Thursday, 26 February 2015

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Back in the days when I'd only dimly heard of David Sedaris, the book I had heard of was Me Talk Pretty One Day. Based on the title alone, I was under the assumption that it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems. It was perhaps that which led to me getting an embarrassingly long way into Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim before realising that it was not a novel about a young girl. But now, on my third Sedaris book, I'm in the swing of things - he writes humorous essays about his own life.  But you probably know that already.

This collection is (I believe) his bestselling title, and it is extremely funny. The focus is not so much on his family as it was in the other two books I read, although the first few stories do take place among those many brothers and sisters. They're anecdotes, really, more than stories - about how David's father forced them all to play instruments, with the misguided idea that they would become almost instantly proficient; about his overly-invested speech therapist; about tanning competitions on the beach. His eye for an anecdote is perfect. Sedaris is endlessly dry, self-deprecating, and able to find the humour in any experience - often through the throwing in of a bizarrely specific detail or unlikely piece of dialogue. Are all his reminiscences accurate? One assumes not. They are exaggerated at the very least. But that doesn't matter a jot.

The two main sections of Me Talk Pretty One Day deal with Sedaris' student years and his experiences trying to learn French. I'm always amazed at how many things Sedaris has crammed in his life, and one of those is a period during which he thought he'd try his hand at performance art. It is all extremely amusing (as that topic is more or less set up to be), even given my discomfort at reading about drug-taking. What makes it so brilliant is the dry, eye-rolling narrative that subtly looks back on disaffected, youthful David from the vantage of disaffected, middle-aged David. And when it comes served with sentences like the following, what more could you want? He is the master of putting together a sentence that neatly wraps up the ridiculous without making a song and dance about it:
I enrolled as an art major at a college known mainly for its animal-husbandry programme.
But the most sustained theme I've seen in the three books I've read so far is, as mentioned, his attempts to learn French and live in France (thanks to the French-dwelling of his partner Hugh). It is these experiences that give the collection its title - with a sort of oh-I-see sense that eluded me with Dress Your Family in Corduory and Denim and Let's Discuss Diabetes With Owls. From his first venture to France, knowing only the French for bottleneck, to his intense lessons with an aggressive teacher, to living fairly confidently off phrases cribbed from medical audiobooks... His lessons sounded brutal, but also led to some amusing moments (of course), and this one gives a good example to Sedaris' style for those who haven't read him:
"And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day?"

It was my second month of French class, and the teacher was leading us in an exercise designed to promote the use of one, our latest personal pronoun.

"Might one sing on Bastille Day?" she asked. "Might one dance in the streets? Somebody give me an answer."

Printed in our textbooks was a list of major holidays accompanied by a scattered arrangement of photograph depicting French people in the act of celebration. The object of the lesson was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. It was simple enough but seemed an exercise better suited to the use of the pronoun they. I didn't know about the rest of the class, but when Bastille Day rolled around, I planned to stay home and clean my oven.
I love that sort of pay-off at the end of that; the detail that is curiously specific and off-kilter, but carefully within the world that Sedaris has created. This world isn't the real world, and isn't a fictional universe, but it's a beautiful, bizarre, grumpy, and very amusing realm that Sedaris has both created and made his own.

Oh, and I forgot to say - Liz very kindly gave me this copy; thanks so much, Liz!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Whither silliness?

An interesting question was posed today in my online book group - in passing, actually, in a discussion of Elizabeth von Arnim - about silliness in books. It was agreed (between the two of us, at least) that silliness could be on the level of either plot or dialogue. I think there's a place for either, but definitely prefer the latter.

Let me briefly explain... Novels that have silliness on the level of plot are those like P.G. Wodehouse that have absurd event after absurd event - a sort of narrative farce - that is expertly organised but so unlikely as to be impossible. Silliness on the level of dialogue encompasses rather more - the example given was from von Arnim's In the Mountains, where a pompous guest begins a reminiscence with "Our father ..." and the narrator thinks she is about to start praying. I suppose it is moments or wordings that are unlikely to happen.

I love dialogue taken to unlikely extremes. It's why I love Ivy Compton-Burnett, and strident heroines like Lady Catherine de Burgh. I also love narratives which leap to hyperbole or litotes - which is why I adore Richmal Crompton's William books and the Provincial Lady series. Silliness perhaps isn't the word, but it isn't realism. Silliness in plot, however, I have only limited tolerance for. Wodehouse yes; almost everyone else, no.

