael Walmer has set about publishing a list where the main ingredient is quality. Authors will be sourced from all over the world, with a love of erudition, be it elegant or rough-edged, simple or complex, poetic or blunt, or all of these!, as the enlivening and guiding principle.
It's early days, and the list is obviously quite short at the moment, but what a list it is!  He has certainly gone for witty writers, and his authors currently include Saki, Ada Leverson, Ronald Firbank, and Max Beerbohm.  Also on the list is Mary Webb, but I shan't hold that against him.  A few reprint series have specialised in interwar novelists, but I think this late-Victorian/Edwardian period has been hitherto a bit neglected, and I think Walmer has chosen a fruitful area.

I was spoiled for choice, but opted for a review copy of Stella Benson's first novel I Pose. When I reviewed her novel Living Alone, I said that I wanted to read something equally witty and surreal, but without the fantasy hoo-ha.  Well, I'm about halfway through I Pose and it seems to be the very book I'd hoped for - I'm absolutely loving it, and it was pretty scarce before Walmer brought it back into print.  Hurrah!  (I will, of course, review it properly in due course.)

The books are print on demand, but much, much better quality than you'd usually expect from POD titles - and they have properly designed, individual covers, so often (sadly) lacking from PODs.  Do go and check out the website for more info about the authors and titles available, and how to order - let me know what takes your fancy!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

When I'm not reading book blogs (or, y'know, engagingly actively with the outside world, whatever that is), you'll probably find me watching vloggers on YouTube.  I don't watch any of the book vloggers any more, as they rarely talked about any books I'd be interested in (other than the one I'm going to write about today), but I do watch a lot of funny people, generally just talking about things that have happened to them, or opinions they hold.  One of these channels is called the vlogbrothers, where brothers John and Hank Green each make weekly videos addressing each other, but also addressing all their audience (whom - which? - they call 'nerdfighers', which is a little too high schooly for my liking, but I'll let it pass).

Anyway, John Green is not only a YouTube star, but a bestselling author.  He's written a few books, but it is his most recent, The Fault in Our Stars (2012), which caught my attention, and which my friend, ex-housemate, and self-proclaimed nerdfighter Liz lent to me.

Now, The Fault in Our Stars is teenage fiction.  I'm afraid I hate the term 'YA' ('young adult') because it is always used to refer to teenagers who are not young adults.  I am a young adult, being about a decade into adulthood.  The demographic of most fiction encompasses my age group.  Teenage fiction is for younger-than-adults, or old-children, but not for young adults.  Vent over.  Anyway, I haven't really read any teenage fiction since I was a teenager, and I didn't really read much of it after I was about 14.  I know a lot of grown-up readers (including bloggers) engage with it a great deal, and that's fine with me, albeit a little confusing.  (People often say something along the lines that it "deals with issues that adult novels wouldn't cover", which simply isn't true, since adult novels cover pretty much everything between them.)

I could turn this post over to a discussion for and against teenage fiction (and feel free to chime in on that, should you so wish) but instead I want to talk about The Fault in Our Stars specifically.  It was immediately obvious to me that it was teenage fiction, and I'm not sure why - partly, of course, because the protagonist Hazel (a girl with terminal cancer) is a teenager, but also the style.  Its simplicity, maybe?  Pass.  A few pages in, and I could cope with that, though, and didn't remain at my initial psychological distance from the book.  Indeed, I embraced it, and was swept along.

Hazel is 16 and she is dying of cancer - more precisely, she has Stage 4 thyroid cancer with metastasis forming in her lungs. Green had spent some time working as a student chaplain in a children's hospital, years before he wrote this novel, and you can tell that he is familiar not only with the goings-on of support groups and medical procedures, but the dynamic of teenagers living with cancer.  Somehow it is not an outsiders' book - although Green has not had cancer, and I have not had cancer, I didn't feel like their was a barrier between Hazel's experience and my understanding of it.

Green presents a girl who is sarcastic, witty, secretly a bit sappy, and rocketing along a path of self-discovery, finding her place in the world - she is like every teenage girl in the West, then.  Except she has cancer.  It is an intelligent portrait because, although cancer is (obviously) the overriding focus of her life and those of her family, it doesn't seem to be the starting point of Green's creation of the character - instead, it is something that happened to a character he created, even if it happened before the novel began.

The main thrust of the plot, indeed, is more typical of teenagers' novels - and adults' novels - that is, love. Hazel meets Augustus (Gus) Waters, a heartthrob teenage ex-basketball player - who is in remission from osteosarcoma (to which he lost a leg).  He is suave, funny, handsome, muscular, sweet etc. etc.  I.e. he's not as realistic as Hazel, in my book; he reminded me a bit of Todd from Sweet Valley High, if that oh-so-literary reference means anything to you.  Their relationship is cotton-candy sweet, of the variety which comes with passionate kisses being applauded in public.  Yes, that 'public' is Anne Frank's house, but it works in context... just.

A more nuanced subplot is the shared love Hazel and Gus have for a novel called An Imperial Affliction by Peter von Houten (which doesn't exist in real life, but Green's novel seems to have spawned dozens of fake cover art attempts - just Google Image Search it.)  Of course, the author is not all he seems... but it's a nice, interesting story - and goodness knows I'm a sucker for a character who loves books and reading, in any novel.

Ultimately, this is a book aimed at teenagers, and I believe they are the readers who will most benefit from it.  Hopefully it will inspire a love of reading in people who watch the vlogbrothers channel and, acting in the same way as Point Horror and Sweet Valley High for me, lead them eventually onto adult novels and older literature.  But it is not simply a gateway to later reading; for its intended age group, and for anybody being indulgent for an evening, it's a fantastic and well-crafted novel.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Believe it or not, I'm reading a proof copy here... oops.  I started The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey more or less as soon as the proof copy arrived from Headline, back in 1884 or whenever it was that it was sent (erm, 2011?) but wasn't in the right head space to be reading it, and popped it back on the shelf, knowing I'd go back to it.

Well, with a repeat of A Century of Books lined up for 2014, I'm enjoying delving into 21st-century literature in my post-thesis binge.  Indeed, I finished reading this shortly after I submitted my thesis, and before I flew to America, so it's taken a little while to review.  And it's every bit as good as everyone was saying it was, back when it first came out.

 It's your standard fantastic creation story... a lonely woman who longs for a child accidentally creates one, and then begins to lose control over her creation.  The story is remarkably similar to Edith Olivier's The Love-Child - and even more similar, overtly so, to the Russian fairytale 'The Snow Maiden'.  With my interest in novels of this ilk, it's as though it were written for me.  But, as with any updating of fairytale, what is important is the way in which the tale is told.  Ivey does it beautifully.

