Saturday, 31 May 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you're enjoying a fun weekend, folks - I spent Friday evening at a murder mystery party. I'd written it, in fact, and it's always fun to see the characters come alive before you - even if I had to give a few sotto voce instructions to make sure people said or did the right things.  Nobody guessed the murderer, but there were a few "Ohhhh!"s during the reveal, which I think is a good combination.  I spent most of the time on the method, and had more trouble with the motive... thanks to friends, colleagues, and family who were called upon to provide plausible reasons for killing. (Disturbing sentence...) Let's move on quickly to some weekend miscellany fun...

1.) If you like literature and music, chances are you'll like Literary Music, run by a friend of a friend. To quote their webpage, 'Literary Music is an inspirational group of young professional Classical musicians performing programmes inspired by the lives and works of some of our best loved authors.'

2.) Speaking about friends of friends, my colleague and friend Debbie showed me a copy of her sister's book the other day, and I thought I'd help spread the word. It's called The Case of the Exploding Loo - so I'm thinking children or grandchildren might be the market, rather than usual SIAB readers! The author is Rachel Hamilton, and you can read more about the book on Book Walrus, the children's book review site the sisters run.

3.) I don't I ever mentioned going to hear Thomas Teal and Ali Smith talk about Tove Jansson at the Royal Society of Literature a week or two ago. Well, it was wonderful! You probably know how much I love Jansson, and it was a pleasure to be in a room with people who love and know her work - and, in the case of Tom Teal, someone who has also spent a few days staying with Tove and her partner on their island. He had slides to show, and stories to tell, and it was wonderful! I also loved hearing about how Teal discovered Jansson, and how Smith discovered Jansson, and how the wonderful people at Sort Of Books commissioned Teal to keep translating Jansson's work. I could happily have listened for twice as long (despite the room being swelteringly hot!)  AND I've got a review copy of Jansson's newly-translated first short story collection, The Listener, which I'll be diving into if my Reader's Block ever disappears. Otherwise... back to Agatha today.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

ANZ Literature Month: Katherine Mansfield

Image source
I really did mean to read some Janet Frame for Kim's ANZ Literature Month, but for the past two or so weeks I've had reader's block, and have only been able to get through Agatha Christie novels.  But I don't want to ignore the month, particularly now that New Zealand authors have been included - which gives me a good excuse to read something by one of my favourite writers: Katherine Mansfield.

I picked a story at random, from the four 1920s hardbacks of her stories which I bought in 2004 and which I make sure are always on my shelves in Oxford. The story I chose was 'Psychology' (1920), which is quintessential Mansfield. That is to say, it's about the quiet magnitude of a seemingly insignificant moment - about things unsaid and thoughts unwelcomed. She is expert at being somehow giving objective narrative and subjective emotion at the same time, and creating a many-layered scene. She is quite simply the best short story writer I've ever read, and astonishingly good with words. Since she's long out of copyright, here is 'Psychology'... (and I wholeheartedly recommend anything in her collections The Garden Party and Bliss, particularly the title stories of both. The Garden Party is even free on Kindle.)