Does this division chime with anyone? What are you thoughts? Did you think I was finally going to blog about the Mr Men? (One day...)

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Fur Person by May Sarton

I can't remember exactly how it came about - begging, borrowing, or stealing (or, y'know, a present), but when I stayed with Thomas in Washington D.C. about 18 months ago, he gave me The Fur Person by May Sarton. That was not even amongst the nicest things he did - he's a great guy, y'all - but it was definitely very exciting to get. He has been keen for me to read May Sarton for ages, and the one I did read (As We Are Now) never made its way to Stuck-in-a-Book - so, rather than strike out two for two, I'll be talking about The Fur Person now. Full disclosure: I loved it.

How was I not going to love it, considering that it's about a cat? Well, some cat-centric books have failed with me, one way or another. I wasn't enamoured by Jennie (Paul Gallico), and - while I did adore Dewey, it was for all the wrong reasons. But The Fur Person (1978) combines a strong understanding of cats with a complete lack of sentiment - in the best possible way. So, although the novella undoubtedly includes cat-lovers, the narrative is presented from the cat's perspective (albeit in the third person, if you see what I mean). He - Tom 'Terrible' Jones, no less - is pragmatic and selfish (like all cats) but willing to exchange affection and loyalty for the correct 'housekeeper', having realised that one cannot be a footloose, fancy-free young tom forever.

The story is simple, and supposedly based on the real life adventures of Sarton's cat. He experiments with various housekeepers, before settling on the admiration and respect of Sarton and her partner. In a chilling warning to such as me, Tom is not interested in the cloyingly affectionate:
The trouble was, as he soon found out, that as soon as he came into reach, the lady could not resist hugging and kissing him with utter disregard for the dignity of his person. There are times when a Gentleman Cat likes very much to be scratched gently under his chin, and if this is done with savoir-faire he may afterwards enjoy a short siesta on a lap and some very refined stroking, but he does not like to be held upside down like a human baby and he does not like to be cooed over, and to be pressed to a bosom smelling of narcissus or rose.
Which is understandable, but there is a certain pathos in the way Sarton presents the scene. Tom is intent merely on getting out of the house - by the common feline method of standing silently by the door until obeyed - but, in the background, this would-be owner is mournful:
"You're not a nice cat at all," she said, and she began to whimper. "You don't like me," she whimpered, "do you?"
In another sort of novel, this might have been a tragic moment in her life - but, in The Fur Person, it is one of many instances that occur while Tom is finding his way to the idyll at the end of his journey.
The Fur Person bounded up the stairs, and at the very instant he entered the kitchen, the purrs began to swell inside him and he wound himself around two pairs of legs (for he must be impartial), his nose in the air, his tail straight up like a flag, on tip toes, and roaring with thanks.
It's quite a sweet ending, but it doesn't fall over the boundary into saccharine. And the reason for that, I believe, is because Sarton has observed the behaviour of cats so precisely. Everything she described rang true. Perhaps not the ten commandments for cats (individually they were accurate, but I suspect cats do not repeat these mantras by rote), but certainly the movements of tail and paws, the stretching, the staring and waiting - everything it described with such precision and accuracy that any cat-lover (particularly those of us who love cats but don't live with any) will thrill to the reading experience.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

My day started with pancakes and went on to pie (a mushroom, spinach, hazelnut and white truffle oil pie, since you ask = bliss), so it's all going pretty well. My intention to read all day isn't going great, although I am loving David Sedaris in brief snatches. And not reading the two books I told myself I'd read today. Still, it's only 5.30pm, so still plenty of reading time left today - and time to give you a few bits of miscellaneous linking.

1.) You may know that Oliver Sacks is one of my heroes, and I love his books (and his humanity). His heroism continues in this beautiful, sad, wise piece for the New York Times about learning that he has terminal cancer.

2.) In a totally different tone, you might enjoy this quiz I put together in honour of Go Set a Watchman being announced: it is titles of books which are taken from elsewhere. Half are from the Bible; half are not. Can you tell which is which? (And thanks Susan for pointing out to me that Go Set a Watchman borrows its title from the Bible! I'm ashamed that I didn't realise that myself.)

3.) Helene Hanff's Letter from New York is on my bedside table, so I was excited to see Ali's review of it - especially since it's rather glowing.

