Monday 30 June 2008

With a Twist

Hello, hello. A nice (but busy) weekend in London - met up with blogging friend Angela, and with university friends Lorna and Phil, saw the Tate Modern and the locked outside of the British Library, bought some more Persephone books (Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson; A Woman's Place 1910-75 by Ruth Adam; A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman), and a non-fiction book called Identical Strangers which is by and about a pair of twins, separated at birth and reunited at age 35. As you might know, I'm fascinated by all things twin, and have already read most of this fascinating book - will be writing about it soon.

It feels a little mea
n to review a play which is only on in London at the moment, because getting to London isn't feasible for many of my lovely readers, but you might derive vicarious interest - and some of you, like Stuck-in-a-Book's favourite feline, Dark Puss, are City dwellers.

On The Rocks - at Hampstead Theatre until 26 July - is by Amy Rosenthal - if you recognise the name, it's probably because her Dad is the late Jack Rosenthal, and mother is Maureen Lipman. She probably hates being introduced like that, but... well, I'm sure she's proud of it too. Her play is a comedy about... actually, I'll copy the blurb from the advertisement I picked up:

Spring 1916, DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda have found a new life for themselves in the remote Cornish village of Zennor. Rejuvenated by the wild beauty around them, they persuade close friends Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry to join them in their Cornish idyll. But no sooner have Katherine and Jac
k arrived than long-simmering tensions bubble to the surface, and Lawrence's dream of communal living starts unravelling before his eyes... Based on true events, this is the story of women, and men, in love. An uplifting and passionate comedy about four friends trying to live together, two marriages struggling for survival and a group of writers striving for creativity in the midst of war.

I've read books by three of the characters depicted, and count Katherine Mansfield amongst my favourite writers, but this play could be enjoyed by anybody. Knowing a bit about the writers' lives certainly adds a dimension, but Rosenthal's writing (and Clare Lizzimore's directing) make this universally enjoyable. Much of the humour comes from the clash of personalities - DH Lawrence is working-class with philosophical pretensions, selfish and deeply aware of pot
ential betrayal; J. Middleton Murry is quintessentially English; Katherine Mansfield is a little bitter about her life, but mostly sensible, likeable and sees through DH Lawrence's pretensions; Frieda Lawrence is explosive, thinks of food and sex a lot of the time, but funny and gregarious. One of the funniest moments was when DH Lawrence challenge John Middleton Murry to a wrestle, to help them bond as friends and release energy - DHL whips off his clothes and starts doing primitive stretching and lunging, whilst JMM carefully takes off each item of clothing, folding each one neatly and placing them in a tidy pile.

That doesn't make me sound uber-highbrow, does it? On The Rocks has its philosophical moments, and is a thoughtful examination of disparate ways of life, but above and beyond that it is a comedy, and a very successful one. I urge anyone with the chance, do go and see it. Then read The Garden Party and Pencillings and Lady Chatterley's Lover and... whatever Frieda Lawrence would have written.

Friday 27 June 2008

Off for a bit

I'm off to London for the weekend, so will just leave you with info about the play wot I'm seeing (to misquote Ernie Wise):

On The Rocks

a new comedy by Amy Rosenthal

A passionate new comedy about D H Lawrence, his wife Frieda, and their close friends John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, which runs at Hampstead from 26 June until
26 July.

Set against the backdrop of the Cornish coast in the midst of World War I, this is the uplifting story of four friends trying to live together, two marriages struggling for survival and two writers striving desperately for creativity.

A comedy about Katherine Mansfield and DH Lawrence? The mind boggles - but I can't wait.

Thursday 26 June 2008


My 'Backwards With Daphne' project hasn't been roaring along, has it? I told you all about my great intentions back in this post, in early April, and only now have I finished the first one - The Flight of the Falcon. It's not Daphne du Maurier's last novel, but it's the last one which came in my boxset - and the plan was to start at the end and work backwards, as it were.

The Flight of the Falcon is set in Italy, a long way from Cornwall and the only du Mauriers I'd previously encountered - our hero is Armino Fabbio, a tour guide who accidentally becomes involved in the murder of an old peasant woman in Rome. He leaves his tour group, and travels back to his home town Ruffiano, which he hasn't visited in two decades. In the same city, five hundred years previously, cruel Duke Claudio - known as The Falcon - had terrorised the people of Ruffiano with his meglomania and brutality. Has anything really changed in Ruffiano, or are events mysteriously repeating themselves?