Mabel and Jack have moved to the middle of snowy nowhere in Alaska, 1920, and live quietly, working hard to keep their farm going.  Both characters are quite shy and keep their emotions to themselves, but it's clear at the same time that these silent emotions run deep - so deep that any hint of them is unbearably painful.  And yet, shy as they are, they somehow make friends with their jolly neighbours Esther and George.
"I suppose I'm the black sheep.  No one else in my family would think of living on a farm, or moving to Alaska.  My father was a literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania." 
"And you left all that to come here?  What in God's name were you thinking?"  Esther shoved Mabel playfully on the arm.  "He talked you into it, didn't he?  That's how it often is.  These men drag their poor women along, taking them to the Far North for adventure, when all they want is a hot bath and a housekeeper."
"No.  No.  It's not like that."  All eyes were on her, even Jack's.  She hesitated, but then went on.  "I wanted to come here.  Jack did, too, but when we did, it was at my urging.  I don't know why, precisely.  I believe we were in need of a change.  We needed to do things for ourselves.  Does that make any sense?  To break your own ground and know it's yours free and clear.  Nothing taken for granted.  Alaska seemed like the place for a fresh start." 
Esther grinned.  "You didn't fare too badly with this one, did you, Jack?  Don't let word get out.  There aren't many like her."
Though she didn't look up, Mabel knew Jack was watching her and that her cheeks were flushed.  She so rarely spoke so much in mixed company.  Maybe she had said too much.
These sections actually reminded me a bit of Betty Macdonald's The Egg and I, although that is a comedy; the same hardships and marital tensions come about because of giving everything to a working farm.

It swiftly becomes clear that the thing missing the in the lives of Mabel and Jack is not simply money or an assistant, but a child - and, of course, one materialises.  A child made out of snow turns - it seems - into a real child, called Faina.  She is quiet and undemonstrative; Ivey cleverly changes the way dialogue is spoken in any scene in which Faina appears, so that it isn't announced by speech marks but blended into the narrative.  In the same way, Faina seems to blend into the natural world, never quite leaving it to be their child, always disappearing into the snow.  She willingly wears the beautiful coat Mabel makes, but she is still wild - like Clarissa in The Love-Child, she cannot really be contained.

And then there is the question, unearthed by Jack, as to who Faina really is.  Is she a miracle, crafted from snow?  Or is she all too human, abandoned and homeless on the snowy mountainside?  Well, obviously I'm not going to tell you.  Nor am I going to tell you about the other complication that arrives, which again mirrors the plot of The Love-Child (and which, I realise, probably means that Edith Olivier probably read 'The Snow Maiden'.)

Eowyn Ivey has met with a lot of success with this novel, and deservedly so.  The Snow Child is written with a beautiful simplicity - or a simple beauty, if you like - with emotions always playing out near the surface; there isn't much introspection, or a web or words trying to weave a complex portrait of an emotional state, but rather Mabel and Jack's urgent feelings are clear to the reader (even while they are hidden from others.)  What I mean to say is, sometimes the deepest and most complicated situations require only simple words; sometimes the simplest words can convey the deepest sorrow and be more moving than any over-wrought passage.  I know I'm not alone in being very affected by The Snow Child - my friend from OUP admitted that it made him cry, and I've got to say I liked him even more after that confession - and it is a novel which requires some sort of emotional stability in its reader, or it would be too heartbreaking from the outset.  But, oh, it's worth it.

As I wrote earlier, this novel could have been crafted for me and my interests - and it got a mention in my thesis - and I was surprised, but pleased, to see how widely it was admired and loved.  Rightly so.  Eowyn Ivey is a significant new talent, and I look forward to seeing what comes next from her.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Off to t' North...

Thank you for your lovely comments on my story!  I have to admit, I was pretty excited by the idea, and pleased how it panned out.

A quick blog break, as I'm off to give that there talk in the Lake District, and spending a couple of days enjoying the most beautiful part of the UK.  Here's a pic I took the last time I was there:

See you on Tuesday or Wednesday or thereabouts...

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Jane Austen wrote the works of William Shakespeare (short fiction)

Another piece of short(ish) fiction; a little bit different this time!  I hope you enjoy it...

“Thank you very much, Dr Welling, that was a fascinating – a fascinating and original – talk on the way in which Jane Austen uses middle-child syndrome in her novels, letters, and, of course, her juvenilia. I’m sure that there will be lots of questions, but we’ll wait until all three panellists have spoken.” The chair glanced quickly at her watch, but needn’t have been so surreptitious; every member of the audience was performing the same action. “Now please join me in welcoming Dr Tove Sivertsen, from the University of Oslo, who will be speaking to us on Jane Austen and William Shakespeare.”

Applause was desultory, and ceased before Dr Sivertsen had made her way to the podium. She was a short woman with tiny glasses and messy white hair. Her head and neck were visible to the audience of tired academics, but no more; she reached a diminutive hand to pull the microphone down an inch, and neatened the edges of the papers in front of her.

“I take as my first premise,” she said, in a heavily-accented voice, “that Jane Austen wrote the works of William Shakespeare. If we –”

“I beg your pardon,” said the chair, aware of the sudden attentiveness in the room. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Dr Sivertsen, but could you repeat your opening sentence?”

“Certainly, certainly,” said Dr Sivertsen nervously. “I said, ‘Jane Austen wrote the works of William Shakespeare.’”

There was a fraught pause.

“I’m sorry,” said the chair again, “are you really suggesting that Jane Austen wrote the plays which are commonly attributed to William Shakespeare?”

Dr Sivertsen’s tiny eyes grew anxious, and it was in a whisper that she replied that yes, indeed she was.

A German gentleman in the front row stood up. “That is ridiculous!” he cried, and, after a moment, added: “Ridiculous!”

“If we look at the evidence – ” began Dr Sivertsen.

“There is none! There couldn’t be! The idea is preposterous!”

“Perhaps we could – ”


There was an awkward silence. The chair felt that order ought somehow to be restored, but before she could interject, Annette Steinberg had risen to her feet. This was enough to make other attendees roll their eyes at the best of times; Annette was renowned for her love of conspiracy theories, and belief that neither Austen nor her works were quite all they seemed. Her belief was constant, though its manifestations were subject to much variation.

“My colleague raises an interesting angle,” she began, “And one I am inclined to take seriously – ”

“Oh, shut up Annette!” cried somebody from the back of the room, which was met with rather more applause than Dr Sivertsen had been given.

“A cursory glance at the dates in question – ” one man was asserting, while another loudly and determinedly listed all the arguments in favour of an anti-Stratfordian perspective. Annette, accustomed to being interrupted, boldly continued to support (the now silent) Dr Sivertsen:

“ – and, if we recognise the possibility of the falsification or disposal of documents – which, given Cassandra Austen’s acts in the 1840s, ought to – ”

Suddenly everybody in the room seemed to be speaking at once, except Dr Siversten, and many were shouting as loudly as they could. Though nobody in the room had initially taken the suggestion seriously, the question of the Austenian authorship of Shakespeare’s plays (“the Bard of Chawton!” cried one particularly enthusiastic junior research fellow) drove the room into a frenzy. Unwillingness to consider the theory was seen by some as symptomatic of the arrogantly conservative old school of Austen critics, while a willingness to consider it was seen by others as symptomatic simply of insanity – or, worse, poor scholarship.