4.) Do you (like me) love bad films? Not just mediocrity, but the ones with a script, direction, acting, and sound quality so bad that you ask 'How did this get made?' Well, that just so happens to be the title of a hilarious podcast I discovered recently. It's been going for four or so years, so there should be something in the archives to whet the appetite.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern

You know what it's like with book reviews on Stuck-in-a-Book - they're like buses; you wait a month for one, and then three come along at once. (If you've ever waited a month for a bus, then - please - just give up and get a taxi.) In the weekend last year where I coincidentally read a bunch of books I bought in America, one of them had the enticing title Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion (1997) by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. (Who first told me about this? Was it YOU?)

I'm not the sort of man to walk away from a book about loving books, particularly one penned by older women, and so I was excited to read this. But it was quite a while ago, so I'm going to review this one in bullet points... let's call it an experiment.

  • Leona and Madeleine take it in turns to narrate chapters, starting with their childhoods (perhaps unsurprisingly) and through the schooling and college education. 
  • The main point of interest here is that one of them was refused her doctorate, mostly because her supervisor disagreed with her argument. (That is NOT acceptable supervising.)
  • I could never really tell Leona and Madeleine apart from their writing styles, so their lives intertwined for me.
  • They set up a rare books business together, buying and selling, and this is where my interest was piqued.
  • They make catalogues! I could read about the preparation of catalogues forever.
  • They're only interested in very old books, so my love of 20th-century literature was never really satisfied. But, oh well.
  • And they discovered sensation magazine stories that Louisa M. Alcott had written under a pseudonym - which led to a minor sort of literary fame for them.
  • I really enjoyed it! Reading about the books business, particularly in a time before the internet made book hunting both easier and less filled with surprises is always fun.

Here is my caveat (for which I have slipped out of bullet points). I love reading about readers; about people who hunt for books because they are desperate to read them. Rostenberg and Stern hunt for books for a living, and so (naturally enough) are concerned more with profit than anything else. Still, I couldn't help weary a little at the number of times they said how much they'd paid for something and how much they'd sold it for - particularly on the occasions when that effectively meant diddling a seller out of money, because the seller had sold a book for less than it was worth. Which made it rather a surprise to come across this paragraph in the epilogue:
We have become keen observers of the generations who have succeeded us. Every age is critical of the next, and we are no exceptions. Although we admire and befriend many young dealers who do not confuse value with price, we deplore the all too popular conception entertained by many dealers that books are to be regarded primarily as investments. Such booksellers go in for dollarship, not scholarship.
I wonder how they think they differ from this? Perhaps as bibliophiles, albeit bibliophiles who get money from their love, rather than simply gratification.

But, this quibble aside, I found it fascinating and fun. It's not up there with Phantoms on the Bookshelves or Howards End is on the Landing - the works of true booklovers, and lovers of 20th-century fiction into the bargain - and it's not quite the book that I thought it would be, but Old Books, Rare Friends will still retain its place on my books-about-books bookshelf.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

As Cooks Go by Elizabeth Jordan

Note the 'Invalid Fruit Tart' postcard from my friend Clare...

I don't remember where I heard about As Cooks Go (1950) by Elizabeth Jordan - please let me know if it was from you! I dimly remember reading about it somewhere, either a blog or a footnote in a book, but I have been unable to trace the source. What I do know is that it arrived in my house on 13 October last year, and that I was sold by the title coming from one of my favourite Saki quotations:
The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.
That was enough to have it winging to my door; that, and the fact that there was a cheap copy going on Amazon. I'm very glad I did, as it's right up my street - and I think almost all regular readers of Stuck-in-a-Book would also find a lot to love here.

It took me a page or two to realise/remember, but this is non-fiction; it is Jordan's account of becoming a cook. If the spectre of Monica Dickens' glorious One Pair of Hands is in your head, then it was also in mine - and remained there. As Cooks Go certainly isn't as amusing as One Pair of Hands, and isn't really trying to be, but it is a lot more informative about the day-to-day life of a cook - and also has the virtue of being an account of necessity, rather than a frivolous experiment. For Jordan needs the money, essentially.

As Jordan explains on the first page, she hires a charwoman because she so loathes cleaning and cooking, and must find a way to pay for this. And decides to do so by becoming a cook. This may seem (aptly enough) like jumping out of the frying-pan and into the fire, but it is monotony that Jordan wanted to avoid. In her new role, she would cook (and sometimes serve) elaborate dinner parties, but in different houses on different nights of the week. She starts off working for two bachelor brothers in one house, a friend and her husband in another, and so on.