WHEN she opened the door and saw him standing there she was more pleased than ever before, and he, too, as he followed her into the studio, seemed very very happy to have come.
"Not busy?"
"No. Just going to have tea."
"And you are not expecting anybody?"
"Nobody at all."
"Ah! That's good."
He laid aside his coat and hat gently, lingeringly, as though he had time and to spare for everything, or as though he were taking leave of them for ever, and came over to the fire and held out his hands to the quick, leaping flame.
Just for a moment both of them stood silent in that leaping light. Still, as it were, they tasted on their smiling lips the sweet shock of their greeting. Their secret selves whispered:
"Why should we speak? Isn't this enough?"
"More than enough. I never realized until this moment . . . "
"How good it is just to be with you. . . . "
"Like this. . . . "
"It's more than enough."
But suddenly he turned and looked at her and she moved quickly away.
"Have a cigarette? I'll put the kettle on. Are you longing for tea?"
"No. Not longing."
"Well, I am."
"Oh, you." He thumped the Armenian cushion and flung on to the sommier. "You're a perfect little Chinee."
"Yes, I am," she laughed. "I long for tea as strong men long for wine."
She lighted the lamp under its broad orange shade, pulled the curtains, and drew up the tea table. Two birds sang in the kettle; the fire fluttered. He sat up clasping his knees. It was delightful–this business of having tea–and she always had delicious things to eat–little sharp sandwiches, short sweet almond fingers, and a dark, rich cake tasting of rum–but it was an interruption. He wanted it over, the table pushed away, their two chairs drawn up to the light, and the moment came when he took out his pipe, filled it, and said, pressing the tobacco tight into the bowl: "I have been thinking over what you said last time and it seems to me. . . . "
Yes, that was what he waited for and so did she. Yes, while she shook the teapot hot and dry over the spirit flame she saw those other two, him, leaning back, taking his ease among the cushions, and her, curled up en escargot in the blue shell arm-chair. The picture was so clear and so minute it might have been painted on the blue teapot lid. And yet she couldn't hurry. She could almost have cried: "Give me time." She must have time in which to grow calm. She wanted time in which to free herself from all these familiar things with which she lived so vividly. For all these gay things round her were part of her–her offspring–and they knew it and made the largest, most vehement claims. But now they must go. They must be swept away, shooed away–like children, sent up the shadowy stairs, packed into bed, and commanded to go to sleep–at once–without a murmur!
For the special thrilling quality of their friendship was in their complete surrender. Like two open cities in the midst of some vast plain their two minds lay open to each other. And it wasn't as if he rode into hers like a conqueror, armed to the eyebrows and seeing nothing but a gay silken flutter–nor did she enter his like a queen walking soft on petals. No, they were eager, serious travellers, absorbed in understanding what was to be seen and discovering what was hidden–making the most of this extraordinary absolute chance which made it possible for him to be utterly truthful to her and for her to be utterly sincere with him.
And the best of it was they were both of them old enough to enjoy their adventure to the full without any stupid emotional complication. Passion would have ruined everything; they quite saw that. Besides, all that sort of thing was over and done with for both of them–he was thirty-one, she was thirty–they had had their experiences, and very rich and varied they had been, but now was the time for harvest–harvest. Weren't his novels to be very big novels indeed? And her plays. Who else had her exquisite sense of real English Comedy? . . .
Carefully she cut the cake into thick little wads and he reached across for a piece.
"Do you realize how good it is," she implored. "Eat it imaginatively. Roll your eyes if you can and taste it on the breath. It's not a sandwich from the hatter's bag–it's the kind of cake that might have been mentioned in the Book of Genesis. . . . And God said: 'Let there be cake. And there was cake. And God saw that it was good.'"
"You needn't entreat me," said he. "Really you needn't. It's a queer thing but I always do notice what I eat here and never anywhere else. I suppose it comes of living alone so long and always reading while I feed . . . my habit of looking upon food as just food . . . something that's there, at certain times . . . to be devoured . . . to be . . . not there." He laughed. "That shocks you. Doesn't it?"
"To the bone," said she.
"But–look here–" He pushed away his cup and began to speak very fast. "I simply haven't got any external life at all. I don't know the names of things a bit–trees and so on–and I never notice places or furniture or what people look like. One room is just like another to me–a place to sit and read or talk in–except," and here he paused, smiled in a strange naive way, and said, "except this studio." He looked round him and then at her; he laughed in his astonishment and pleasure. He was like a man who wakes up in a train to find that he has arrived, already, at the journey's end.
"Here's another queer thing. If I shut my eyes I can see this place down to every detail–every detail. . . . Now I come to think of it–I've never realized this consciously before. Often when I am away from here I revisit it in spirit– wander about among your red chairs, stare at the bowl of fruit on the black table–and just touch, very lightly, that marvel of a sleeping boy's head."
He looked at it as he spoke. It stood on the corner of the mantelpiece; the head to one side down-drooping, the lips parted, as though in his sleep the little boy listened to some sweet sound. . . .
"I love that little boy," he murmured. And then they both were silent.
A new silence came between them. Nothing in the least like the satisfactory pause that had followed their greetings– the "Well, here we are together again, and there's no reason why we shouldn't go on from just where we left off last time." That silence could be contained in the circle of warm, delightful fire and lamplight. How many times hadn't they flung something into it just for the fun of watching the ripples break on the easy shores. But into this unfamiliar pool the head of the little boy sleeping his timeless sleep dropped–and the ripples flowed away, away–boundlessly far–into deep glittering darkness.
And then both of them broke it. She said: "I must make up the fire," and he said: "I have been trying a new . . . " Both of them escaped. She made up the fire and put the table back, the blue chair was wheeled forward, she curled up and he lay back among the cushions. Quickly! Quickly! They must stop it from happening again.
"Well, I read the book you left last time."
"Oh, what do you think of it?"
They were off and all was as usual. But was it? Weren't they just a little too quick, too prompt with their replies, too ready to take each other up? Was this really anything more than a wonderfully good imitation of other occasions? His heart beat; her cheek burned and the stupid thing was she could not discover where exactly they were or what exactly was happening. She hadn't time to glance back. And just as she had got so far it happened again. They faltered, wavered, broke down, were silent. Again they were conscious of the boundless, questioning dark. Again, there they were–two hunters, bending over their fire, but hearing suddenly from the jungle beyond a shake of wind and a loud, questioning cry . . . .
She lifted her head. "It's raining," she murmured. And her voice was like his when he had said: "I love that little boy."
Well. Why didn't they just give way to it–yield–and see what will happen then? But no. Vague and troubled though they were, they knew enough to realize their precious friendship was in danger. She was the one who would be destroyed–not they–and they'd be no party to that.
He got up, knocked out his pipe, ran his hand through his hair, and said: "I have been wondering very much lately whether the novel of the future will be a psychological novel or not. How sure are you that psychology quapsychology has got anything to do with literature at all?"
"Do you mean you feel there's quite a chance that the mysterious non-existent creatures–the young writers of to-day–are trying simply to jump the psycho-analyst's claim?"
"Yes, I do. And I think it's because this generation is just wise enough to know that it is sick and to realize that its only chance of recovery is by going into its symptoms–making an exhaustive study of them–tracking them down–trying to get at the root of the trouble."
"But oh," she wailed. "What a dreadfully dismal outlook."
"Not at all," said he. "Look here . . . " On the talk went. And now it seemed they really had succeeded. She turned in her chair to look at him while she answered. Her smile said: "We have won." And he smiled back, confident: "Absolutely."
But the smile undid them. It lasted too long; it became a grin. They saw themselves as two little grinning puppets jigging away in nothingness.
"What have we been talking about?" thought he. He was so utterly bored he almost groaned.
"What a spectacle we have made of ourselves," thought she. And she saw him laboriously–oh, laboriously–laying out the grounds and herself running after, puffing here a tree and there a flowery shrub and here a handful of glittering fish in a pool. They were silent this time from sheer dismay.
The clock struck six merry little pings and the fire made a soft flutter. What fools they were–heavy, stodgy, elderly–with positively upholstered minds.
And now the silence put a spell upon them like solemn music. It was anguish–anguish for her to bear it and he would die–he'd die if it were broken. . . . And yet he longed to break it. Not by speech. At any rate not by their ordinary maddening chatter. There was another way for them to speak to each other, and in the new way he wanted to murmur: "Do you feel this too? Do you understand it at all?" . . .
Instead, to his horror, he heard himself say: "I must be off; I'm meeting Brand at six."
What devil made him say that instead of the other? She jumped–simply jumped out of her chair, and he heard her crying: "You must rush, then. He's so punctual. Why didn't you say so before?"
"You've hurt me; you've hurt me! We've failed!" said her secret self while she handed him his hat and stick, smiling gaily. She wouldn't give him a moment for another word, but ran along the passage and opened the big outer door.
Could they leave each other like this? How could they? He stood on the step and she just inside holding the door. It was not raining now.
"You've hurt me–hurt me," said her heart. "Why don't you go? No, don't go. Stay. No–go!" And she looked out upon the night.
She saw the beautiful fall of the steps, the dark garden ringed with glittering ivy, on the other side of the road the huge bare willows and above them the sky big and bright with stars. But of course he would see nothing of all this. He was superior to it all. He–with his wonderful "spiritual" vision!
She was right. He did see nothing at all. Misery! He'd missed it. It was too late to do anything now. Was it too late? Yes, it was. A cold snatch of hateful wind blew into the garden. Curse life! He heard her cry "au revoir" and the door slammed.
Running back into the studio she behaved so strangely. She ran up and down lifting her arms and crying: "Oh! Oh! How stupid! How imbecile! How stupid!" And then she flung herself down on the sommier thinking of nothing–just lying there in her rage. All was over. What was over? Oh–something was. And she'd never see him again–never. After a long long time (or perhaps ten minutes) had passed in that black gulf her bell rang a sharp quick jingle. It was he, of course. And equally, of course, she oughtn't to have paid the slightest attention to it but just let it go on ringing and ringing. She flew to answer.
On the doorstep there stood an elderly virgin, a pathetic creature who simply idolized her (heaven knows why) and had this habit of turning up and ringing the bell and then saying, when she opened the door: "My dear, send me away!" She never did. As a rule she asked her in and let her admire everything and accepted the bunch of slightly soiled looking flowers–more than graciously. But to-day . . .
"Oh, I am so sorry," she cried. "But I've got someone with me. We are working on some wood-cuts. I'm hopelessly busy all evening."
"It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all, darling," said the good friend. "I was just passing and I thought I'd leave you some violets." She fumbled down among the ribs of a large old umbrella. "I put them down here. Such a good place to keep flowers out of the wind. Here they are," she said, shaking out a little dead bunch.
For a moment she did not take the violets. But while she stood just inside, holding the door, a strange thing happened. Again she saw the beautiful fall of the steps, the dark garden ringed with glittering ivy, the willows, the big bright sky. Again she felt the silence that was like a question. But this time she did not hesitate. She moved forward. Very softly and gently, as though fearful of making a ripple in that boundless pool of quiet she put her arms round her friend.
"My dear," murmured her happy friend, quite overcome by this gratitude. "They are really nothing. Just the simplest little thrippenny bunch."
But as she spoke she was enfolded–more tenderly, more beautifully embraced, held by such a sweet pressure and for so long that the poor dear's mind positively reeled and she just had the strength to quaver: "Then you really don't mind me too much?"
"Good night, my friend," whispered the other. "Come again soon."
"Oh, I will. I will."
This time she walked back to the studio slowly, and standing in the middle of the room with half-shut eyes she felt so light, so rested, as if she had woken up out of a childish sleep. Even the act of breathing was a joy. . . .
The sommier was very untidy. All the cushions "like furious mountains" as she said; she put them in order before going over to the writing-table.
"I have been thinking over our talk about the psychological novel," she dashed off, "it really is intensely interesting." . . . And so on and so on.
At the end she wrote: "Good night, my friend. Come again soon."