It wasn’t clear who threw the first chair; in any case, it missed its target. As did the second. Whoever threw the third – witnesses have suggested it was, ironically, the chair of the panel herself – had a truer aim, and broke the nose of Adrian Bridgeton, a second-year PhD student who had only attended the conference to avoid embarking on his next chapter. After that, more chairs seemed to be in the air than on the ground. Papers flew in every direction, and several people are believed to have hurled copies of Mansfield Park at the professor who had, the day before, given a talk about slavery in that novel that had exceeded the twenty minute time allowance by over quarter of an hour. Those who loved Persuasion attacked those who preferred Northanger Abbey; two academics who had edited Pride and Prejudice for rival publishing houses dropped the silence of a decade, and replaced it with voluble insults. A gentleman who had travelled from New Zealand to present a paper on the influence of Frances Burney found himself being pushed through an open window, though thankfully the panel had been held on the ground floor.

At some point in the furore, security guards guided Dr Tove Sivertsen out of the room and through a fire exit. In one hand she clutched her lecture papers; in the other, her briefcase. Few people noticed her bewildered face as she left the building.

Although the first to be escorted from the room, she was not the last. Paramedics arrived at 2pm to remove a man who had been knocked unconscious when asserting that the dedication in Emma was a forgery, while police, uncertain whom to arrest, started with the tall Parisian academic who had greeted their arrival by toppling the podium onto a colleague from Nice. Shortly after 2.30pm, somebody in maintenance had the idea of turning on the sprinkler system. By 3pm, every speaker and delegate – sopping wet – had been taken either to the hospital or the police station, and all conferences had been cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Quietly, on a bench some distance from the conference centre, Dr Tove Sivertsen was examining her Norwegian/English dictionary, and tutting gently to herself. How frustrating, and how careless. Once again, she realised, shaking her head, she had confused the English words ‘wrote’ and ‘read’.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Beowulf on the Beach - Jack Murnighan

I'm not great at reading on 'planes, and I thought (on my recent trip to the US) that it would be best to take a book I could read in short segments, rather than attempting to sustain a narrative.  While rooting through my books-about-books shelf, I stumbled across Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature's 50 Greatest Hits (2009) by Jack Murnighan.  It was first suggested to me by an online friend, Sheila, and I put it on my Amazon wishlist - from where it was bought by my brother a few years ago.  Thank you Colin, and thank you Sheila if you're still reading SiaB!

I think there are two things most bloggers and bibliophiles think when they see a list of books: (1) yay! a list! (2) wait, how could they have missed out/included this/that...  Well, Beowulf on the Beach is an extended exercise in both (1) and (2), tied together with Jack Murnighan's very amusing style - so, of course, I loved it.

Let's start with the gimmicks - and, no mistake, this is a very gimmicky book.  It would have to be, really.  Murnighan has selected the 50 'greatest hits' of literature, and tells us what they're about, what the 'buzz' is, the best line, fun facts, what's sexy (!), and what to skip.
When I read, I hope the book will reach me in at least one of three places: where I zip, where I button a shirt, and where I put on a hat.
A neat sentence, and once which tells you the sort of literary scholar Murnighan is - one who isn't afraid to talk about what is 'sexy'.  Yup, he's not using the word to mean 'the best bits', he literally means 'is there sex in this book?'  Which is obviously a bit silly, and very awkward when we get to Lolita, but... well, it's a gimmick, as I said.  Equally untenable is the 'what to skip' bit - perhaps it works when he's talking about Ovid's Metamorphoses or Homer's Odyssey, but it's pretty ridiculous to advise skipping huge chunks of a modern novel, which probably wouldn't make sense.

But none of that really matters, because I don't think Murnighan intends us to take those sections particularly seriously.  What I really enjoyed is how Murnighan refuses to put on a scholarly voice, and instead brings out how enjoyable reading great works of literature can be.
Anna Karenina is like a sundae with a dollop of Madame Bovary as its base and a squeeze of melted Middlemarch poured over the top.
Since I've not read any of those three novels (well, the first hundred pages of the third), I can't comment on the accuracy of Murnighan's simile, but I love the idea of it nonetheless, and it is a good example of his lack of holy cows.  Charles Dickens becomes Chuck, Murnighan refers to 'zingers', etc. etc.  It's all very informal, and great fun - but also very informative.  Murnighan is nothing if not passionate about literature.  Here's part of what he has to say about One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Forget magic realism.  Right now.  If I hear you say the words, I'll sneak up behind you with a piano-wire; I'm not kidding.  Yes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is associated with that dimwit's category (lumping him with the epigone Isabel Allende and other charlatans), but his imaginative leaps are the least important about this book.  To reduce Garcia Marquez's narrative genius to such an infantilizing pseudoconcept as magic realism is high treason in itself, but to allow that academic manure to be what people talk about regarding this novel, as if humanity doesn't need to be sat down, as a whole, at grandpa Gabo's knee and told what's really important, that is utterly inexcusable.  Literature classes have a sacred book on their hands and they make it sound like the trip journals of a peyote fiend.  For shame.
Eeks.  Truth be told, Murnighan's tastes could scarcely be more different from mine.  He says Paradise Lost is the best work ever written (I don't even think it's the best work Milton wrote beginning with the word 'Paradise'), Moby Dick the best novel (snore), and Faulkner the best novelist (haven't read any, but...).  While he covers more of the globe than I do with my reading, there is a rather shameful paucity of female writers responsible for these 50 books - Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison.  Of course, he is not to blame for the sidelining of women throughout literature's history, but the inclusion of authors like Robert Musil, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy rather than (say) Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, and Muriel Spark - all of whom have at least equal claim to canonicity - does speak some prejudice.  Make no mistake, Murnighan is a big fan of overtly masculine, guns-and-big-themes literature, and proudly states it; we were never going to coincide in our literary tastes.  (His chapter on Pride and Prejudice is, by the way, pretty poor... I don't think he got the point, since he thinks it's all about 'romantic fantasies', instead - as I would suggest - of being chiefly about self-knowledge.)

I was also left wondering whether Murnighan ever read anything that wasn't canonical, since he seems to have read all fifty of these books dozens of times.  Does he ever pick up something he's never heard of, and discover an unexpected gem?  That (as I'm sure you'll be aware) is one of the greatest joys of the reader's life.

But these are small criticisms for a book which, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, could only be found perfect by a bibliophile were that bibliophile to compile the list themselves.  Whether or not you'll use Beowulf on the Beach as a manual for the reading life, skipping the bits Murnighan advises against and bookmarking the sexy bits... well, I doubt you will - but any lover of literature will delight in a very witty, very intelligent, entirely biased and totally enthusiastic reader sharing those enthusiasms.  A perfect Christmas present for the bibliophile in your life - and a perfect birthday present to me from Colin back in 2010.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Jacob's Room - Virginia Woolf

Recently, over at Vulpes Libris, my friend Kate wrote a post comparing Arnold Bennett's The Card and Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, with a decided lack of reading love for the former.  Well, I had to stand up for our Ginny, so I have written a response today!  Read why I think Jacob's Room is fabs here.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Symposium - Muriel Spark

I really thought I had written about Symposium (1990) by Muriel Spark months ago, when I read it, but a quick search suggests that I, in fact, did not.  And that was foolish on three levels - (a) I've forgotten quite a lot about it, (b) it was a lovely gift from Karen/Kaggsy and thus part of Reading Presently, and (c) it's one of the best Muriel Spark books I've read.