As the memoir continues, we see Jordan in various different settings. She tries her hand at cooking in a restaurant, in a hotel, and as the chef in a large private house. She undertakes a series of cooking lessons, hitchhiking to Scotland every weekend to see her children (more on them anon). In each situation, she recounts tales of the people she has to work alongside - sometimes complimentary and affectionate, but more often wearied. Although the book is not first and foremost a witty one, I did love the odd moment of dark humour:
Mrs Blackmore both owned and managed the hotel. She was a widow, and as I became better acquainted with her I envied her late partner for a release which can only have been welcome.
More impressive than her memory of dozens of people is her recollection of the foods cooked and meals served. As Cooks Go could almost serve as a recipe book, and I think would greatly entertain anybody partial to recipe books. She details many of the meals she cooked, giving tips as to seasonings and flavourings, unusual combinations of ingredients, and the most efficient ways of cooking anything from trout and potato to Bondpige Med Slor and Chou Farci Maigre. This is all the more impressive, given that she was working with rations. I don't recall any dates appearing in the text, but it was published in 1950 and the war is not mentioned, so I assume it all takes place between 1945 and 1950? Some foods now considered commonplace (rice, for instance, and gnocchi) were new and exciting to Jordan - while some sections proved that there is nothing new under the sun...
During the first week-end in Scotland I started to read The Way of All Flesh; when I left the Oak Hotel I had reached page seventy-five. Later on I started to read it again quickly, hardly able to put it down. It was a relief to be able once again to read, to enter into the stories of other lives recounted with humour and sensibility. It is monstrous to me that, except during a short time of crisis, people should have to work so hard that they have no time to think of anything but the trivial everyday worries of material existence. Many times have I heard the boast that there is no time for anything but expediences. I think rather that it is something of which to be ashamed: it is certainly a disease of modern life.
Jordan focuses almost entirely on her career in As Cooks Go - which is, of course, her prerogative. It does make it slightly unsettling when she mentions, in passing, that she and her husband have separated, and their children are living with her parents. There is a space of a year where she barely sees them at all - and although the whole process documented in the book is leading towards Jordan being able to live with her two daughters, the emotional turmoil of her romantic and maternal life is determinedly put to one side. As I say, entirely her right to do so - but it is still a slightly unsettling background to the day-to-day anxieties of cooking.

But, besides this small issue (and an extremely abrupt ending), As Cooks Go is a really great read. It isn't screamingly funny (for that, do turn to Monica Dickens and One Pair of Hands), nor is it remotely charming - instead, it is realistic and engaging, refusing to sentimentalise or satirise, but simply to show the life of a cook in various places. Anybody with an interest in domestic life and working women in the late 1940s will find a great amount to fascinate from a seldom documented perspective.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

I have been extremely pleased to see the success of the British Library Crime Classics, but although I've cheered them on from a distance, and bought one of the John Budes, it's only now that I've actually read one of the series. And it isn't the John Bude; it is one they kindly gave me: Death on the Cherwell (1935) by Mavis Doriel Hay.

This is extremely apt for me, since it is set in Oxford - the Cherwell (pronounced char-well, please) is part of the Thames - and I know the places Hay describes. The setting is largely the environs of the non-existent Persephone College, a women-only Oxford college. A handy map in the front shows where this college supposedly stands - a small park by the river that, incidentally, remains building-free, and would be a very foolish place to build anything you didn't want to have annually flooded. But, according to Stephen Booth's introduction, it's based on St. Hilda's - which Hay attended as a student, but before women were awarded degrees.

A group of undergraduates, or 'undergraduettes' as the papers apparently label them, are in the process of setting up the Lode League ('the formation of esoteric societies is one of the favourite pastimes of undergraduates'), sat on the corrugated iron roof of a small boathouse, when a mysterious canoe floats by... In it is the body of the bursar, Miss Myra Denning, an unpopular woman whose unpopularity was, indeed, the very genesis of the Lode League.

This League is composed of Daphne, Gwyneth, Nina, and Sally. In truth, I found these young women more or less interchangeable - one was supposed to be wiser than the others, one more impetuous, and so forth, but any of them could fairly easily have said any of the dialogue. It didn't much matter. What matters rather more is the fun that Hay throws us into.

