Friday 29 February 2008

The Graduate

Brief post today - just to say I'm graduating tomorrow!

A ceremony in the Sheldonian (pictured) where we will have someone speak at us in Latin, bestowing upon us the Power of Lecturing, amongst other things. After that I will be able to wear my mortar board (cap) as much as I like - up until this date it came with a £35 fine. But had to be carried to exams.

All rather silly, but also rather special. I'll let you know how it went...

Thursday 28 February 2008


Booking Through Thursday always comes just when my topics are drying up. You might have been treated to the anecdote about how I thought my camera had broken yesterday, only it hadn't, or a detailed examination of a pillow - instead, there is something you might well find interesting to read and to which to respond!

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

Yes, you guessed it - I'mgoing to hedge my bets and pick a few favourites. I've even turned them into an Identi-Kit picture, so you can spot my ideal heroine, should you see her misformed body wandering along the street.

So which three females made the grade? First and probably foremost - well, it has to be Elizabeth Bennet, doesn't it? I'd be astonished if she weren't the most popular choice this week. Wit, gumption, self-knowledge, affection for those around her, intelligence, beauty, morals, self-deprecation, eventual wisdom - what is there not to like in our Lizzie? She, in case you wondered, makes up the torso and arms of our Ideal Heroine. No particular reason why those bits.

Second (the legs downwards) is the indomitable Miss Hargreaves. For more on Connie, see more or less every post I've ever written, or this one in particular. Incorrigible, unflappable, musical, quite selfish but often very loving, and unintentionally hilarious Miss Hargreaves is everything a comic character should be, and my life would be a duller place without her in it. She's brought along Sarah, her dog, and a cockatoo called Dr. Pepusch, hope that's not cheating.

And the head - The Provincial Lady. Well, it's actually her author, E M Delafield, but needs must. Again, witty and self-deprecating, ironic, long-suffering and eternally provincial, she is the architypal everywoman, but also somehow unique.

So there we are. My three favourite female protagonists, and I can't imagine the landscape of literature without the three of them. How amusing it would be if the three of them were in the same room. I think they'd probably loathe each other, but I would be delighted.

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Letters, Pray

Following on from yesterday's post about my own personal letters, we'll move onto published letters. I think the topic has come up here before, and Karen has definitely discussed it, but I had a slightly different angle on the matter today.

I tend to read letters when I'm, um, otherwise occupied - useful to have something to peruse in snatches, where the thread won't be lost if five minute bursts are the only opportunity nature affords - and have recently finished Dear Friend & Gardener by Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd. This is two years of exchanged letters, covering a few topics but almost always gardens and gardening. The scenario is a little unlike most collections of letters, in that these friends appear to have been approached by a publisher before the two years exchange began: this is from the last letter -

I suppose this'll be my last letter of the year, which means of the series, but it does not mean that we shall stop writing to or telephoning each other. Just that was shall n
o longer be going public. I don't think that has inhibited us much. The main difference, from a totally private letter, is the extra explanatory matter that is necessary, as, in this letter, 'the autumn-flowering Crocus speciosus'. Obviously 'autumn-flowering' would be omitted in a wholly private letter, as we both know this perfectly well. Apart from that, perhaps the odd indiscertion had to be forgone, but nothing much.

Quite. I know absolutely nothing about gardening. As I read the letters, I got the feeling I was one of the people Beth and Christopher would most pity - someone who likes seeing gardens, but is content to remain in total ignorance as to how and why it looks like it does. These letters are littered with Latin plant names, and at one point Beth professes quite sweet astonishment that the public might not know them all. For subject matter, I couldn't grasp this book - I read on because of the friendship and the passion these two writers exchanged. Dear Friend & Gardener is a small window on a practice I kno
w nothing about, but also a thriving love of gardening that is both alien and captivating to me.

Have you ever read a book about something about which you knew nothing, only to be enthralled by the writer's passion? A biography, perhaps, or letters or just regular non-fiction. I've never picked up non-fiction before unless I was confident I'd be interested in the topic, but in this genre - like any other - good writing can be read for itself, and spark an unknown interest.

The next collection of letters I've started is Letters to a Friend: The Spiritual Autobiography of a Distinguished Writer by Rose Macaulay. The 'Friend' in question is a Catholic priest in America, whose guidance and wisdom helped Macaulay rediscover her faith. Only Macaulay's side of the correspondance is published, but so far it is proving witty, touching and interesting. And has a beautiful cover...

Tuesday 26 February 2008

Boxing Day

Before I forget, anyone here regularly go to Buenos Aires? My least expected email of late was from some people who have written a guide to bookshops in Buenos Aires - if that meets a corner then have a gander here!

Now onto home territory - I thought I'd share a little purchase with
you. Since I'm not buying books in Lent (which was particularly difficult when, in the same half hour, I came across a beautiful, signed book by Margaret Drabble for £3, and a ten-novels-for-ten-pounds boxset of Daphne du Maurier) I keep buying other things. Yes, I know, that's not really the point... but I went into the shop to get a Mothering Sunday present, honest. In fact I also bought a Mothering Sunday present, but I'll keep schtum on that for the meantime - Our Vicar's Wife (along with Our Vicar and, from a different direction, The Caron Copy) is coming on Saturday for my Graduation, and will be given her gift then.