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

I know I usually point you in the direction of my Vulpes Libris posts, but I really, really encourage you to read my review of Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter (1972) as it is phenomenally good. Find out more over at Vulpes Libris...

Monday, 26 May 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book Answers...

Well, that went even better than I'd hoped! Thanks so much for your questions, there was a wonderful mix, including some which had me lying awake at night trying to work out my answers.  Anyway, here are all my answers - I have grouped the questions vaguely into, erm, groups...  I've given the name of the person who asked, using the username which appears in the comment box.

Do link in the comments if you are doing your own Q&A!

Reading and Books
Heavenali asks... If you had a literary time machine which literary world would you transport yourself to?
If I could just be a fly on the wall, and wouldn't have to interact, it would be the Bloomsbury Group as they gathered at Charleston - so I could see how great, bohemian writers and artists interacted on a minute-by-minute basis.  Surely life couldn't all be grand realisations about art and culture?

Thomas asks... Which novel that is least like your life/personal frame of reference/state of grace did you like the most?
I don't seem to read any books that are particularly like my life - and I tend to feel most at home in those that are about women in a different period and different class from me... so I'll go with the bit about a character who would appal me in real life, and pick Ned Beauman's Boxer, Beetle.

Claire asks... If you were to start your own publishing house, what would its focus be?
I'd love to have a slightly quirkier version of Persephone Books.  Nicola Beauman and I have chatted about this - that my taste wanders off into the surreal more than hers does (and that's the basis of my DPhil).  So, I'd love to see books like Miss Hargreaves, Lady Into Fox, Lolly Willowes, and their ilk under the same imprint.

Claire asks... What are five out-of-print books you think are most deserving of a reprint?
Fun! The best question to be asked.  Well, it's criminal that Ivy Compton-Burnett isn't in print, and my favourite of hers (so far) is More Women Than Men.  A.A. Milne's Mr. Pim Passes By (the novel rather than the play) is hilarious and should be made easily available, as should his brilliant autobiography It's Too Late Now - and I know you agree, Claire!  E.M. Delafield's collection of sketches As Others Hear Us is delicious - and now she's out of copyright, someone should get onto it.  Barbara Comyns' The Skin Chairs will finish off my list - so there are the first five books for my publishing house(!)

Tina asks... How many books have you got in total and of these how many are not read?
According to LibraryThing I have 2341 books, and have tagged 908 of them as read... which leaves 1433 unread, but that does include a fair few reference books etc.  But still... I'm unlikely to run out of things to read any time soon.  Might have to do Project 24 again next year...

Tina asks... How many are in your house and how many with your parents?
Now I'll have to guess.  Probably about 500 in Oxford and the rest in Somerset?

Thomas asks... Would you, do you, let your brother recommend books for you to read?
Theoretically yes, but I can't remember the last time it happened... Col, what should I read?

Thomas asks... What was the last novel your mother recommend to you? Did you read it?
Argh, can't remember!  So probably not.  I'm not very good at reading books I'm recommended, although I do often buy them... Mum! What should I read?