As I wrote recently in my post on A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery, detective novels that aren't written by Agatha Christie inevitably suffer by comparison, when it comes to plot. (I'm not going to risk mentioning Dorothy L. Sayers again, even though there are striking similarities in scenario to Gaudy Night, published in the same year. I'd better not say what I thought of Gaudy Night.) And the plot of Death on the Cherwell isn't filled with the sorts of twists, turns, and surprises that Christie would have found - it ends up being one of the people you suspected it would be all along, for fairly undisguised reasons - but, that acknowledged, this novel is great fun and very well told.

Hay is great at crafting an engaging narrative. Whenever it palls a bit, we get a new character - a vivacious and witty couple who apparently appeared in Hay's Murder Underground make a reappearance, driving madly around Oxford and staying at the Mitre (which was apparently once rather classy; how things have changed). Then there is Draga, the 'Yugo-Slavian' student who lives in constant surprise at the English and equally constant poor grammar. She is in every way a stereotype of the Eastern European student, but perhaps we should expect no better from the 1930s - and she is certainly not intended as an offensive portrait. She is vibrant and amusing, and certainly stands out from the other student characters.

Although sold as an amateur detectives premise, there are a couple of police officers involved. Both, luckily, are extremely willing to share details of their investigations with the central characters, and they more or less work in tandem.

I wasn't quite fair when I said there weren't twists and turns. There are, just not particularly in the denouement - along the way, we get curses and secrets and all that sort of thing. There isn't a dull moment, and it's all (I keep coming back to this) very fun. Like The Red House Mystery, it's definitely cosy crime - with the added bonus of offering a window into a women's college in the 1930s. It's a delight, and if the rest of the British Library Crime Classics are of an equal tone and standard, then I can't wait to dive in and explore.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you're all having a fantastic day! I'm actually writing this on Thursday, in astonishing preparation, so who knows quite what I'll be doing on Saturday... I've got my fingers crossed for a sunny day and a nice lie-in. And a walk to the post office to pick up some parcels. It's all go at Stuck-in-a-Book Towers.

1.) The link - is to the Folio Prize shortlist. Now, I've not read any of them - I know, pearl-grabs of surprise all round - but I had read a surprising FOUR of the 80-strong longlist:

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee

All of these were excellent, but none made the shortlist. And I find it very difficult to believe that any of the shortlisted authors could be better than Marilynne Robinson... but, again, I haven't read them, so this is wildly uninformed.

2.) The blog post - is on the hitherto-unknown-to-me Farnham Street blog. It's a job application letter by Eudora Welty to the New Yorker. It's glorious. I love her more than ever. (Are any of her novels outright comic? Please say yes, someone.)

3.) The book - I have to tip my hat to the good people/person who arranged the window display in Blackwell's in Oxford. How did I not know that there was another biography of Tove Jansson available? I love Boel Westin's (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books) but hadn't realised that Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen also existed. It was published in 2013 in Finnish, and this translation by David McDuff was published last year. And it's such a beautiful book. So beautiful. Now the question is: do I wait a while so that I forget some of the details from Westin's book, or do I dive straight in?

Thursday, 12 February 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird: the unexpected sequel

Harper Lee, as I'm sure you've all heard by now, is leaving the ranks of Emily Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, and Anna Sewell, and will have two novels published during her lifetime. I'm sure the blogs have been ablaze with it; I've not spotted much chat, but I've been rather absent from the blogosphere for the past fortnight.

In case you didn't know, here's the low-down:
  • It'll be called Go Set a Watchman, showing that Harper ain't lost her knack for titles that are seemingly gibberish but actually (probably) very meaningful.
  • It was written before To Kill a Mockingbird
  • It's about an adult Scout - the editor Harper Lee sent it to told her to write about Scout as a child instead. That turned out ok.
  • Supposedly it was found in a box, or something.
Lovely SIAB-reader Merenia got in touch to suggest I blog about this, and included a fascinating excerpt from an article in the Guardian:
However, Dr Ian Patterson at Cambridge University was underwhelmed by the news. “I can’t but imagine it must be of historical interest rather than anything else, at this point,” he said. “It will doubtless be eagerly read by fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, but that’s a soggy sentimental liberal novel if ever there was one. I’m always dubious of attempts to close the gap between fiction and reality, as in wanting to know what happens to characters outside a novel’s confines – Tom Jones with Alzheimer’s, Mr Darcy’s daughters or, as here, Scout grown up. I expect it will garner lots of short-term interest on those grounds, and on the grounds of being another novel by a one-novel writer.
Now, I have no idea who Dr Ian Patterson is, but according to his website one of his publications is a critical guide to Wyndham Lewis. Having tried and monumentally failed to read Tarr, I can sense that we are not likely to enjoy the same books. But Dr Simon Thomas says that To Kill a Mockingbird is far from soggy or sentimental. It is liberal, I suppose, in that it's anti-racism, but I suspect (and hope) that's not quite the gripe he has. Mostly, it is a beautiful portrait of a good man and excellent father - which does sound rather soggy, I suppose. But you've all read it; you know it's not.