So what did I buy?
For a long time I've been looking for a box to keep letters in. Yes, yes, I know - any old shoebox would do. In fact, the shoebox was my container of choice during my degree, the result of which was a revision mountain which resembled Clarks at stock-taking time. But letters are different. I already have a small cream box with roses, for letters from
my Aunt Jacq. Pictured above is a beautiful old green/wooden box for 'general' letters, but my friend Barbara-from-Ludlow had no receptacle for her letters. And where to find such a thing? The rose box was from a wonderful shop in Worcester, The New England Store, but we moved house and neither Oxford nor Yeovil have anything quite the same. The old wooden box was nabbed whilst sorting donations to a village fete - yes, in Worcestershire (fear not, I made a donation). So what to do?

Ah, Arcadia, you faileth me not. I wrote about this shop a while ago, in my Oxford tour, and it is perfect for gifts. And gifts to myself. In amongst potential Mothering Sunday presents lay a beauty of a box, which just had to be mine. Not too pricey, either. Cheaper than the Mothering Sunday present, which made me feel justified.

We may have chatted about letter writing before - but remind me! Do you write real-life letters to anyone? Or just email? And are there special
places you keep letters you receive? Personal ones, of course, rather than bills and bank statements. I love going back and reading through old letters, and surmising (or wildly guessing) at what might have been my words between each received missive...

Monday 25 February 2008


Perhaps someone here knows - is 'meme' pronounced to rhyme with 'dream', or simply 'me me'? It is a little navel-gazing-esque, but hopefully you will forgive that when I open up the arena to anyone who fancies joining in!

I took this from Harriet's blog, and apparently it is quite famous as being James Lipton's. Must confess I hadn't heard of him, but perhaps that is not the benchmark of fame.

(the picture isn't relevant - I took it in the Lake District last Summer, and almost put running water as my favourite sound... so it's staying!)

What is your favorite word? Solemnity

What is your least favorite word? Onyx

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? creatively - reading (or reading about) Virginia Woolf; spiritually and emotionally singing worship songs to God!

What turns you off? sleep-deprivation

What is your favourite curse word? Fish. I know it's not one, but it's what I say....

What sound or noise do you love? Heavy rain against a window (when I'm on the right side of it)

What sound or noise do you hate? things scraping against ice in a freezer

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Showing people around Jane Austen's house

What profession would you not like to do? Surgery - Harriet's answer is also mine!

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Wow! Would He need to say anything? "I love you", I think.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Home From Home

I remember two revelations dawning on me in my early school years - the first was that girls don't all like each other. Goodness knows why I'd think they would, but up until the age of 8 or 9 I'd naively and contentedly been under the impression that all girls were friends. Perhaps females thought the same of boys, at that age? When I discovered that Amy and Emma and Felicity and Faith were not all amicable, my life changed a little bit... but the next revelation did not come until I was 11 or so. Guess what - teachers don't all like each other either! Who'd have thought?

After these learning curves, it came as no surprise that tutors might no like each other in Rosy Thornton's Hearts and Minds. Though it's set in The Other Place (Cambridge) Rosy T is a Fellow there, and we can't hold it against her. Something of my naivety has remained unsullied throughout the battlefield of life, and I tend not to notice the animosities that whirl around me - I remember being asked by my tutor if the "situation" in my English group had settled down, and had to confess ignorance as to its existence. Seems I was blessed by not giving or receiving any of it. And thus it may be that Magdalen was a hotbed
of back-stabbing and internal politics, but it all just passed me by.

Similarly, I've not met this sort of thing in fiction. When Rosy offered me a review copy of Hearts and Minds, I had to confess to not having read any campus novels. Ever. Apparently they are a male-dominated beast - so setting one in an all-female college is doubtless an intriguing twist to the genre, but I'm afraid it's the only part of the genre that I've read.

I say all-female. Hearts and Minds opens with the controversial arriving of James Rycarte as Head of House at St. Radegund's College. He's the first non-female (or 'male', if you will) Head of House
they've ever had, and is even known as Mistress for a while. From Oxford I am familiar with the vague nomenclature for this position - Magdalen has a President, but other colleges opted for Master, Rector, Provost, Principal, Dean, Warden or Regent. Rycarte, as well as being a man, comes from the world of media - perhaps the flipside of the coin from academia.

Joining James on centre stage is loveable Dr. Martha Pearce, the Senior Tutor whose administrative tasks have meant her academic pursuits have slipped, and who struggles to motivate a high-school dropout daughter and inactive husand who writes occasional poetry in Italian. There are a host of others, most notably Rycarte's nemesis, the cunning uber-feminist Ros Clarke, who bitterly opposes the appointment of a Master rather than a Mistress. What drives the novel forward is the announcement that an old media friend of Rycarte's, Luigi Alvau, wants to make a
donation of £1,000,000 to St. Radegund's. Oh, and his daughter is applying as well, just thought he'd mention it.