Thomas asks... Which family member's reading tastes are most in line with yours?
Easy! Mum aka Our Vicar's Wife's.  Dad doesn't really read fiction, and although Col and I share a love for Jane Austen & Agatha Christie, his favourite book is The Lord of the Rings.  Enough said.  But he did read and love Pride and Prejudice before I did.  Mum and I love many of the same books - but differ widely on Ivy Compton-Burnett!

Thomas asks... Would you ever go for a whole month where you only read books that were published this century?
Yeah, I reckon I'd give it a go.  I'd find that easier than any century earlier than the 20th.

Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings asks... Which author, dead or alive, would you most like to meet.have met?
I think it's going to be Jane Austen.  I don't know how long we'd be able to chat for, because our lives are so different, but simply for the honour, it would be she.

Annabel asks... Which authors, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party?
I puzzled over this one for a while.  Because it's not the same answer as Kaggsy's question - I wouldn't want anybody I'd be too in awe of, and there are plenty of writers I love who would dislike me for my class, faith, or age.  So I settled on Monica Dickens, Herbert Jenkins, and Denis Mackail - all of whom seem like they'd be good fun.  Although I have picked three authors I don't know much about.

Annabel asks... Assuming you lived somewhere with other houses close by, which authors do you think would make good neighbours?
Interesting... I'm not sure what I look for in neighbours.  Quiet people, who'd be dependable in an emergency, perhaps, and wouldn't be too noisy.  Richmal Crompton strikes me as someone of that sort.

Thomas asks... Which Trollope do you prefer? Anthony or Joanna?
Well, I've not read anything by Joanna Trollope, and I love the one book I've read by Anthony Trollope (The Warden), so... there's your answer!

Mike Walmer asks... I remember you blogging at some point that you've got all of Barbara Comyns' books. Since Birds in Tiny Cages is one of the rarest books in the universe, I'd like to know where you found your copy.
What I should have said is that I've got or have read all of her novels. This one, as you say, is basically impossible to buy - but I did manage to track down a copy via Interlibrary Loan.  It's not very good...

Thomas asks... List one living author that everyone in book blogging circles loves that you have no desire to read.
Philip Pullman.

Vintage Reading asks... Which is your favourite Austen novel?
Always a tussle between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility - I think the former wins, although I find the latter more amusing. Persuasion is at the bottom of the pile, but I've only read it once, when I was 17, so should revisit.

Thomas asks... If you had to limit yourself to only reading one novelist for the rest of your life, who would it be?
E.M. Delafield, because she does humour and melancholy both so wonderfully, which would give me some variety. Plus I'd happily read Diary of a Provincial Lady over and over forever.

Thomas asks... Have you read May Sarton yet? Why not?
But I have, sir, and years ago!  I've read As We Are Now and thought it was quite good - but I'm afraid that's all the impression it made on me.

Dark Puss asks... Why haven't you read anything by Colette yet?
Haha! The same reason I haven't read books by any number of authors whom I'm sure I'd find interesting... time, the number of books around, and being in the right mood.  But I do have quite a few of her books, so I certainly will... one day...

Tina asks... Can you review Elizabeth Cambridge's Susan and Joanna?
I still haven't read it, Tina!  One day, one day...

Epsie asks... I would be really grateful if you could answer that eternally puzzling question - Shakespeare: was he a woman?
You pose an excellent question, madam!  For everyone else... this was our standard undergraduate essay question suggestion, when we couldn't think of anything else to write.  It works for any author... in this case, I'm going to say... probs.

Life and Work
Diana asks... How do you do it all? (And she elaborates beautifully!)
You suspect right that I don't sleep enough - my mother jumped in and said that I sleep a lot, but that's because when she sees me in Somerset I'm usually in a state of collapse! But, honestly, I always feel like I don't do very much in my days, so it must be an illusion...

Claire asks... What do you hope your life looks like 5 years from now?
I'm the worst person at life-planning - I just amble along and see what happens.  My one big plan - hopefully before five years is up - is to live in the countryside again.

Susan T. Case asks... Are you a lark or an owl?
Sort of both, in that I feel quite alert in mornings and evenings, but afternoons are anathema to me... England needs to bring in the siesta tradition. I'm always semi-comatose in the afternoon - and during my first year at university my tutorials were always at 2pm, which must have given my tutor a terrible impression of me.

Susan T. Case asks... Are you a fussy or messy housekeeper?
Nearer messy than fussy... I like to think I'm not a total slob, but my room is often a bit, erm, disordered.

Thomas asks... If you had to get a DPhil in some other subject, what would it be?
I'd be utterly hopeless at any other subject, but I do have an amateur interest in psychology/neuroscience.

Harriet asks... If you had the chance to write one book, guaranteed publication, what would it be?
It would definitely be a novel of some variety, and I have a vague idea of writing a novelisation of (part of) A.A. Milne's life. If I could do that well, I'd choose that, as I owe AAM so much in my reading life.

Donna asks... Do you use a fountain pen or a biro? Are you a Parker, caran d'ache, or Mont Blanc sort of guy?
I used to use a fountain pen (Parker!) all the time, but seem to retreat to biros more often now.  But you have encouraged me to go back to my fountain pen - my writing is much more legible when I'm using it, and it makes me feel more like Virginia Woolf, which is all I want in life.

Susan T. Case asks... Favourite dinner? Which real and fictional people would you invite?
My favourite food is the 'umble cheese sandwich (cheddar cheese; the best crusty white loaf money can buy) but that's not really dinner food, is it?  I love roast potatoes but vegetarians don't have the best range of things to accompany them.  The real people I'd most like to invite are my brother and parents - I'm always at my happiest when they're with me.  And fictional people?  I'd love to have dinner with John Ames from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, as he is about the wisest character I've read, or perhaps Betty Macdonald's persona in The Egg and I, as that would be a laugh - so long as we didn't have to cook it at her ranch.  For humour, it would be almost any collection of characters from PG Wodehouse... so long as I could duck under the table when things inevitably went wrong.