Having said that, I do have some qualms about this book being published. Harper Lee has always been adamant that she doesn't want anything else to be published. I worry that her fragile mental and physical health may have led to her being pushed into something...

But will I read it? Of course.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

I've reviewed The Red House Mystery today, over at Vulpes Libris - a detective novel by the man who is probably my all-time favourite writer, A.A. Milne. Usually I'd just point you over there, but I hope my fellow foxes won't mind me posting the review here too, since I'd really like to have my much-loved author reviewed in the Stuck-in-a-Book archives as well...

The Red House MysteryNowadays, The Red House Mystery is likely to provoke the words "I didn't know A.A. Milne wrote a detective novel"; back in the day, you'd have been more likely to hear astonishment that the author of The Red House Mystery had turned his hand to children's books. For, although Milne arguably only ever wrote one detective novel (Four Days' Wonder just about counts as one as well, I'd suggest, but that's another story), for a while it was the thing for which he was most famous. Having earned his name as a Punch humorist, he turned his hand to The Red House Mystery in 1922 and it was an enormous success. Two years later would come When We Were Very Young, and another two years later arrived a certain Bear of Very Little Brain - but, between 1922 and 1924, A.A. Milne and crime went hand-in-hand. And a few years ago The Red House Mystery was reprinted: hurrah.

I first read it sometime before that, in around 2002, when copies were traceable but the novel was certainly not in print. I enjoyed it, but that was about all I remembered when I decided, recently, to give it a re-read.

Everything kicks off 'in the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon'; The Red House is occupied with various guests, but it is the servants who take centre stage at the beginning. Mrs Stevens (the cook-housekeeper) is talking to her parlourmaid niece Audrey about the colour of a blouse the latter will wear. That isn't a detail that has any bearing on the later plot; it's just an indication of the sort of domestic triviality that Milne so loves describing, whatever sort of fiction he is writing. And, indeed, whatever sort of fiction he is writing, he can't avoid giving his prose an air of comedy. Both Stevenses are rather given to inconsequential conversation, and Milne throws in some fun verbal tics. Audrey relays the news that Mr Mark's brother has returned from Australia (Mr Mark being the owner of The Red House); Mrs Stevens replies:
"Well, he may have been in Australia," said Mrs Stevens, judicially; "I can't say for that, not knowing the country; but what I do say is he's never been here. Not while I've been here, and that's five years."
Upon being assured by Audrey that the brother has been absent for fifteen years, she says:
"I'm not saying anything about fifteenth years, Audrey. I can only speak for what I know, and that's five years Whitsuntide. I can take my oath he's not set foot in the house since five years Whitsuntide."
You either like that sort of thing or you don't. If you don't, there is still the mystery to hang around for; if you do, you'll find that Milne could write just about anything and you'd lap it up.

What he has written is a murder mystery that is pretty decent. My refusal to reveal any details at all about a detective novel has rather stymied this review, but suffice to say that it doesn't revolutionise the genre particularly. That is to say, this was before the Golden Age had really taken hold, so the genre hadn't come close to being clichéd. For context, The Red House Mystery came out the same year as Agatha Christie's second novel. So, we have clues strewn willy-nilly, secret passages, midnight assignations, costumes, and all sorts of things that would be considered too hackneyed now. How nice to have been able to use them with impunity!