Is it ethical to accept a donation, even if the daughter will be interviewed on her own merits? Must one be seen to do right, as well as actually doing it? At one point the Admissions Tutor is asked what the kids from comprehensives (oo, like me) would say -
"I think they would laugh at us, to be honest - laugh at this whole discussion. It would never cross their minds for a moment that anyone would turn down the offer of a million pounds."
It is to Thornton's credit that the reader doesn't dismiss the dilemma as silly - nobody works harder than Oxbridge to encourage admissions from all sectors and conduct admission honourably, yet nobody is more speedily censured. (Just Google 'Laura Spence' for the most ridiculous example).

I was keen throughout to find how Rycarte et al would solve the predicament - but the personal levels were as gripping as the professional. Martha's attempts to organise and understand her family, without nagging, is depicted honestly and movingly. To be honest, the cover and title of Thornton's novel don't do her any favours - it looks and sounds like 'chick lit' (for want of a better term) whereas Hearts and Minds is a witty, well-thought-out and excellently structured novel. A perfect glimpse not only into Oxbridge university life, but into the minds of humans doing the best they can in tricky situations.

Friday 22 February 2008

Keeping it in the family

I got carried away, yesterday, spreading the merits of Helen Thomas' books, and forgot to add the bit that I meant to write about afterwards. I sort of hinted at it in the title to the post - "My Husband, The Poet". Today's title might make it even more obvious - I fancied chatting about the proliferation of families which spread the wealth when it comes to authorship. Some progress alongside each other (yes, those Haworthians are the archetype); some, like Helen, emerge as a consequence of their relative's writing prowess.

So we have Emily, Charlotte and Anne scribbling away together - their lives have become romanticised more than any other authors'. I'm frankly astonished that there hasn't been a film about them in the recent spate of author-films.
Scripts must come up all the time, and they can't all be awful. Half of Hollywood's finest would be battling over the chance to play Cathy-oops-I-mean-Emily or Jane-sorry-Charlotte. Or The Other One. (What is it about the meeting of the Brontes with commercialism which brings out the cynic in me?) I'm thinking Maggie Gyllenhaal for Emily, Cate Blanchett as Charlotte, and Emily Blunt stepping into Anne's neglected shoes.

What other literary families are there? Denis Mackail and Angela Thirkell were brother and sister; Colin McInnes is the latter's son. EM Delafield's mother - Mrs. Henry de la Pasture (see where Delafield got her penname from...) - was a famous children's author. The Amises, of course. Mary and Percy Shelley. Charles Dickens and his granddaughter Monica. Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The Powys family. More recently, Jane Gordon-Cumming and Kate Fforde (Jane's novel A Proper Family Christmas, which I read a while ago, is due to come back into print at some point... will keep you posted). I'm sure I've missed out dozens of obvious ones, so do let me know...

What I find even more interesting
is the ones, like Helen, who follow in their relative's footsteps, or who starts writing as a direct and overt consequence. Christopher Robin Milne wrote his wonderful autobiographical trilogy The Enchanted Places, The Path Through The Trees, The Hollow on the Hill to banish some demons, and went on to write some other poetry and stories. Milne's niece, Angela, also wrote a few bits and pieces. You might have noticed I didn't include the Mitford sisters in the section above - would Jessica and Deborah have written if Nancy hadn't led the way? Who knows?

There is something about a famil
y writing together, or writing because of each other, which collides the private and public in a fascinating way - publishing is, of course, nothing if not public. I daresay the etymology even has something to do with it. But if they can show manuscripts to each other beforehand; discuss ideas; become influenced by someone who shared both a nursery and a mass market - just another of those lights which illuminates a little bit of authorship.

I bought Living With An Writer a while ago. Wonder what they have to say...

Thursday 21 February 2008

My Husband, The Poet

Number 19 in the 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About is a double-whammy. Actually, since the 1930s these books haven't been published separately, as far as I'm aware, so hopefully I shan't be done for false advertising or anything.

Step forward, Helen Thomas. No, not my aunt (though I do have a very nice aunt of that name) but rather the widow of poet Edward Thomas. Y'know, the 'Adelstrop' one. After Edward was killed in the First World War, she wrote As It Was, an
autobiographical (though pseudonymical) portrait of their courtship and marriage, up to the birth of their first child. She wrote it cathartically, and was only approached with the idea of publishing a while later (1926). This she did, and followed it a few years later with World Without End (1931), which started where As It Was left off, and continued until David (Edward) leaves for war.
What beautiful books! Helen's writing is the very opposite of pretension - but she is a natural born storyteller. She raises a family, moves through several small house, joins and leaves communities. Very little that I can see or analyse why she is so good, but these books lilt along with bathos and pathos and every sort of -thos. The final paragraph had my crying:

A thick mist hung everywhere, and there was no sound except, far away in the valley, a train shunting. I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard his old call coming up to me: 'Coo-ee!' he called. 'Coo-ee!' I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his 'Coo-ee'. And again went my answer like an echo. 'Coo
-ee' came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my 'Coo-ee' went out of my lungs strong to pierce to him as he strode away from me. 'Coo-ee!' So faint now, it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.
Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.


Throughout Helen's writing, Edward/David doesn't come off as the best husband, but what saturates these books is Helen's passionate, loyal and unshaking love for him - the sort of love which would seem a bit far-fetched in fiction, but is obviously true here. Such simple books, but will move you a huge amount, I guarantee it.