In some ways, it is not simply a collection of people around a table, or a series of events, but a symposium of Sparkian traits and tricks - a pantheon of Sparkisms, characteristically condensed into only 140 pages.  There are (of course) the flashbacks and flashforwards which subvert the typical ways in which authors dispense information, and moments which would be big 'reveals' in most novels are slipped in incidentally.  There are self-important characters who dramatise their lives when nobody is really listening.  The narrative - as always with Spark - is darkly dispassionate, showing things happening without permitting emotion to enter the tone of the narrative, even for a moment.  Selfishness, cruelty, greed, avarice, and foolishness are all present in spades.  And, oh, I loved it.

The first words are definitely dramatic:
"This is rape!" His voice was reaching a pitch it had never reached before and went higher still as he surveyed the wreckage. "This is violation!"It was not rape, it was a robbery.
This is one of the pivotal moments of the narrative, despite appearing on the first page - the narrative weaves back and forth, with Spark's usual disregard for linear structure, with this burglary appearing repeatedly in the timelines of the various characters.  It is Lord and Lady Suzy who have been robbed, but this is not the only robbery which takes place; while the guests assemble at Hurley Reed and Chris Donovan's dinner party, another burglary is taking place...

The dinner party (or, indeed, symposium) is depicted in the present tense, and the conversations swirl snippily in Spark's inimitable style, conversationalists never quite on the same plane as each other, and logic never quite being followed.  And then Spark takes the reader back into the recent history of everyone at the table - and further back still, so that this slim novel encompasses Marxist nuns, a complicated case of possible insanity, and family tensions between a newlywed and his mother.
"I don't give it a year," said Hurley Reed.  He was referring to William Damien's marriage."
You might be able to tell that many of the specifics have now gone from my mind, as I read Symposium months ago, but quotations like the one above reveal why I love Spark so much.  That quirky way of expressing herself, so the reader is constantly being jolted in their expectations, and conventions of narrative being consistently disturbed.  And of all the Spark novels I've read (which is about a dozen, I think) this is probably my second favourite after Loitering With Intent.

Since it is an amalgam of everything that I love about Spark, and representative of so many of her characters and writing quirks, I can't decide whether it would make a brilliant entry-point for sampling Spark, or if it can only truly be appreciated by somebody who has already developed a love for Dame Muriel... maybe the latter; for us Spark appreciators, it is a delightful treat, of her best qualities neatly parcelled up.  Karen - thank you so much!

Others who got Stuck into it:

"What I read this time was a murder mystery but the really brilliant thing about this book is that next time I read it when doubtless [...] I’ll find myself reading a book about love, or obsession, or family, or friendship..." - Hayley, Desperate Reader

"Spark doesn't play to the emotions - I was watching them all from a distance, detached." - An Adventure in Reading

"A perfect little morsel of the macabre set against the backdrop of everyday life." - Polly, Novel Insights

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Come and hear me talk in the Lake District!

Aeons ago I agreed to give a talk - entitled Ladies, Gentlemen and Foxes: The Fantasy Fringe of the Bloomsbury Group - in the Lake District, and the time is rolling around when it will actually be happening.  Indeed, it is Saturday 23rd November at 3pm, and I would love any Cumbrian blog readers to come along and say hello.  If anybody in the area can make it, info and booking is here.  You'll learn all about Virginia Woolf's Orlando and David Garnett's Lady Into Fox and more!

As usual when I sign up for these things, I am getting a bit nervous and terrified lest nobody turns up, so if I know at least one of you is attending, it will ease my nerves a lot...

Tell your friends! ;)

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Cullum - E. Arnot Robertson

I've been meaning to read something by E. Arnot Robertson for years, and as part of Reading Presently I picked up Cullum (1928), which my lovely friend Clare gave to me, it being one of her favourite books.  Being a tale of a young woman's first doomed love affair (we are told in the first line that it is doomed) and featuring my bête noire, fox-hunting, I was a little nervous... but needn't have been.  Cullum is really good - moving, engaging, and - most importantly - witty.  A novel about love and hunting without humour would have been unbearable.

The girl in question - possibly the one looking poignantly to her left on the cover of my Virago Modern Classic - is 19 year old Esther Sieveking, half-English, half-French, and entirely ready for a sexual awakening which will take her beyond her circle in Surrey.

Which of us could fail to empathise with this statement - one which probably brought most of us to the blogosphere in the first place?
I was desperately eager to find a companion who could enter into the intangible world of books and ideas, where I spent half my time.
Esther thinks she might have found a way out when she learns that a poet, one Mrs. Cole, is living nearby... My mean side emerges in my love of fictive character assassinations, particularly those given in measured, well-paced prose.  If it helps, I share four out of five of Mrs. Cole's listed traits:
I learnt in ten minutes that she was a vegetarian, a teetotaller, a non-smoker and an anti-vivisectionist, and that she had innumerable other fads.  She was of the type that should have had many children, instead of only one son and many affectations.
She is a poet.  Nobody likes mocking writers like writers, and here is a demolition of Mrs. Cole's poetry:
I was shown a collection of worn cuttings that had become illegible at the folds through constant handling. They contained sad little pieces of verse which always referred vaguely to 'you' in the last line.  'You' had either jilted her of passed away; it was impossible to tell which, but they were all melancholy and had the most comprehensive titles; 'Life,' dealt with in eight of ten lines; 'Love,' inaptly, being a little longer.
Mrs. Cole isn't herself a very important character, but she does provide the means by which Esther meets Cullum Hayes.  I don't seem to have bookmarked any paragraphs which describe him, but essentially he is perfect for Esther.  Handsome, amusing, and persistent, he speaks romantically when needed and flippantly when needed.  Considering the other potential suitors in her life have, to this point, been of the damp, somewhat pathetic variety, the arrival of Cullum is easily enough to sweep her off her feet, and (seemingly) she him his.  (That ending of that sentence almost makes sense, and was too fun to write to ignore.) (So was the ending of that one.)  And, boy, does it get passionate - particularly for 1928.
Did I want him!  Many times, when I was with him and when I was alone, at nights, I had longed for him, almost faint for a second with the desire for his kisses, which I could only imagine.  Love, feeding on itself, had grown greatly.  Cullum obsessed me; all of me, mind and body.
So why did this not aggravate me, as pontifications on love are apt to do?  It was the humour which surrounded them.  Robertson is very amusing on the travails of working for a rubbish women's magazine if one has any literary pretensions, and also quite biting of the huntin' fraternity (Esther does hunt, but hates the idea of it at the same time.)  Here's a sample which made me smile...
I saw a great deal of him.  He formed a habit of dropping in two or three evenings a week at my boarding-house.  Sometimes we talked, or if I had brought back some work to finish from the office, he read or smoked in the arm-chair in my bedsitting-room, to the thrilled horror of several elderly boarders of both sexes, who were convinced that he was my lover, since he had been allowed into a room which undeniably held my bed, even though it might be disguised as a sofa during the day.  That was conclusive.  The old ladies believed the worst because they secretly hoped it was true; the dear old gentleman because, in the virile period of his youth, it would have been so.
And, of course, Cullum turns out to be a bad'un - a liar and delusional fraud, and repeat offender at that.  I don't know why Robertson chose to reveal that in the opening line - perhaps to avoid the trap of the novel being structured like a romantic penny dreadful? - but it gives Cullum a structure oddly akin to The End of the Affair - except we see the beginning, middle, and end, all the while knowing how it will end.