Thomas asks... Which TV show are you most embarrassed to admit that you watch?
I make a point of being gently self-mocking - getting in there before anyone else does - so I'm more likely to make a joke of one of these than be embarrassed by it.  At the same time, I felt a bit ashamed by being beguiled by Gogglebox. Look it up...

Susan T. Case asks... Favourite guilty pleasure TV viewing and snack?
This is subtly different... my favourite is probably the soap opera Neighbours, which I love and ridicule in equal measures, but wholeheartedly love.  It's no coincidence that I my two best friends both watched Neighbours through university - I think we bonded through our lunch and Neighbours meet-ups.  As for snack - I am currently a bit obsessed with popcorn, which is dangerous.

Claire asks... Sweater vests or cardigans? Do you see your preference changing as you age?
Oh, definitely cardies! I don't see myself changing, as the spectre of Chandler and his sweater vests (or pullovers, as we call them!) would prevent me.

Thomas asks... What job would be so fabulous that it could induce you to live in a big city (e.g., London)? And don't just say there isn't one, which would come closest?
I don't have a dream job, which would make both this question and life planning much easier... but I think the nearest I'd get would be if I could run that publishing house Claire mentions!

Thomas asks... If you had to live in another country for the rest of your days, which would it be?
Canada. I've never been there, but it fulfils my criteria of (a) not too hot, (b) speaks English (I'm hopeless at learning languages).  And for some reason the country has always appealed.

Thomas asks... Which has been your favourite European country to visit?
Outside of UK/Ireland, I've only properly been to four, and one of those was when I was a toddler. So, my options are France, Spain, and Switzerland.  And I'm going to pick Switzerland - extremely expensive, but very beautiful and not hot. (My week in Spain basically melted me.)

Thomas asks... Which European country would you most like to visit?
I'd love to go to Scandinavia, but not fussy about which one out of Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

Mrs Ford asks... Do you prefer towns or villages in a) real life and b) fiction?
Easy! Villages for both - in real life, they're prettier and people are friendlier to each other. In fiction they have low-level intrigue, humour, and gossip which I love to read about.

I was expecting more blogging questions, but there was only one!

Pearlie Everlasting asks... How do you see your future blogging self? Is there anything that would make you give it up?
I've pretty much settled into a rhythm, style, and voice that I feel comfortable with, so I think I'll continue much as I am now, with occasional new projects to keep the momentum going (for me) and interest (for readers).  That's why/how I developed things like My Life in Books, A Century of Books, and so forth.  And I think I'd give it up for one of three reasons - if everybody stopped reading it (I don't have the strength of mind that those bloggers have who do it chiefly for themselves!), if I got a great deal of abusive commenters (can't see that happening - I've only had one or two over 7 years), or if I stopped enjoying it at all, and a break didn't revitalise me.

And finally...
Team Colin asks... Who's better looking, you or your brother?
You, Colin, you.

Saturday, 24 May 2014


I don't know if this will work - that is up to you guys! - but I thought it might be fun to hold a Q&A. I was inspired by the fab 100th episode of The Readers - it's no secret that I long to appear on the show, only now they don't have guest presenters - but I thought I can still borrow good ideas from them, one of which is a bookish Q&A. (Do go and listen to their 100th ep, of course.)

So... any questions you have for me about books, reading suggestions, reading habits, my life, my blogging, Shiny New Books, my DPhil, Sherpa... please pop 'em in the comments or ask on twitter @stuck_inabook.  And then, at some point next week, I'll answer them!

I'd love to see this sort of thing on other people's blogs too - it's a great way to interact a bit more.  So, fingers crossed that it works!  I've got a busy Bank Holiday Weekend, so I'll see you on Tuesday...

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls - David Sedaris

Would you believe that there's still one of my reviews from Issue 1 of Shiny New Books that I haven't shared with you?  It's of David Sedaris' Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls - a terrible title but a good book of funny and moving essays. With some misfires along the way.  Intrigued?  Read the whole review over at Shiny New Books...

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Delight - J.B. Priestley

In 2009 I read a fun book called Modern Delight, in which various authors and others talked about the things that most bring them delight. I mentioned it in a Weekend Miscellany, but don't think I ever got around to a proper post about it.  It was enjoyable and fun, and for a good cause.  Also published at that point was a reprint of the book that inspired it - Delight (1949) by J.B. Priestley.

Somehow I didn't get a copy of it then, but when I was in Malvern recently I stumbled across an original edition of Delight and couldn't resist it - it became my dipping-in-and-out-of book. And (yes, this mini-review writes itself), it was a delight!

I haven't read any of Priestley's novels, although I've read one play and seen another - and read a fair bit of his journalism as part of my DPhil research. Delight shows quite a different side to him. Basically, it is short pieces on 114 things which delight him. Why this number, I don't know.

Priestley claims to be an old grumbler (he was actually only in his mid-50s, and would live 'til a month shy of 90) and this was his way of making up to those around him.  And the things that delight him are truly delightful - covering the silly (charades, playing with small children, fantastic theories), the moving (coming home), the scholarly (Shakespeare re-discovered, discovering Vermeer), and the bizarre (mineral water in bedrooms of foreign hotels).  Above all, they are wonderfully engaging, often very amusing, and show a writer who knew how to put together a book that is at once utterly unnecessary and wholly (yes, again) a delight.  Here's an excerpt from Delight no.1, about fountains:

And I believe my delight in these magical jets of water, the invention of which does credit to our whole species, is shared by ninety-nine persons out of every hundred.  But where are they, these fountains we love?  We hunger for them and are not fed.  A definite issue could be made out of this, beginning with letters to the Times, continuing with meetings and unanimous resolutions and deputations to Downing Street, and ending if necessary with processions and mass demonstrations and some rather ugly scenes.  What is the use of our being told that we live in a democracy if we want fountains and have no fountains?