I thought they'd gone out of print, but managed to find a new edition called Under Storm's Wing, which has the two novels alongside some photographs, letters and memoirs. Haven't looked at the letters and memoirs yet, but I await them with pleasure. They can only add to the touching honesty with which Helen Thomas has written simple, beautiful, affecting works.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

Book Through Thursday

Booking Through Thursday on a Wednesday?

Well, I started writing this post last night, with the intention of waking up early in putting it out there before the good people of the world woke up, but I overslept and so that didn't happen. Oops. But at least it's still a Thursday! This week's question:

All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

Hmm. Not as simple as it sounds. Ideally, I'd have a mix - ol
d hardbacks and new paperbacks. Nothing I love more than a 1930s hardback (except for God, family, sleep, sandwiches... ahem) but I have little time for modern hardbacks. So cumbersome and attention-seeking. Some beautiful paperbacks, though, add colour and diversity to my mellow shelves. If I had to choose between the two, and not be allowed my compromise... hmm... well, I'm biased in that my favourite authors aren't available in paperback and never were, so I'll have to choose hardback. I could always add colour with soft furnishings...

Over to you...?

Tuesday 19 February 2008

The Homeland

As promised, a photographic telling of the trip The Carbon Copy and I took to Bredon Hill. This involved quite a lot of walking, as public transport, though good in Worcestershire, isn't a door-to-door sort of service. We walked from train station to bus stop (1.75 miles?) then from Eckington's bus stop to the hill (2 miles?) and then the walk proper began!

The most beautiful day of the year so far - intensely blue sky, not a cloud to be seen, and all with a nice brisk breeze to prevent overheating on the upwards slog. Couldn't have asked for better weather. Here's the target:

The walk starts with a fairly wide track, which meanders up through a few fields. The grass alongside provided ideal sledging ground in Winter, being neither too steep nor too tame - and with plenty of space for crash-landings. Yes, that is the moon in the background.

It is essential to stop and "admire the view" often - especially in the steeper areas.

Once up the track, and across the long lumpy-field, we enter a little woodland area. (There used to be various routes up, including one alongside a reservoir and then up a near-sheer bit, involving clutching onto clumps of gras... I don't miss that...) That's the wonder of Bredon Hill - something for everyone. For the incautious, or newbies, it is very easy to overshoot a turning in the wood, and end up many miles away...

The summit! This may look ugly to you, but it is Parson's Folly, and to The Carbon Copy and me represents the symbol of Parson's, our 'house' at First School (and, coincidentally, unquestionably the very best one). Rumour has it that the Folly was built in order to tip the hill into the mountain category, but not sure how true that one is.

Traditionally, children write their names in stones in this big dip on top of the hill. Many a time and oft I have done it, but The Carbon Copy vetoed the idea. I presume 'Peggy' made a recent visit, and has not had her handiwork left untouched.

The Elephant Stone - for obvious reasons. A natural climbing frame, and used as such by the intrepid.

Back on flat ground - this is taken from the road, but is more or less the view I had from my bedroom when we lived in Eckington. We had a lovely day, and I hope you've enjoyed the journey!

The Homeland

As promised, a photographic telling of the trip The Carbon Copy and I took to Bredon Hill. This involved quite a lot of walking, as public transport, though good in Worcestershire, isn't a door-to-door sort of service. We walked from train station to bus stop (1.75 miles?) then from Eckington's bus stop to the hill (2 miles?) and then the walk proper began!

The most beautiful day of the year so far - intensely blue sky, not a cloud to be seen, and all with a nice brisk breeze to prevent overheating on the upwards slog. Couldn't have asked for better weather. Here's the target:

The walk starts with a fairly wide track, which meanders up through a few fields. The grass alongside provided ideal sledging ground in Winter, being neither too steep nor too tame - and with plenty of space for crash-landings. Yes, that is the moon in the background.

It is essential to stop and "admire the view" often - especially in the steeper areas.

Once up the track, and across the long lumpy-field, we enter a little woodland area. (There used to be various routes up, including one alongside a reservoir and then up a near-sheer bit, involving clutching onto clumps of gras... I don't miss that...) That's the wonder of Bredon Hill - something for everyone. For the incautious, or newbies, it is very easy to overshoot a turning in the wood, and end up many miles away...

The summit! This may look ugly to you, but it is Parson's Folly, and to The Carbon Copy and me represents the symbol of Parson's, our 'house' at First School (and, coincidentally, unquestionably the very best one). Rumour has it that the Folly was built in order to tip the hill into the mountain category, but not sure how true that one is.

Traditionally, children write their names in stones in this big dip on top of the hill. Many a time and oft I have done it, but The Carbon Copy vetoed the idea. I presume 'Peggy' made a recent visit, and has not had her handiwork left untouched.

The Elephant Stone - for obvious reasons. A natural climbing frame, and used as such by the intrepid.

Back on flat ground - this is taken from the road, but is more or less the view I had from my bedroom when we lived in Eckington. We had a lovely day, and I hope you've enjoyed the journey!

Blame the quiz...