Having compared Cullum to The End of the Affair, I should point out the difference that tone makes.  The structure and the emotions may have significant overlap, but Cullum - for all its passion and anguish - still felt like a fun, light book with dark moments.  The End of the Affair, on the other hand - even with the comic detective - was a dark book with light moments.  And here ends a spontaneous comparison of two books I doubt anybody has compared before!

Thanks, Clare, for another gem.  I really should immediately read all the books you give me, shouldn't I?

Monday, 11 November 2013

The End of the Affair - #GreeneForGran

Remember in the dim and distant past when Simon S organised a #GreeneForGran reading week, in commemoration of Granny Savidge who prized Graham Greene so highly?  It was keenly taken up by bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers etc., and I was one of the number who joined in, picking up The End of the Affair (1951).  And then my blog break happened, and now it's months late... oops.  But I thought the novel was amazing, so I'm going to write about it now.

And, first, can we talk about how great this Penguin cover is?  It's a 1962 edition, and it is those 1960s Penguin covers, with layering and elements of the surreal, that I love the most.

The End of the Affair is the third Greene novel I've read - you can read my review of Travels With My Aunt, should you so wish, but apparently I never got around to writing about Brighton Rock.  In broad brushstrokes, they were funny and violent respectively.  I loved the former, and didn't enjoy the latter.  Well, The End of the Affair is neither funny nor violent, but I am ready to state (even without having read almost everything Greene wrote) that it is his masterpiece.  I don't see how he could have done better - at least not in the line which the novel takes, which is melancholia. Except it's altogether too British for that word, which conjures up images of dreary French novels like Sagan's Sunlight on Cold Water; despondence is perhaps a better description.

The novel concerns, as you might have guessed, a love affair.  Maurice Bendrix is the narrator, and his affair was with the wife of a friend, Sarah Miles (based, apparently, on the woman Greene himself had an affair with.)  The title suggests that the novel documents the end of this affair, but, as Bendrix says towards the end:
If I were writing a novel I would end it here: a novel, I used to think, has to end somewhere, but I'm beginning to believe my realism has been at fault all these years, for nothing in life now ever seems to end.
I usually hate it when novels include the 'If I were writing a novel' gimmick, but I'll forgive Greene this instance because it raises a useful point - The End of the Affair does not document the end of an affair, but rather the aftermath of an affair - and, in flashbacks, the affair itself.  There is no clean break; there is uncertainty and longing and Sarah continues to dominate Maurice's mind throughout.  Sarah's husband Henry asks Maurice whether he thinks Sarah is having an affair (at this point Maurice's affair is over); in response, Maurice hires a private detective to follow her, and report back.  He is driven, of course, by possessive jealousy - but there is little rage and bluster in him; he is no Othello.  Instead, he is simply unhappy.
The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness.  In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other.  But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.
Books about lovers usually bore me to tears, as do books about unhappiness, perhaps because both have been written about so very often that it is difficult to write anything original, but Greene's prose is quite astoundingly good.  Par example...
She had often disconcerted me by the truth.  In the days when we were in love, I would try to get her to say more than the truth - that our affair would never end, that one day we should marry.  I wouldn't have believed her, but I would have liked to hear the words on her tongue, perhaps only to give me the satisfaction of rejecting them myself.  But she never played that game of make-believe, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, she would shatter my reserve with a statement of such sweetness and amplitude... I remember once when I was miserable at her calm assumption that one day our relations would be over, hearing with incredulous happiness, "I have never, never loved a man as I love you, and I never shall again."  Well, she hadn't known it, I thought, but she too played the same game of make-believe.
Every page of The End of the Affair was written exquisitely, which meant it couldn't be a quick read - and, similarly, its depiction of despondence was too well done to make for easy reading.  Somehow unhappiness is woven into every word, and the tone is heavy-laden but realistic.  No histrionics or wailing, simply stating, recording, responding.

And yet, in the midst of this, is a fantastic comic character - in the shape of the hired private detective, Alfred Parkis.  The End of the Affair contains one of the most wonderful detectives I've encountered in fiction, and had Greene chosen to take that route, I could envisage a fantastic series of novels featuring Parkis (note to self: craft a spin-off series).  He is delightfully dim, and a curious mixture of eager, officious, and melancholic.  It is a dark comedy, because he is continually afraid of looking foolish in front of 'his boy', who trails around silently after him at all times - and invariably he does look foolish.  But he is also a very sympathetic character, and I would have loved more of him in the novel.

I am aware that I am one of the last to the party on this one, and that I'm hardly uncovering a forgotten classic, but I was bowled over by how tautly good The End of the Affair was.  The blurb to my copy says that it is 'distinct from any other major novel by Graham Greene', which is a curious way of phrasing things and gives me hope that perhaps some of his minor novels (whichever they might be) run along similar lines?  I'll certainly try more Greene, waiting to see what else he can do - and will metaphorically raise a glass, or literally raise a book, to Granny Savidge when I do so.

Others who got Stuck into it:

"[It] is a dark, intense little gem of a novel, as wintry and stark as the post-war January landscape in which it takes place" - Victoria, Tales From the Reading Room

"This is an incredibly moving story that brims with pathos and anger throughout." - Kim, Reading Matters

"Greene is often bleak but not often this bleak." - Catherine, Juxtabook

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Gosh, it's been a while since I did one of these, so I have quite a few things to catch you up on!  Here are just ten of them...

1.) Angela Young's brilliant novel Speaking of Love is now available as an e-book for Kindle (etc.? I don't know how these things work.)  You can see/buy it here, and it's only £1.99, which is crazy cheap for such a good book.  Go give it a try!

2.) National flags created by the foods the countries are associated with!

3.) Daunt Books recently sent me a beautiful new edition of Virginia Woolf's The London Scene.  I reviewed this collection of stories back in 2007, and highly recommend this really lovely edition - maybe as a Christmas present?

4.) Jura Whisky are running some flash fiction competitions #WinningWords - more info here.

5.)  If you haven't see Blue Jasmine and get the chance, do.  It's the best film I've seen this year, and Cate Blanchett is astonishingly good.

6.) Jennifer Walker has written a biography of bloggers'-favourite Elizabeth von Arnim (called Elizabeth of the German Garden: A Literary Journey) - I've not started it yet, but I'm excited about reading it.

7.) An interesting book bloggers' survey (to which I contributed) has results here (four results posts linked from that link).  I was mostly surprised by what a high percentage of bloggers are paid to write reviews for publications or other sites.

8.) I loved Susan Sellers' Vanessa and Virginia (review here) and thought that you might like to know that she has a new book out - Given The Choice - published by Cillian Press.

9.) I'm ashamed to say I hadn't heard of Elie Wiesel, whom the good people of Souvenir Press assure me is one of the best-known European writers, but I shall find out more with The Testament (trans. Marion Wiesel) which they've sent me.