Well - as someone who once traipsed around Torquay trying to find the precise fountain that my friend had seen in her youth, I can empathise.  But you need not worry about wanting Delight and not finding a copy - there are plenty around, particularly the 2009 reprint.  I can think of a few dozen bloggers and blog readers who would love this... it's just the sort of gem that deserves to be on a reader's shelves.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Bello Books

Do you know of Bello Books? They are an offshoot of Macmillan, I believe, and do print on demand paperbacks and ebooks, reprinting lost voices.  And, oh, their catalogue is divine!  They seem to be browsing my bookshelves - and my wishlist - to come up with some of their titles.  Reprints will be coming soon from Christopher Milne, Ann Thwaite, Edith Olivier, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and...

Vita Sackville-West (thanks for sending these, Bello!)  You can see their latest catalogue here, and investigate the site more generally here.  General hurrahs for Bello!

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Oh, Agatha

Oh dear, have I really not blogged since last Wednesday? I'm sorry, I'm being very negligent - and I can't even think of a reason why, as it hasn't been an especially busy week. Perhaps it's my general reading slump at the moment - and, if you've been around for any of my previous reading slumps, you'll probably know what my solution has been. Dame Agatha Christie. If you hate spoilers of any variety (and I'll only talking about the death which happens in the first few pages) then skim read this post...

Yes, that's right, I've ignored the hundreds of unread books in my house - and the few that I'm reading at the moment - and taken myself to Oxford Central Library to borrow some Agathas. Almost all of mine are at home, and the ones I have here don't fall into blank years in A Century of Books - and, if I'm reading Agatha, I may as well kill two birds with one stone.  Still, with the criteria of being (a) not read read, (b) filling blank years, and (c) currently in library stock, I managed to come away with two books - Hallowe'en Party and The Seven Dials Mystery, and whipped through the first in a couple of days.

I'd always steered clear of it, because of my distaste for Hallowe'en, but it's pretty incidental to the plot. And, as plot is so important in Christie novels, I'm not going to tell you much beyond the initial murder - which is of a young girl at a Hallowe'en party, who is drowned in an apple bobbing bucket. Shortly before this, she has begun to tell people that she once witnessed a murder, only she didn't realise it was a murder until much later. They won't listen - but it seems that perhaps someone present has taken her comment seriously... Hercule Poirot, naturally, comes to sort things out, called there by Ariadne Oliver. I have five main things I want to say about this novel:

1.) I love Christie plots about misinterpretation - where a witness sees someone looking shocked that something is there, when in fact they're shocked that something isn't there; when a look of horror is about a memory rather than a current event - all those sorts of things, for some reason, are wonderful to me. So I loved that element of Hallowe'en Party.

2.) I've never read an Ariadne Oliver novel before, and I love her. And Agatha Christie obviously had a lot of fun creating her (she is a detective novelist, with a Finnish detective hero, and Christie uses her as a bit of a mouthpiece...)

3.) This is Christie's child-killing novel... it's interesting for the number of times (and this isn't a spoiler) she talks about leniency for mentally imbalanced killers or those who've been through care, or whatever extenuating circumstances, and how Poirot doesn't think justice should be considered less important than mercy.

4.) It was published in 1969 - so nearly 50 years after Poirot's first case and Christie's first novel. Amazing that she could still be on such good form after all that time.

5.) And it is a very good novel. I found the conclusion a little unsatisfying, mostly because I'd already guessed the solution, or at least most of it, and I much prefer being surprised by the end of a detective novel.

So, there you go. Onto The Seven Dials Mystery...

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Two links...

A quick post today, with two exciting things!

Shiny New Update - we've launched the 'inbetweeny' for Shiny New Books!  Issue 2 will be out in early July, but to keep you busy til then we've added a handful of new reviews and features to every  - find out more on the site.

Limerick competition - at OxfordWords, the blog I help out with at OUP, we've launched a limerick competition where you can win an iPad (slightly higher class prizes there than at Stuck-in-a-Book!)  All details here.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Three Plays

I've been quite the culture vulture of late, and have seen three plays - and somehow haven't managed to write about any of them.  So I'm going to whip through all thee of them quickly in one post... I have more to say about the first than the others, but they were all great in different ways.

Good People at Hampstead Theatre
My friend Andrea and I took a trip off to Hampstead (where I saw a very good play about Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, On The Rocks by Amy Rosenthal a few years ago) and we saw Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. It's since transferred to the Noel Coward, where it will be 'til 14 June, so I don't feel guilty about recommending what would have been the last performance.

Truth be told, we went because Imelda Staunton was in it - and I knew essentially nothing else about it.  To me, Imelda will always be the Provincial Lady (a role she took in a Radio 4 dramatisation) but I also love her in Vera Drake, Another Year, and all sorts of other things.  She was on my bucket list of actors to see, and this was a brilliant play to see her in.

Basically it's about being poor in America. Imelda has a strong Boston accent from the first scene, where her character Margaret is fired from her job at a checkout for being consistently tardy - which is because of her disabled daughter.  We next see her with her friends Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Dottie (June Watson) - both of whom are loud and animated, and especially while playing bingo (which is where they head next).  There is plenty of talk about how to cope without income and without prospects - when Margaret learns that her old schoolfriend Mike is back in town.  And she wonders if he'll perhaps give her a job...

Mike (Lloyd Owen) is a big success - a doctor - but he has become what Margaret calls 'lace curtains'.  He's offended; he thinks he's still Southy at heart.  But he won't give her a job; he doesn't need a new receptionist.  This escalates into a perfectly balanced argument about whether or not he has stayed true to his roots - never quite a shouting match, but never far from it - and he invites her to a party he's having with his young and beautiful wife Kate (Angel Coulby, whom I know from underrated teen drama As If).  Neither of them think she'll go, and he phones to say it is cancelled... angrily she goes.  And then the already brilliant play gets even more brilliant.