Sorry - too late for a proper post. My housemates and I were at a pub quiz (we came 4th... or second last, depending on which way you look at it). Tomorrow I'll give a little description of Bredon Hill walk with my brother The Carbon Copy - today you'll just get a sneak preview with my favourite photo from yesterday, somewhere on top of the hill. Oh, and do try out Caroline's eight-word-synopses in the comments from yesterday.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Brief Encounters

The Carbon Copy and I spent the day in sunny Worcestershire, walking around our old haunts (we moved from Worcestershire 2.5 years ago) and generally wallowing in a bit of nostalgia and climbing Bredon Hill, our local hill. More on that soon, but will tantalise you with the fact that 'Bre' means hill; 'don' means hill; of course 'Hill' means hill. And thus Bredon Hill means hill-hill-hill. Just in case you couldn't tell at a first glance.

Following on from yesterday, I thought it might be amusing to think up some 8 word book reviews. Well, more synopses. If that. But it's quite fun - try and work out which books they are, or leave your own 8 word book synopses in the comments! Who said it isn't sophisticated here?

1) She bought flowers; had party (someone else died).

2) Does h
e love her or previous wife? Oh!

3) Struggling writer; poor girls; rich Americans - all sorted!

4) Matchmaker gets it wrong, then marries her brother.

5) Plain governess ousts madwoman from the attic... eventually.

6) Kill or not? Fakes mad, goes mad, dies.

7) Man makes up old lady; she appears: chaos!

8) Some Irish people wander around for a day.

9) Hot air balloon accident; stalker; some awkward situations.

10) Someone's always watching. Anarchy... but then the rats...

Saturday 16 February 2008

Short Review

The Carbon Copy is here for the weekend, so no time to write long posts at the moment. He also pointed out that 'Reading Between The Covers' post sounds like I've never actually read a book, and just look at the covers and "how many birds I saw on the day I bought the book"... oops, if I came across as a bit of a dullard! Succinctly, what I meant was that if I want to enjoy a book, I'm more likely to do so.

Being a brief post, I'm going to tell you about the book I'm reading in as few words as possible. It's Yes Man by Danny Wallace.

Review in 10 words: Man starts saying yes to everything. Non-fiction. Very funny indeed!

Hmm. Verbose. Let's try 5 words: Man always says yes; funny!

3 words: Comedian says yes!

1 word: YES!

Thursday 14 February 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Time for some Booking Through Thursday fun, methinks. Still a few minutes left of Thursday:

Here’s something for Valentine’s Day.

Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?

Well, the short answer is "no", so this is more to discover your experiences than to disseminate mine. Then again, I did write yesterday's post with the intention of sparking off a wildfire discussion... two comments! Perhaps you're all better people than me, and only ever allow the contents of a book to inform how much you enjoy it... ;-)

I did write a bit about Second Book Syndrome here - by which I mean reading a second book by a beloved author (not necessarily their second book, just the second you've encountered). And I can't think of any author's books which have stopped me in my tracks and caused our relationship to break down...

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Reading Between The Covers

How much of a review is written before I read the book?

I wonder if that has you leaping for your lorgnettes, keen to inspect my words for heresy against the sacred code of yakking about books? Perhaps you are already deleting Stuck-in-a-Book from your links or your favourites, and rehearsing such lines as "Well, I always knew he was a bad 'un; I only went to his website to watch the evidence accrue."

Fear not, SiaB regulars. This isn't a Middle English tutorial; I have read the books being discussed. I want to talk about a different type of paratextual mind-up-making (no ending on a preposition for me, one notes).

This started because I wanted to write about J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country. I daresay I still will, if you'll bear with me for a while. Carr's novel was my not-so-Secret Santa present from work colleague, friend and hurdy-gurdy enthusiast Clare (along with Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent and the DVD of The Go-Between) and was duly read back in December. And, yes, I loved it. But I realised that I'd more or less loved it before the first sentence had been read... and for these reasons:

a) it was a present from a friend

b) the cover was beautiful - just look at it. One of my favourites

c) the title was also beautiful. Rurality was promised

Now, none of these would have helped the novel survive if it had been awful. But they all helped me along the analysis process - and I think this happens whenever we pick up a book. Even if said book is chosen arbitrarily from a secondhand shelf, we must be influenced by the design, the shop, the title, the author's name (even if unknown) - all subtle but certain steps towards making what might be called an Uninformed Decision... personally, if I buy a book arbitrarily, without any prior knowledge of any constituent, then I am quietly determined to enjoy it. Serendipity must be heralded. "Oh, this," must say I, "Just found by accident - and it's wonderful!" Sometimes I'll buy a book simply because I've liked the bookshop, and I want a souvenir of the visit. And I find it makes a huge difference, whether or not I start a book with the steely glint in my eye that refuses to be left unentertained.

So what qualified a book for privileged pre-treatment in my world?

a) a gift or a recommendation from a friend

b) found in a good bookshop, or chosen on a hopeful whim

c) design/cover

d) from 1900-1949

e) I should really be reading something else....

I'm not proud of these prejudices, and I don't suggest that they should be in place, I merely suggest that they are. When I need to, I can turn them off - and that's what I try to do for book reviews on here, and definitely do for the times I've written for (student) newspapers. But I'm sure I'm not the only one open to these foibles. They certainly don't mean my mind can't be changed, but they push it in a certain direction.