10.) Someone sent me's 100 Best Books of 2013.  I have heard of 4 of them, and read none.  I do quite want to read three of those four - the Tartt, Rowling, and Humans of New York.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Perfect Hostess (short fiction)

A little while ago I put some short fiction up here - Oranges - and people said nice things, so I thought I'd do it again!  It's a bit different this time... Picture again irrelevant; I just don't like putting up posts without pictures...

"Oh, did you get a moment's sleep?"

I answered that I had slept perfectly well, thank you.

"Oh, but you look shattered.  I'd be surprised if you did as much as close your eyes.  The spare bedroom is terribly uncomfortable, I'm afraid - especially for a man, I always think."

I didn't try to work out her reasoning; instead, I said again that my night's sleep had been all I could have wished, and we spent another moment or two politely disagreeing with each other on the matter.  She obviously believed herself to be the perfect hostess, and would have been shocked to find that anybody thought anything else.

"Here's a nice cup of coffee, that will help.  Unless you'd prefer tea?"

As she was holding the coffee towards me, I could hardly do anything other than take it and drink, but luckily it was exactly what I wanted.  Although the bed had been comfortable ("like sleeping on broken glass, I know") and the room an entirely ordinary temperature ("it blows gales through that room, you don't have to tell me - or otherwise it's a perfect oven") I hadn't slept quite as well as I made out.

"And what would you like breakfast?  There's only one egg, but I could pop out and get some more?  Nothing would be easier."

She started towards to the door, and I quickly intervened.  Of course I was quite happy without eggs.  I didn't normally have anything except coffee for breakfast as it was.

"Nonsense!  I don't want people saying that I've neglected you."

I was a bit startled.  Why would anybody say that?  Who would say that?  I couldn't imagine anybody considering me to be the victim of neglect, especially when I'd had to throw away four pairs of trousers while packing yesterday, as they'd all been noticeably too tight.

"Just a spot of toast, then.  You remember where the plates are, of course?"

Of course, I did.  I hoped fervently that she'd sit down, or - better yet - leave the room completely, and let me eat my undesired toast alone. But she simply stood in the middle of the room, perhaps uncertain how to act, despite the stream of words.  And yet, when she spoke, it was with the confidence of an actress who has thoroughly memorised her part.

"I'm going to get everything sorted today.  Well, as best as I can.  (I'm afraid the jam isn't homemade, but I believe it isn't actually inedible.  But, please, do say if it is.)  If I have any questions, would it be too much of an inconvenience to phone you?"

I wished that she would say a sentence precisely the way she thought it, without any of the trappings of etiquette and show.  Everything would be so much simpler.  I chewed the toast and jam (certainly edible - pleasant, even) and said as little as I could without seeming terse.  When she was quiet for a few moments, I looked up; she was staring at my hand.  After a second, she recovered.

"Look!  It's quarter past eight.  You have to leave at quarter past eight, don't you?"  She picked up my plate and took it towards the sink, but stopped after a step.  "Unless you'd like anything else - ?"

No, no, I did indeed have to go to work now.  The office had never seemed so inviting.  As I did up my shoelaces and put on my coat, she fussed around me, asking whether I'd like an apple, or to borrow an umbrella, and (not, apparently, one to leave a point unlaboured) apologised again for the bed in the spare room.  Her voice followed me down the short path to the pavement.  "And - if I may - I'll speak to you soon.  I do so hope it doesn't rain today."

I got into my car feeling more or less how Dorothy must have felt upon landing in Oz.

To think - that, until yesterday, this woman had been my wife.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Happy birthday me!

This is the real-life-birthday, rather than the blog birthday - and although today will be quite quiet, I spent the past couple of days in Bristol seeing Colin (cos it's his birthday too!) and my ex-housemate and joint-bestie Mel.  And because everyone should have a birthday cake at least near their birthday, I took one to Colin.  It looked a little the worse for wear after a train journey and wandering around Bristol for ages, but this is what it looked like initially...

Despite having made hundreds of cakes, I've never really decorated one.  This does look like a child made it, but I was pretty pleased for a first attempt with fondant icing etc.!

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Mr. Tibbits's Catholic School - Ysenda Maxtone Graham

A quick post letting you know that I've been blogging over at Vulpes Libris again (I'll keep alerting you to my posts there, as they will often be of a similar variety to my posts here) - this time a review of the fantastic Mr. Tibbits's Catholic School by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, published by the ever-wonderful Slightly Foxed.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Floater - Calvin Trillin

One of the books I bought when I was in Washington DC, and read immediately within one day, was the unfortunately-named Floater (1980) by Calvin Trillin.  I didn't realise when I picked it up, but it's about journalists living in Washington DC - extremely apt, since I was staying with journalists living in Washington DC.

So, what is a floater, I hear you ask?  The floater in question is Fred Becker, and the title means that he has no permanent position in the office of the national newsmagazine for which he works, but moves from section to section, filling in for holiday, illness, or whatever.  Becker steadfastly resists any attempts to tie him down to a single section, preferring the peripatetic life, even if it leaves him jack of all trades and master of none...
As a back-of-the-book floater, he had accumulated a store of knowledge on all sorts of subjects - a knowledge of millenarian sects from his bondage in Religion, familiarity with the workings of hot-air balloons from a summer week in Sports, more than he wanted to know about New Math from a period spent in Education when Milt Silvers went to the hospital with an alligator bite.  One of the problems with a floater's knowledge, though, was its spottiness.  He knew a lot about millenarian sects, but he had no idea what, say, Methodists believe.  From several weeks in the Business section at one time or another, he happened to have learned a lot about Asian currency manipulation and the speculative market in bull semen, but he wouldn't have had the first notion about how to go about obtaining a mortgage.  He knew practically nothing about French impressionism, but he could have delivered an after-dinner speech on the work of one abstract expressionist who happened to die when the regular Art writer was on vacation.
Lovely!  Trillin has a way with words which I love, never quite tipping over into ba-dum-crash joke territory, but with a light absurdity which is just the sort of thing I love.  Take, for example, the incident where Becker tries to get off the Religion page by writing 'allegedly' after everything mentioned - 'the alleged birth of Christ', for instance.  And then there is the Lifestyles piece on '2/3 stockings'.  Becker can find nobody who has a clue what this means, but plenty of people willing to pretend.  Floater reminded me a lot of Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, which is no bad thing, but without nearly Waugh's level of meanness.  Like Tepper Isn't Going Out, this novel (which was Trillin's first) is often about the stupidity and irrationality of the workplace, but never with the menace of Magnus Mills or the dark claustrophobia of Kafka - rather, again like Tepper, there is an amiability about it all.