Milne lays out some ground rules for detective fiction (or, at least, his favourite detective fiction) in an introduction. Plain writing (no 'effecting egresses'), no predominant love story, and 'for the detective himself I demand first that he be an amateur'. He can be a extremely shrewd man, but not a specialist - or, at least, his specialism ought not to help him solve the murder. As Milne writes:
What satisfaction is it to you or me when the famous Professor examines the small particle of dust which the murderer has left behind him, and infers that he lives between a brewery and a flour-mill? What thrill do we get when the blood-spot on the missing man's handkerchief proves that he was recently bitten by a camel? Speaking for myself, none. The thing is so much too easy for the author, so much too difficult for his readers.
The detective Milne creates is, indeed, an amateur; a guest at The Red House. He is Anthony Gillingham, and is intelligent, charming, quietly witty, and essentially an incarnation of Milne himself, so far as I can tell. It is difficult to get much of a sense of him here, besides his likeability, but I would have loved to see him feature in more detective novels. Sadly, that was not to be.

I have glossed over the surface of the plot, but that is to be expected. Importantly, The Red House Mystery is cosy crime at its finest. Milne does not have the genius for plotting that Christie had - but who does? This novel can certainly hold its own with the second tier of detective novelists and, I would controversially argue, is rather better than the Dorothy L Sayers' books I've read. If you've somehow missed it, go and treat yourself.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

It's not quite true to say that I didn't join in Margery Sharp Day (so ably organised by Fleur Fisher; see her round-up post for more details), because I started Cluny Brown on the day in question. What I did not do was either finish the book or write a review, but I have now done so - encouraged by the dictum that it is better late than never.

Actually, according to the cover of my edition (by the Reprint Society in 1945, a year after the novel was original published) I was joining in Marjorie Sharp Day. Despite getting her name right inside the book and printed on the book itself, the dustjacket spells it incorrectly. What a thing to overlook!

I read my first Sharp, The Foolish Gentlewoman, back in 2002, encouraged by seeing it recommended in the letters of P.G. Wodehouse. In the intervening dozen years I've bought quite a few of her novels (this one in 2005), but I needed this encouragement from Fleur Fisher to make the obvious next step and read one of them. And thank goodness I did. Cluny Brown is an absolute delight, and establishes Sharp in my mind not simply as a first rate middlebrow novelist but also (which I had forgotten) a wry and witty one.

Cluny Brown is a young woman whose abiding fault (according, at least, to her guardian Uncle Arn) is not knowing her place. Although he is content and humble to be a plumber, she doesn't see any reason why she should not take tea at the Ritz, if she can muster together the money. She is not beautiful; she is inordinately plain (which was refreshing), but she has Presence. And that presence disconcerts her uncle; he decides that it would be much for the best if she were taken away from London and put into service. And so she goes to Devon to be a maid.

If this were simply a knockabout comedy about the ineptitude of an inexperienced maid in a large house, that would frankly be enough for me - but there is plenty else going on. Down in that house are Lady Carmel and her hunting-shooting-fishing husband, and (occasionally) their adult son Andrew. He has seen fit to invite a Polish intellectual to live with them during the war, under the impression that is in grave danger throughout Europe. Completing the party (upstairs at least) is Betty, a young lady with whom every young man is in love, and who is divinely unmoved by these attentions.

We must pause for a moment to appreciate the wonder of Lady Carmel. She manages the household beautifully. Everybody thinks her sweet and ineffectual, whereas she is sweet and effectual; never a busybody or ogre, she simply knows how to treat everybody and persuade everybody to behave properly. And she could not be considered the most politically devoted:
Lady Carmel looked troubled. It was the thing to do, just then, at any mention of Europe, and indeed there had been moments, with Andrew still abroad, when she felt very troubled indeed. But now the expression was purely automatic, like looking reverent in church. Picking up a bough of rhododendron she tried its effect in a white crackle jar, and at once her brow cleared.
And she appears again in a quotation I wanted to give to show the humour in Sharp's writing:
For a moment mother and son stared at each other in mutual surprise. Lady Carmel in particular presented an odd appearance: the lilac in her hand gave her a vaguely allegorical look, like a figure strayed out of a pageant.
You will be getting the impression that the novel is nothing by Lady Carmel wandering about holding plants; in truth, she is quite a minor character, I just happened to love her. The title of the novel is Cluny Brown and it is indisputably she who is the main focus. Cluny is brazenly honest, with an honesty born of ingenuousness rather than anything else. Her answers to questions are often curiously at odds with expectations, and perhaps the reason she does not 'know her place' is that she doesn't really have one. Equally happy in the Ritz and up to her elbows in water fixing somebody's sink, she is also fluid between the upstairs and downstairs of the Carmels' house. She is happiest of all with the neighbour's golden retriever - and begins an engaging relationship with the local chemist - a serious, level-headed, but poetic gentleman.