A Month in the Country proved to be heading in the right direction from the off. I experienced a certain Uninformed Decision setback when I discovered the book was from 1980, and thus not my period of ease, but this proved immaterial to my enjoyment of the short, largely-autobiographical novel. Tom Birkin arrives by train to a rural community in the north of England, hired by a reluctant Rev. Mr. Keach to uncover and restore a medieval mural on a church wall. Nearby, Charles Moon (like Tom, a war veteran) is digging for the grave of an ancestor of the church's patroness. The process is slow, and the narrative winds along with Tom, exploring his relationships with the other villagers, and Moon, and a gentle passage of discovery. The most interesting scene is that when Tom visits the vicar and his amiable wife, Alice, only to discover their monstrous and secluded vicarage seems to alter both their personalities. Like the rest of the novel, this is shown subtly and calmly, but is a fascinating glimpse into one facet of the village, which could be explored much further. Even without all my preconceptions, this is one to look out for.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Driving the point home

I did it! I drove on a road! Not a car park, not a simulator, but a bona fide road, with kerbs and cars and all. I didn't even hit either the kerbs or the cars. Spent my time starting, stopping, changing gears, turning and memorising various acronyms. POM and MSPSL and so forth. My driver isn't an effusive chap, but I think I was great!

Which got me thinking. Every now and then I like to pick a theme relevant to my everyday life, and see what books we can think of, together. It won't surprise you that today's theme is driving. Hmm... where, in the vast and varied world of literature, has an author decided to pick dr
iving as the central issue? Where are cars or vans or caravans or cars-with-trailers-on-single-carriageways (I need to know the speed limit for such, probably in wind, rain, earthquake and on days with an 'e' in them)?

I must confess, my head must be spinning a bit from motorised toing and froing. All I've come up with are Wind in The Willows and the old poop pooping of Toad; I presume The Caravanners by Elizabeth von Arnim has some of said vehicle in, though I wouldn't stake my life on't. Thomas De Quincey wrote an odd little bit of prose called The English Mail Coach, which came in handy for my essay on travel and the Romantic Imagination. Not really motorised. Come on, I clearly need your help - so get thinking, and let me know!

Monday 11 February 2008

Perfect Blend

Today's post was going to be about On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, as I've just come from Book Group where we discussed it. I was going to introduce the novel, say that I liked it, muse about the characters and the successful avoidance of a villain/victim scenario; maybe express surprise that I've read four count-'em-four of McEwan's novels; tell you about the group's response... but then I discovered a post about On Chesil Beach here... by me. Oh. So I have already written about it.

Instead, we're going to cast our eyes over to something rather less literary. Well, not literary at all. What's the opposite of literary? This. It is Neighbours. And today was a big day for followers of this Australia soap opera - it moved channels. Before you slope away to look at the view or flick through the newspaper, stay with me. Actually, you can probably skip the next bit. I'm just going to comment on the soap for a bit... So, Neighbours has been with the BBC for longer than I've been alive, and after 23 years a bidding way means that it's moved to the least successful of the terrestrial channels, Five (which was once Channel Five, but has jettisoned the 'Channel' bit). More importantly, Five is a channel my digital television refuses to pick
up... and so I have to go to a friend's house everyday. So worth it.

In its heyday, Neighbours got in excess of 18 million viewers in the UK - this is down at about 5 or 6 million now, but 120 million worldwide. There is sun, family, not a lot happens but it happens in a friendly way - everything exciting or tragic is offset by a fun run or a BBQ competition. Not for Neighbours the gloom of Coronation Street (I mean, listen to their respective theme tunes - it tells you everything) or the drama of Eastenders - they're happy meandering along with the occasional 'plane crash, and a lot of borrowed casserole dishes. You'd think they could just buy their own. The characters are all nice (Paul was evil, but then had an operation to remove a brain tumour, which turned him nice. As our American cousins would say, go figure); most are attractive; many are funny - that's something Neighbours does better than any other soap - humour.

Where is all this going, then? I'm talking about the lowbrow; the distractions for when I'm not flicking through Ulysees or reciting Latin to myself (ahem... or not). T. S Eliot idolised a music hall performer, Marie Lloyd. Shakespeare thrust dancing troupes into his plays. I daresay Chaucer read Heat magazine. What's your vice? Where do you leave the literature behind and enjoy something shamefully lowbrow, but, paradoxically, without feeling any shame? I started watching Neighbours when I was about 12 or 13, and am thoroughly addicted. If it stopped being shown on UK screens, I'd move to Australia. And I don't see that as being at odds with loving Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen... should I?

I'm aware I may just be locking myself in the stocks and awaiting the rotten apples... but I'd like to think that someone, somewhere out there empathises? No? Just me?

Bring on the apples.