That, I think, is the novel's main achievement: the amiability of Becker.  There is a managing editor who isn't pleasant, and an officious staff member desperate to be offended by everything that is said, but ultimately everybody is a little bit selfish but essentially amiable.  I'm using that word again, because it is the one which fits best - the characters are not good, except in the way that a sort of weary inertia prevents anybody doing anything outright bad.  But to make a character as unwittingly charming as Becker is an impressive feat, one replicated two decades later in Tepper.  One of my favourite characters - or, rather, my favourite lampoon - is Silvers.  He is that self-conscious eccentric we all know (particularly in Oxford); the sort of person who describes themselves as 'a bit mad', and makes sure they are surrounded by props to back it up.
"The deal on the London taxi is closed," Silvers said.  "Of course, you should have heard my insurance man's voice when I called to switch the insurance over from the John Deere tractor.  He thinks I'm a little unusual."
Becker had never figured out how to reply to Silvers in a way that did not provoke more stories.  Usually, he just stood there nodding dumbly while using the Thai's concentration methods or glancing around for escape routes.
"One of the great advantages of a London taxi, of course, is that if you happen to have a unicycle, which I just happen to have, the unicycle will fit snugly in the luggage area right next to the driver.  Of course, when your average New York traffic cop sees a London taxi drive by with a unicycle right..."
Becker briefly considered pretending to have a heart attack.
There is a narrative threaded through it all, concerning rumours about the President's wife, with all manner of intrigue, plot, and counter-plot, but (although rather satisfying when it all comes together) it is largely incidental to Floater, which is primarily successful because of the creation of Becker and the tone Trillin achieves.

I've only found one other blog review - Teresa's - and she wasn't a huge fan, so there's fair warning.  I found it a quick, wryly amusing, delight; a send-up of an environment for which Trillin obviously feels a great deal of affection.

Monday, 4 November 2013

My Life in Books: Redux

Thanks everyone, this has been a really fun week!  I hope you've enjoyed yourselves, and thanks again to the fourteen wonderful bloggers who agreed to participate in series four.  There will be another series at some point next year - I already have some people in mind, but I'll also be asking for suggestions in a few months' time.

If you're relatively new to Stuck-in-a-Book, or came for the first time this week, (welcome and) you might have missed some of the previous series - and I'm pretty sure you'll want to catch up on the other 44 bloggers and blog-readers who have participated before.  Yes, 58 people have taken part in My Life in Books since it began here!  How lovely.  The full list is below...

Series One

Karen and Susan's Life in Books
Lyn and Our Vicar's Wife/Anne's Life in Books
Lisa and Victoria's Life in Books
Darlene and Our Vicar/Peter's Life in Books
Annabel  and Thomas's Life in Books
David and Elaine's Life in Books
Harriet and Nancy's  Life in Books

Series Two

Rachel and Teresa's Life in Books
Claire and Colin's Life in Books
Hayley and Karyn's Life in Books
Jenny and Kim's Life in Books 
Danielle and Sakura's Life in Books
Claire B and Nymeth/Ana's Life in Books
Gav and Polly's Life in Books
Eva and Simon S's Life in Books

Series Three

Jackie and John's Life in Books
Iris and Verity's Life in Books
Tanya and Margaret's Life in Books
Stu and Florence's Life in Books
Lisa and Jane's Life in Books
Laura and Jodie's Life in Books
Frances and David's Life in Books

Series Four

Pam and Peter's Life in Books
Barbara and Lisa's Life in Books
Vicki and Sasha's Life in Books
Alison and Mystica's Life in Books
My and Christine's Life in Books
Alex and Liz's Life in Books
Erica and Karen's Life in Books

Sunday, 3 November 2013

My Life in Books: Series Four: Day Seven

Erica, as well as running the blog Reading 1900-1945, has written a book about Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth von Arnim and is my frequent conference buddy!

Karen blogs at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings, and it was as 'Kaggsy' that I first met her (I believe) in a LibraryThing group which celebrates Virago Modern Classics.

Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.

Erica: I did grow up in a book-loving household, and I think my parents must have read to me, but I don’t remember it! I think I must have learned to read at quite a young age; I can remember early on at primary school there being a book sale and being very excited about it. I chose a bumper Mr Man book that I think I still have somewhere with my name in the front and various scrawls.

I remember being a wide-ranging and omnivorous reader, and taking pride and comfort in my own bookcase filled with books in my bedroom, and finding various small spaces to become book-reading dens. I remember that I read Alice Adventures in Wonderland at the age of seven and became deeply attached to it despite not understanding most of it! What were these ‘conversations’ that Alice couldn’t find in her sister’s book? Not a clue. But, importantly, this didn’t seem to matter at all. So much of the pleasure of Alice is in the sounds of the words, and I think those that I didn’t understand were still enjoyable (and many of them are, of course, made up by Carroll). I find the conventional wisdom that children’s books must not contain vocabulary considered to be beyond the level of the readership rather frustrating. How else do you learn new words?

Through the Looking-Glass always had a different feeling to me than Alice; somehow it was more resonant, and more disturbing. I imagined myself going through the mist of the looking-glass into that world which seemed rather nightmarish to me.

KarenYes I did - both parents were always readers: my dad liked factual books (Chariots of the Gods and the like when I was growing up) plus thrillers and sci fi, whereas my mum reads more traditional 'women's books' (Santa Montefiore being her current favourite). They always read to me from an early age - in fact, my parents tell me that they thought I had learned to read particularly early as a young child, until they realised that I had simply memorised the stories and was reciting them back to people and pretending to read!

It's hard to pick out just one book that I loved from my childhood as I tended to read in series - Enid Blyton's Malory Towers, 'Mystery' and Five Find-Outers were particular favourites, and once I started to get pocket money, it would go on a new Enid every week. I was also keen on the Narnia books though I came to them a little later. Trying to pick out one, I keep oddly enough coming back to a book I kept getting out of our local library (and I can still visualise the inside of the building where I would get it checked out) - Dr. Seuss's I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. It was the strange, surreal, alien imagery that appealed to me, so unlike my real life - I guess books have always been something of an escape for me!

Qu. 2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed? What was going on in your life at this point?

Erica: I continued to read books I didn’t understand - I remember my Mum not having any children’s books in the house when I was visiting one weekend (complicated family) and giving me Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. At the age of 10 or so I really couldn’t see what was funny about it! (But I soldiered on, as you do, and read all the works of Austen without understanding much by the age of 14.)

One of the first adult books I really enjoyed was Wuthering Heights, an A level set text. But unfortunately, and surprisingly given my current profession, I hated being made to analyse it - or ‘pick it apart’ as I considered it then. I wanted to be transported, to enjoy that narrative hypnosis which I thought was the point of novels. In retrospect this may be related to the fact my life was difficult at this point - more family breakdown - but I also suspect that 16 year old girls are suckers for a doomed love story and do not wish to made to relinquish that surrendered reading!

I did not do an English degree because I thought it would ruin reading for me!

Karen: Again, this is really hard to pick out just one, but I guess I would plump for The Hobbit. Some relatives heard that I loved the Narnia books (I would probably have been about 11 or so) and sent a copy of The Hobbit which both me and my dad devoured, and then followed up by raiding the library for the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy and reading the lot. After that I really never looked back - I borrowed my mum's romances (Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart etc al) and the Agatha Christies that were lying around the house, plus other crime authors like Ed McBain, and then followed this up by discovering Solzhenitsyn and the Russians when we studied the Russian Revolution at school. I was a fairly troubled teenager, as my favourite grandmother died when I was 11 and it took me a long time to deal with it - like I said, books were an escape, my coping mechanism.