Sharp takes the maid-with-prospects narrative (which has been around since Pamela and before) and completely changes it. Her charming ingenue is not a beauty or an upper-class girl; she does not hide a cynical soul or a caustic wit. Those elements are as enjoyably present as could be wished, but in the mouths of other characters (and occasionally the narrator); Cluny Brown is not fey or soppy.

I've spent quite a lot of time saying what Cluny Brown is not, because that's the best way of saying that Sharp isn't quite like any other writer I've read. But, basically, any lover of domestic fiction and witty, wry fiction will find them combined beautifully in this novel. Thanks, Fleur Fisher, for encouraging me to pick up my copy.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

A couple more reviews (and a pretty cover)

Busy busy busy at the moment. Off to London today to see Once, and yesterday my team won the Abingdon Book Quiz put on by Mostly Books. It's all GO. The quiz is always great fun; this year we had Annabel on our team, as she was taking a year off from writing the questions. And I picked up a few books as prizes or the book swap - Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway (after John Self raved so much about it), Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe, and Humor by Stanley Dorwood (mostly for the beautiful cover).

Not really a Weekend Miscellany, but thought I'd direct you to a couple of the Shiny New Books reviews I wrote...

The Small Widow by Janet McNeill - one for anybody who liked All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West.

The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray - the latest Persephone title, and a worthy addition.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

My Family and Other Animals

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll already have seen me raving about this one (oh, yes, I have Twitter - @stuck_inabook - tell your friends) but I loved the latest Slightly Foxed memoir My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

And, indeed, I have written about it at Shiny New Books. Even if you don't usually like clicking from one place to another, do go and read more about this one, because I'd be surprised if this can be beaten as my book of 2015... (strong words for a book read in January!)

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Oops... a belated look back at 2014

So, it's not even January any more, but I've been meaning to do my annual stats round-up for a while. Leaving it so late at least means that I shan't be overshadowed by everybody else doing it at the same time...

Number of Books Read
Only 98, which is the lowest I've read since I started keeping records - although only five fewer than last year. It makes me realise how unlikely A Century of Books was to be completed...

Fiction/Non-Fiction Ratio
72 fiction and 26 non-fiction. Non-fiction had been growing every year, and I'm surprised that it slumped in 2014, since it felt like quite a non-fiction-heavy year.

Male/Female Authors
62 by women, 36 by men - which is more or less what I expected.

10, most of which were by or about A.A. Milne.

Reading slumps
One, and it lasted for weeks and weeks. Hence the number of Agatha Christie titles I read.

Oldest book read
I think the oldest book I read was exactly 100 years old - Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers. Very good it was too.

Newest book read
Shiny New Books meant I read loads of new books. Well, a few. I guess the most recent was Marilynne Robinson's Lila.

Shortest Title
Another victory for Lila!

Books in Translation
5, I think - including lots of Tove Jansson.

Books Added to my 50 Books List
Just two - Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald and Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins.

Most Books by One Author
Agatha Christie (quelle surprise) with 9. A.A. Milne had a healthy showing with 6.

Most Baffling Book
What on earth happened in Gertrude Stein's Blood on the Dining-Room Floor? I couldn't tell you.

Most Disappointing Book
Agatha stood me in good stead, but Elephants Can Remember was dire.

Most Overdue Read
I should have read Swallows and Amazons decades ago. Better late than never!

Best Title
I didn't love the novel as much as I'd hoped, but Nancy Spain's Cinderella Goes to the Morgue still has a beauty of a title.

Animals in Book Titles
This has become an essential category for me now. Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie, Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, Lets Discuss Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris, Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford, The Man Who Unleashed the Birds by Paul Newman, and The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars.

Strange things that happened in the books I read in 2014
Everyone's favourite category! People teleported and stuck monkey glands to necks, the fifth child turned out to be a demon, the apocalypse came to a country house, a fake chemist entered a dystopia, a woman and a dog swapped minds, Virginia Woolf wandered through modern day New York, enormous silkworms crushed crowds, a hotel was used as a kidnapping front, oh, and lots of ingenious murders, of course.