Sunday 10 February 2008

Speaking of Love / 10 Signs a Book Has Been Written By Me

Just wanted to let you know that TOMORROW (i.e. Monday) is a special day for Angela Young for two reasons:

a) H---y B----d-y!

b) The paperback release date for Speaking of Love has been brought forward, and can be bought tomorrow - this, you may recall, is the book which has a quotation from yours truly on the back cover. Very
exciting, and I do encourage you to buy a copy, or twelve. Amazon still think that it's not released until March, when I checked, but I'm sure you local independent bookshop would be happy to sell it to you, or order it for you.

The second thing today is a meme for which Margaret at Booksplease tagged me. Ten signs that would indicate a book had been written by me... well, I do harbour desires to be a novelist, and have ever since I gave up dreams of being a tea-lady. But how would you know it was my novel, just from an anonymous read?

1) not a drop of blood
2) no swear words
3) definitely no blasphemy
4) some quiet irony
5) female protagonist, with a middle-class English name. Think Laura o
r Rachel or Clarissa or... well, moving onto no.6, quite clearly:
6) influenced by Virginia Woolf in some (probably unfortunate) way
7) hidden quotations or references to favourite books/authors

8) about people and humanity, not Issues
9) none of the sentences will end with prepositions, and nobody will ever misuse the word "less"
10) probably quite short...

Saturday 9 February 2008

Thank you Sarah!

It's always a happy experience to discover a parcel waiting at home - not least because it means someone happened to be in when the postman called, and I don't have to go through the rigmarole of arranging to collect it at a local Post Office, and then haring home from work to get there before it closes.

This parcel was even more exciting - a present from Australia! Th
ank you thank you thank you Sarah/Pink Lady Bug, I am delighted to receive The Angel in the Corner by Monica Dickens - and then an array of other things! A lovely postcard, several bookmarks, and (optimistically) a Christian-fish-symbol to put in my future car. All so thoughtful, and got here amazingly quickly, seeing as there are some parcels sent earlier from England for which I'm still waiting. So thank you Sarah!

I've not read any of Monica Dickens' more serious novels - only the light and excellent One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet and My Turn To Make The Tea (MD's experiences as cook, nurse and journalists respectively being the fodder for very funny novels). All the back tells me about The Angel in the Corner is "A tale of courage and willpower as a young girl faces degradation and humiliation in her marriage" - sounds daunting, but in the skilful hands of Monica Dickens, will doubtless also be a fascinating read.

Friday 8 February 2008

I've been Normed!

Thanks, Karen, for alerting me to this - I've been Normed!

Norman Geras runs a blog at and on Fridays features a Blogger Profile - a sort of brief Q & A. This week it's me! See the profile here. Very exciting for me!

There's a link at the bottom of it to other, previous profiles - including, from my link list, Elaine, Karen, Lisa, Susan and Lynne.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Quoth the Raven...

I'm building up quite a library of books from Two Ravens Press, having read a little pile of them before, and now another two. I intended to talk about both of them today, but will have to postpone Dexter Petley's One True Void as I've written too much on the first one...

First of all, it was very brave of Lisa Glass to send me a book I couldn't possibly enjoy. She very kindly popped Prince Rupert's Teardrop in the post to me, and mentioned that Chapter 4 was one I might want to steel myself for, and having read this post probably knew that tales of genocide, rape, torture and - let's face it - even descriptive skin irritants were unlikely to find a place close to my heart.

That said, and before I go any further I must state, I greatly admire Lisa's novel. It is very, very good - well-written, cleverly characterised, excellent plot and a style which leaves one a little nonplussed but entirely doffing one's cap to the authoress.

Mary's 94-year old Armenian mother, Meghranoush, goes missing. She's just not there. What's happened? There are rumours of a serial killer and sexual abuser in the area, specialising in nonagenarians. We even read a few chapters from his persp
ective (or do we: discuss) and Mary wanders the novel with a skewed self-determination, intending to trace her mother's whereabouts.

Mary is an unattractive heroine. She is middle-aged (gasp!), obstreperous (gasp!), slightly mad (gasp!). Not mad in the endearing way characters are in Angela Thirkell or Richmal Crompton - rather an uncertain mental illness, which winds a thick thread of 'unreliable narrator' through everything. Nearly all the chapters are presented from her viewpoint, and some seem straight-forward enough - others are evidently slightly distorted. By the end I was questioning everything, but also questioning the questioning, and questioning the questioning the questioning... Lisa Glass has offered a unique heroine, and wielded a potentially tangled-up viewpoint with skill and finesse.

So I couldn't enjoy reading this novel. Too much graphically disgusting - but without this, it would have been a very different novel, and entirely not the one Lisa Glass
wanted to write, and has written so well. Above all else, her power of language is incredible - and her vocabulary is formidable. A "dazzling linguistic exuberance," the quotation on the front proclaims - and, what is most impressive, it never seems forced or pretentious, not even close. She uses the words which are most appropriate - if I've not heard of them, it's an opportunity for me to learn, not to sneer.