Qu. 3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s or early 30s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life.

Erica: Of all the books I read in my 20s, there is a clear winner for the one that changed my life. My post-degree working life was all about books, at different stages in their production. First I worked at Waterstone’s, then in marketing at a publisher, then in editorial. My work was pretty routine and unchallenging, and I was wondering what to do next when I saw an advert for a part-time MA called ‘Women, Gender and Writing’ at Roehampton University. I absolutely loved my MA. It was truly like a door opening. It showed me a way of thinking about books that stimulated and inspired me, and I felt that I had finally found my bookish world. After those years of resisting analysis I now loved thinking in a critical, informed way.

The book that changed my life was A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor (1951). We had a seminar with the brilliant Nicola Humble who explained that this novel, and others like it were regarded as ‘middlebrow’ and as light, comforting reads for women, bless their feather-brained heads.

I couldn’t believe it. The novel I had read was funny, yes, but also incisive, acute and downright cruel in its dissection of the disappointments of life. A Game of Hide and Seek tells the story of Harriet and Vesey. As the novel begins they are eighteen and in love. At the end of the summer they will part, Harriet will marry someone else, and they will not enter each other’s lives again for another twenty years. Harriet and Vesey never protest and declare their love, yet it is omnipresent, and entirely credible. I thought it was one of the best novels I had ever read, and so well-written it almost hurt.

It formed part of my MA dissertation, which I called ‘The Reassurance of Cruelty’ - for the only reassurance I could see in it was that Taylor was saying yes, domestic life is as difficult and cruel as you thought. A reality is reflected back: yes, life is like that. A Game of Hide and Seek, my sense of outrage that it wasn’t recognised for the exceptional novel I considered it, and trying to understand why that was, started me on the road to an academic career.

Karen: Well, my early 20s were a pivotal time with my reading - this was when I discovered so many of the writers whose work I still love and return to. So that makes it really difficult to pick a favourite. But I think I will go for a slightly unlikely book, Literary Women by Ellen Moers. It was published by The Women's Press and I was a recent convert to feminism at the time, having recently discovered Virago too. Literary Women was a revelation, opening my eyes to an amazing amount of women writers I'd never heard of, let alone read. I finished up with a huge list of authors I wanted to discover which led me onto another pivotal book, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I'd never read anything like it and it set me off on a whole new lifetime of reading, mainly because I was no longer intimidated by literature, and felt I could read anything I wanted to, from de Beavoir, Sartre, Camus et al to Italo Calvino (whose "If on a winter's night a traveler" almost got picked here as it caused me a major obsession with the author which still continues to this day!)

Qu. 4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two, and how has blogging changed your reading habits?

Erica: I started blogging as part of my work on the collection of popular fiction published between 1900 and 1950 at Sheffield Hallam University. I don’t think I would have started a personal blog, but I’ve found I love being part of the conversation about books that happens in blogs.

Blogging has definitely changed my reading habits, because the reviews are of books in the collection. I very rarely find time to read books that fall outside this 1900-1950 time period. Now, hang on… this is just the same as when I was writing my PhD! I better face it. Contemporary fiction is a bit of a closed book to me. (Actually I did just read Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate (2013), borrowed from my Mum. It was HORRIBLE. I am mentally scarred. There was a clue in that it is publisher by Hammer, of Hammer horror fame, but I didn’t clock that….)

One of my favourite books of the last few years is Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (2011). I read it on a long train journey and I snorted and wept with laughter for several happy hours. So much of what she said resonated with me, and she said it all so well. A good rant is an underappreciated genre! And it is part of the splendid resurgence of feminism in recent years.

Karen: I've been blogging for a year now, and really enjoyed it - and probably discovered a lot books because of it! I enjoyed so much reading other blogs and the pleasure it gave me that I wanted to get involved and give something back. I really enjoy interacting with other bloggers and being part of a community, particularly as I don't actually know many people in real life that read the same sort of thing as I do! Blogging *has* changed my reading habits, for the better I think - I read more thoroughly and analytically now, and think much more about what I've read because I have to try and communicate what I feel about the book to any readers!

A favourite book? Again, it seems cruel to only pick one - but Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita stands out as having totally engrossed me and changed the way I look at things a lot - I see the absurd everywhere nowadays! But I think honourable mentions should go to the wonderful Persephone Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day which I couldn't put down and had me grinning from ear to ear; and Miss Hargreaves, which I heard about from your blog and really must read again!

Qu. 5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people!

Erica: My not-guilty-at-all pleasure is to read Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics. For my birthday and at Christmas my Dad is instructed to buy me the latest volume - for my birthday just gone it was Series 9, volume 2 - thank you Dad! I love the humour, insight and feminist sensibility of Buffy, and the visual experience of reading a comic, probably because it is so different from what I usually read. I also think it is important to have some reading for which you will NEVER take notes. I guess it is back to the ‘surrendered reading’ of my childhood.

Karen: Cookbooks! I have a weakness for reading them and have three shelves in my kitchen.... It probably stems from when I went vegetarian when I was 18 and had to read up on it a bit - this was a *loooong* time ago without all the veggie conveniences we have now. Some of my oldest are from the 1970s and though I probably wouldn't cook much from the older books, they read almost like a kind of social history - it's amazing how our culinary habits have changed!!

And... I've told you the other person's choices, anonymously. What do you think these choices say about their reader?

Karen, on Erica's choices: Well, the first thing that springs to mind here is that this person obviously likes reading about feisty heroines - starting with Alice and ending with Buffy, both of whom are strong and individual, though in different ways. Alice is contrary from the point she runs off after the White Rabbit to her defiance of the Court and is definitely a good role model for young people! And Buffy is a character who takes no nonsense either.

This reader also seems to have a taste for the dramatic and passionate, as Wuthering Heights is certainly that, and also features another feisty woman in the form of Cathy, refusing to let death get in the way of her love. Although A Game of Hide and Seek might seem like a quieter proposition, it also features a heroine who marries for money, not love, but never stops caring for the man in her heart, so both of these books show a reader who likes to examine the motivations of people's passions.

As for Caitlin Moran - well, there's another feisty one! She's pithy and funny and so although this reader isn't necessarily female (plenty of men I know like spiky, in control females!), he/she certainly has a fondness for dominant women - I could foresee interesting time spent in their company discussing books!

Erica on Karen's choices: Oh, I might know who this is! Is it Karen, from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings? It is the Bulgakov that makes me think this, but then by Googling I have just found out that there is a whole website devoted to The Master and Margarita alone, so there are many fans out there. This person sounds very well-rounded, with tastes that range from Dr Seuss (who I love too – his Sleep Book was a favourite as a child) through to Tolkein (who I think of as peculiarly male – is it the questing?) to Literary Women and cookery books. There’s a strong thread of fantasy (and in The Master and Margarita it sounds a very dark fantasy), and then the cookery books bring this reader back into the material world. I had to look up Ellen Moers’ book as I’m ashamed to say I have not read this ground-breaking book – I will be looking it up in the library. I too like reading cookery books for relaxation – and for planning all the lovely things I am going to cook and eat, of course!