The scene is so well written, and so well acted.  The audience don't know precisely what the truth is about the history between Margaret and Mike; neither does his wife.  And no emotion is straightforward in this scene (or, indeed, this play).  Margaret - and this is Imelda's play, she is extraordinary - is angry, hopeful, regretful, proud, witty, even a bit forgiving.  It's a spectacular character, so complex, and needs an actress as astonishingly talented as Imelda Staunton to fill it.  So much power comes from such a tiny woman!  Having said that, it is more of an ensemble production than I'd imagined from the advertising - the whole cast is brilliant, and it's probably in the top three plays I've ever seen.  Very emotional, also very funny.  Do go and see it if you have a chance.

OH, and we waited around in the foyer afterwards, and spotted Imelda Staunton's husband (Jim Carter, aka Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) - AND we braved going and asking for her signature.  She was very sweet, and we were buzzing all the way back to the coach home.

The Play That Goes Wrong by the Mischief Theatre Company
From the emotional and poignant to the unashamedly hilarious. I took a day trip to Malvern, in my old stamping ground of Worcestershire, and saw the touring production of The Play That Goes Wrong (go and see if they're touring anywhere near you). It's essentially a spoof of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap in the tradition of Michael Frayn's Noises Off (so I'm lead to believe, having not seen it.)

An amateur dramatic society is putting on a murder mystery play. It goes wrong in every conceivable way, from even before the play begins, as the stagehands are trying to keep a mantelpiece in place (aided by a lucky member of the audience).

The actors forget their lines, they accidentally repeat them, mispronounce them, or they make no sense because of bad staging or props (I particularly loved "Is that your father's portrait?" collapsing into despair, as the actor realises that the portrait is actually of a dog in a deerstalker.)  An actress is knocked out, and replaced by a reluctant - but increasingly enthusiastic - stagehand.  But what I most loved was the way in which the stage fell apart.  It just kept collapsing, more and more, including the supporting pillar for a mezzanine level, which falls to a steeper incline at intervals throughout the rest of the play - which means a couple of very talented and very agile actors have to keep furniture from falling to the ground, while still delivering their lines.

It's all very silly, but impressively done. Some of the actors are more able than others at convincingly being actors (if you see what I mean) but it's not exactly a play which requires staunch realism.  But the biggest applause should go to the set designer and set builder - its deconstruction is like choreography.  I laughed hard all night, as did the good people of Malvern - they were definitely ready to be amused.  (One sidenote: any accident can be masked as deliberate in this sort of play, which did lead to some audience confusion when one of our number was led out, and the 'lights guy' - an actor too - was involved.  Turns out she was just ill.

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
This one probably doesn't need any introduction. Some colleagues from OUP and I went to the Oxford Playhouse to see Alastair McGowan (also Worcestershire's finest, fyi) play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady without the songs. Just in case you don't know the premise, Higgins has a bet with a friend that he can pass off a Cockney flower girl as a Duchess in the space of a few months, simply by training her in manners and voice. It basically works, but Higgins is an unobservant cad and doesn't realise the emotional effect the process is having on Eliza Doolittle.

It was an amusing production of an amusing play.  I also discovered that Shaw was a lot less progressive than he thought - or, rather, he was ahead of his time in terms of sexism and classism, but very much behind our time.  Oh, but he does LOVE to labour a point - the final scene hit us over the head with his point so many times that he'd make Ibsen seem subtle.  But that's all par for the course - it was a great production, and my only real complaint was that it didn't have any songs. (Ahem.)

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Patch Picks a Prizewinner!

It's been over a month since I started my 7th birthday prize draw, but fear not, I have not forgotten it!

I also got a lovely email recently from a blog reader called Vicki, and she mentioned that she liked seeing Patch helping with prize draws in the past.  I realised I hadn't called on his services for some time, and he was more than willing to oblige... (as you see, there are two colours of paper - but we closed our eyes when picking a winner.)

The prize wasn't revealed before - other than the warning that it'll be a bit tatty - but I can now reveal that it will be two books by authors I love dearly: The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns and The Ridleys by Richmal Crompton.

Congratulations to...

Well done Helen! I think I probably have your address somewhere, but I'll email to confirm...

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

This post is written while the Eurovision Song Contest is on, so apologies if I accidentally launch into incoherent rambling about world peace. Otherwise, here are some things to amuse you for the rest of your weekend...

1.) Our Vicar's Wife and the bookshop she runs from our garage on Saturdays now have a blog - Honey Pot Books!  For those of you who like pictures of Sherpa (and which of us doesn't?) there are plenty of those - especially since she just had her fourth birthday.

2.) Have you been to my brother's blog recently? He wrote a short story after reading my The Museum, and you can see it if you go to the archive for May 2014 (I don't think I can link directly to it.)

3.) Have you read about the Book Benches? Now's your chance.

I'm sure there were lots of other things I was going to include in this.  Sorry, publishers and publicists who have sent me things to mention, apparently my email filing has failed!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

More Muriel

My stream of reading Muriel Spark doesn't look likely to come to an end any time soon - so was just so wonderfully prolific - and the latest one I've read is Territorial Rights (1979), given to me by Virago in their nice new edition, and reviewed over on Shiny New Books.  The copy I read, I will confess to you, was the copy given to me by Hayley after Muriel Spark Reading Week (and I gave the Virago copy to a deserving friend).

It's not in the top two or three Spark novels - or maybe even top ten - but it's still brilliant, with lots of recognisably Sparkian elements. Head on over to my Shiny New Books review to find out more...

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A weekend away in Paradise...

I took my cold off to a beautiful cottage, aptly called Paradise, in Herefordshire - and lost my voice in the process - and I just have to share (a) how lovely the house was, and (b) the books I bought on a trip to Hay-on-Wye.  You can see the proper pictures of the house on its webpage (I want to go into full PR mode for them; it's so incredibly beautiful) but here are some I took.  The first two are my bedroom.  I didn't manage to get very good (or friend-free) photos of the living room, dining room, or kitchen - but I had included one of the porch, which is in itself more beautiful than anywhere I will ever live.

And then we spent a day in Hay on Wye.  Most of the group of friends weren't all that bothered about buying books, so I strode off saying (or, voice gone, croaking) "I hunt alone" - and saw them later.  I came away with 11 books in the end, and here they are...