All in all - very good novel; didn't like reading it. Whic
h is odd. But not something new for me - how about you, are there any books you can strongly admire, but couldn't admit to liking? For me, the ultimate is Wuthering Heights. Emily B's novel is far and away the most powerful I've ever read, but I hated reading it - because Heathcliff is so detestable and loathsome that it sapped my power just reading and hating him. I don't hate human beings, but I don't think there have been any humans with the unredeemable hate-inspiring characteristics of Heathcliff - how any woman ever falls for him, I can't imagine. There is no love story in this novel: it is all about hate. But, for all this, Wuthering Heights is a stunningly superlative novel.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Quote Unquote

I have exercised will power and enjoyed the delights of delayed gratification (something each generation always appears to believe the next wholly ignore) - ever since Lynne mentioned The Paris Review Interviews on her dovegreyreader blog, I've hankered after them. Not just because they are absolutely gorgeous (though that they indisputably are - those colours) but because they are a wonderful resource. I was finally able to use my Christmas book tokens, from kindly relative (somehow, not sure quite which) Mrs. Lucy Sherbourne. She has sent book tokens for birthday and Christmas all through my life, and is much to be treasured for it.

In these two volumes (apparently four are planned) are interviews with the great and good of the writing world, collected from decades of The Paris Review. A shame it didn't start earlier, and get even more authors, but there are still a good group - including Dorothy P
arke, T.S. Eliot, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Rebecca West, Eudora Welty, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Philip Larkin, Stephen King, Harold Bloon, Alice Munro, Peter Carey... an eclectic crowd, but a doubtless insightful glimpse into the writing processes of these varied authors. The interviews are produced in their rough forms - i.e. question/answer, no noticeable editing. All to the good - it will feel like sitting alongside them. I haven't read any interviews in their entirety yet, but may start tonight...

What really does make these books is their design - something so cheerful, but also bohemian -
a little hint of fin de siecle against Art Deco and, oh, more or less everything arty all rolled into something simple and happy. I managed to find the designer's blog here.

This is a bit like those questions Smash Hits were famous for asking their interviewees, but - if you could interview any author, who would it be? And what would you ask? One question - think about it.

Mine would be for Jane Austen: "Please rank your heroines in the order you like them". Not very intellectual, true, but I always wonder...

Oh, and for those keeping track, driving lesson went well! Just in a car park, but felt very strange to actually be moving the car... and only stalled once.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

The Votes Are In

Thank you for your kind wishes earlier - I am feeling much better for a day of bed-rest, and was thankfully able to read (isn't that usually the worst thing about being ill? The once that you have time to read, you are unable to...). Back to work tomorrow, then my first proper driving lesson, about which I'm pretty terrified!

Going to report on the response to two polls I've mentioned here before...

1) Spread The Word - run by World Book Day, this had a longlist of 100 books to spread the word about. Here at Stuck-in-a-Book we were championing Angela Young's Speaking of Love, which I am delighted to say has made the shortlist of ten! See the others here; see my review of Angela's novel here; go and vote for her novel here! Dizzying, wasn't that? Yes, the voting starts all over again, so go along and get voting. You would do best, of course, to read Speaking of Love first - as far as I'm aware, the paperback (with my name on the back!) isn't out yet, but the hardback can still be bought - nay, should be bought!

2) Normblog Favourite English-Language Novelists
Does what it says on the tin, as I believe I mentioned before. The results are in, there is a top 40, and a few almost-made-its. Have a look at them here - and keep your eyes open for more Normblog/Stuck-in-a-Book news later in the week... that's all I'm saying. I'm pleased to see our dear Jane top his list - and unsurprised to see only one other of my favourites make the top 40.


Sorry for lack of post yesterday, I was going to sing the praises of World Book Day's shortlist for Spread the Word books - you'll have to wait til later. I'm off work ill - not dreadful, but that weakness and lethargy and incapability that make going into work rather futile. And, yes, dear family, before you say anything, sometimes I am not weak, lethargic and incapable...

Sunday 3 February 2008

Idle Pleasures

As promised, I started off my Hesperus pile with Jerome K. Jerome's The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and it did not disappoint - in fact, it's gone straight into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. Doesn't get much better here on Stuck-in-a-Book.

I read Three Men in a Boat last year, but deemed it too well-known to get on my list - and it came in at no.10 on reads of 2007. Actually, I'm surprised it wasn't higher - I must have been feeling in an arty mood when I compiled the list. I haven't read many authors who rival Jerome's insouciant good humour and entirely maliceless send-up of everyone around him. The send-up works because the figure of fun he most mocks is himself.

Idle Thoughts, first published in 1886 before he even considered men in b
oats, is arranged as a series of comic essays, each titled 'On ----', be it Babies, Being Hard Up, or Cats and Dogs. I'm going to go all out and say that he might be parodying Montaigne, but having not read any Montaigne, it's a bold claim. What I do know is that these pieces of writing are hilarious - but in the subtle way which the Victorian comics seemed to find so easy. (Cf: Grossmith, George and/or Weedon). Nothing much is said, but it is said very amusingly. Jerome wanders around the topics introduced with anecdotes, musings and wry observations. It's a bit like the higgledy-piggledy nature of Three Men in a Boat, only structured by themed chapters rather than a central thread of plot.

The best thing I can do is quote Jerome - here's his Preface:

One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS having observ
ed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere 'idle thoughts' of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct and elevate. This book wouldn't elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading 'the best hundred books', you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.

Do go and buy it. I'm rather excited by the 1891 riposte, Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl, by 'Jenny Wren', which will be republished in March...