Too Many Ghosts by Paul Gallico
I keep hoping to find another Gallico novel as brilliant as Love of Seven Dolls - but even if this one ends up not being, at least it has such a lovely cover.

Open the Door by Osbert Sitwell
Still haven't read anything by any of the Sitwells.  Maybe Osbert's short stories?

Elizabeth Bowen by Patricia Craig
Biography of a woman novelist, you say?

Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler
If you think I can resist a cheap NYRB Classics edition, then this must be your first time to Stuck-in-a-Book - welcome!

Mr Emmanuel by Louis Golding
Here's a pair of authors I get confused... Louis Golding and Louis Bromfield.  Anyone read this Louis?

The Romany Stone by Christopher Morley
I love Christopher Morley's essays, and this edition is beautiful - and signed!  Annoyingly, Richard Booth's Books have started sticking price stickers to the backs of their books, and this meant the back got damaged.

Accidents of Fortune by Andrew Devonshire
Mr. Debo Mitford's autobiography

Beside the Pearly Water by Stella Gibbons
This was rather an exciting find - dustjacket and all, if you care about those sorts of things (I do, on entirely aesthetic grounds).

Picture by Lillian Ross
I'm sure I've heard about this somewhere - but a look at the cinema from the 1950s was irresistible.

Popcorn by Cornelia Otis Skinner
I never blogged about it, but Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was one of my favourite reads from a few years ago, and I've been hoping to stumble across more by one or other or both of the authors.  There are plenty of cheap copies online, but it's nice to stumble across them - and these light essays look great fun.

The Dolly Dialogues by Anthony Hope
I don't remember where I heard about these, but a reprint of them has been on my Amazon wishlist for four years - nicer to find a copy while browsing, and even nicer to find a nice old edition!

So, not a bad haul - not huge quantity, but definite quality.  Have you read any of them, or want to?  As always, comments extremely welcome!

Friday, 2 May 2014

Every Good Deed - Dorothy Whipple

It wasn't until I listed Every Good Deed among my purchases at the Bookbarn that I realised how scarce it was - as a couple of commenters pointed out.  That made me feel duty-bound to read it asap, despite having only read some of the Persephone Whipples available (Someone at a Distance, They Knew Mr Knight, Greenbanks, High Wages, and The Closed Door - more than I'd thought, now I come to list them).  Well, judging by Persephone's love for Dorothy Whipple, I predict that Every Good Deed (1946) will one day join that number - but perhaps they needn't rush.  It was enjoyable and interesting, but it wasn't Whipple on top form...

They general idea is that a couple of oldish spinster sisters adopt a child from a local sort of orphanage, and all does not go well.  Susan and Emily Topham are shy, caring, worried about what society thinks of them, and above all not ready for a trickster.  Their cook (Cook, if you will) is a little more worldly-wise, but just barely.  Enter Gwen.

She steals, she talks back, she lies, she is (when a little older) no better than she ought to be.  She abuses their care and runs amok - and runs away.  She's not even an orphan; her wily mother uses the situation to exact cash from the Topham sisters.
There were hundreds of children who, in the same circumstances, would have responded to their care, would have loved them and been grateful; but by mischance they had hit upon Gwen.
That's Whipple's slightly half-hearted attempt to make sure we know Every Good Deed isn't supposed to be a universal cautionary tale.  The classism of the book did make me a little uneasy, and I'm not sure that sentence saved things...

There are a few more ins and outs in the narrative than this, but not many.  Although I enjoyed reading it, and Whipple is an expert at writing a very readable book, it did feel a lot like a short story which had got a bit long.  There is only one arc of the narrative - subplots not welcome - and the moments of crisis feel like the climaxes of a short story, not multifaceted moments in a novella.  Every Good Deed is only just over a hundred pages long, but I reckon it would have made more sense at, say, forty pages, in one of Whipple's short story collections.  An enjoyable enough read, but if you're struggling to find a copy anywhere... well, don't feel too distraught about it.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

Another month, another cold... and I still haven't written properly about the book that got me through the last cold.  I did tell you that Swallows and Amazons (1930) by Arthur Ransome was being my solace - battling out with another 1930 book, actually, Diary of a Provincial Lady - and what a perfect solace it was too.  Thank you Vintage for sending me this stunning copy a year or so ago.  Not a word of it came as a surprise, devotee as I was of the film (watched when ill as a child), but that wasn't really the point.

If anybody doesn't know the book at all (can this be?) it is the first of a series about John, Susan, Titty, Roger, and various others (in this novel, the Blackett sisters) who join them or war with them in their boating adventures.  It kicks off with that famous message of parental care, telegrammed by their father: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN.  There are those namby-pamby types among us who will argue that children are not better drowned than duffers, but I suspect we aren't supposed to take his words entirely seriously.  The father knows whose side the novel is on, and that no calamity will befall the children - even if they are sent off as young as seven to fend for themselves (albeit in striking distance of home).

One advantage the film has over the book is that you can just watch them doing things to boats, and all is clear - I ended Swallows and Amazons as ignorant as I began, despite Ransome's valiant effort to immerse the reader in the minutiae of sailing. Tacking this and gunwale that.  It didn't matter that I hadn't a clue what was happening.  It was all such fun.

But... I think Swallows and Amazons is probably best enjoyed as a child, or in a sickly state such as I was.  Something I've noticed while reading or re-reading classic children's books as an adult - be it E. Nesbit, A.A. Milne, Richmal Crompton, or whoever - is that they are often funny in a way that is intended for the adult.  The child will still love the story, but something more sophisticated is going on too.  Well, unless I missed it completely, there is nothing at all sophisticated in Swallows and Amazons.  Ransome tells the story in tones of breathless excitement; the narrator is every bit as childlike as the children.  There isn't really any humour (besides a good 'ruthless' pun), and there certainly isn't any wryness or winking to the reader.  Everything is ingenuous and cheerful.  I don't think I could have a reading diet which consisted just of this boys'/girls' own variety of adventure, but, my goodness, it was perfect for my sickbed.