That - like the synopsis of Rebecca, I suppose - sounds rather more melodramatic than Daphne du Maurier's writing allows it to be. Having said that, Backwards With Daphne almost drew to a halt, as The Flight of the Falcon didn't work for me at all. I could appreciate why she was writing it - an interesting idea, with a host of familial issues to untangle at the centre - but I didn't much care what went on. Do students of different departments really hate each other that much? I'd be bored stiff studying a Science subject, not to mention completely incapable, but I didn't want to burn any of the students at stake...

My other main problem, I'm afraid, was names. I can't remember names at the best of times, and when they all end in '-io', I had no chance. Daphne du Maurier couldn't do much else, in Italy, but I spent much of my time hopelessly baffled.

I think I'm painting a worse picture than it was - The Flight of the Falcon isn't a bad book, at all, but when you know the same pen had already produced Rebecca (oops, supposed to be reading backwards, this should be a blank canvas for me... sorry) - just goes to show the flaws in this intriguing reading project. If this were my first Daphne du Maurier novel, I probably wouldn't bother with any others... BUT, I had the fun experience of reading the same book as a library colleague sat opposite me at teabreak, and we could chat about it.

Anyone else read it? Any thoughts? Our Vicar's Wife? Karen, my co-Daphne reader, have you got this far yet?

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Barthes sneezing?

One of the fun things which a blog-hits counter like (the one I use) can do is track keyword searches. That way, along with seeing the routes people take from other blogs, I can see the Google searches which landed the web surfer on the Stuck-in-a-Book doorstop. And, for the past year or so, I've been making a note of the ones which amuse me the most...

Quite a few people, naturally, get here on a literary quest. Mentioning Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence and The Summer Book by Tove Jansson have all proved advantageous - I suspect at least the first two appear on high school syllabi, since the search
es are often prefixed by "summary of chapter 6 of" or 'central characters in'. All well and good. Less understandable are bookish hunts such as 'Why does Scrooge go to the lighthouse?' (see sketch), or 'value of book signed by Maria von Trapp'. I don't think Stuck-in-a-Book has ever provided answers to these most valuable questions. Nor 'Books with Wednesday in the title'. 'Blogs with books on nuclear instrumentation' baffled, and rather worried, me.

Some rather more hit the mark, though. 'must read book overindulgence' is perhaps my favourite, 'bricks for bookcases' is also quite fun, though how 'why is work so dull' got here, I can't imagine. 'I shan't worry about that today, I'll worry about that tomorrow' might find themselves right at home.

And then there are the ones which are simply fun:
'The Happy Birthday song in Middle English' (see sketch)

'The Bentall Centre toilets'
'Boxes of 100 fireworks'
'How much is shortbread?'
'Wot is siblings'

'Don't Break My
Heart My Itsy Bitsy Heart'

'My desk is stuck'

'doo doo doo do do you are so wonderful'

'dooby doo'

'It is time again'

'Barthes sneezing'

'Congratulatory cats'

'Sample family letters requesting pardon'

'Most sympathetic animals'

What to say about them! I can only imagine they were disappointed...

Monday 23 June 2008

Bits n' Bobs

One of those posts without any structure, just like we were told not to write essays. Lucky, this isn't an essay, then, isn't it?!

First off, I saw my house for next year - I'd alr
eady agreed to live there, since my friends had seen it, but nice to look round. Seems perfectly pleasant - a bit like my house at the moment, but smaller. And rather cheaper. The other side of Oxford, near the river (apparently the house itself doesn't flood, but we might need a dinghy) - Marlborough Road, if anyone knows Oxford well. And even if they don't...

Compare to my photo of my current house, posted nearly a year ago. Not overwhelmingly different!

Patrick Vickery sent me an email this week about rural ramblings etc. on a Scottish Rural Community Gateway website. Well, here at Stuck-in-a-Book we like rural and we like rambling, and we have a certain affection for Scotland (though would secretly like to live in Dorset, possibly in Thomas Hardy's beautiful cottage) - so go along and see what Patrick has to say.

Finally, Two Ravens Press. You may remember I wrote about them here, and some of their books here and here. WELL, now they've gone and started a literary webmag - good for them! It's called Corvaceous, and has contributions from people
like Alasdair Gray and Alice Thompson. Lots of interesting stuff there, and they can be found here. (Not to mention their literary blog). Phew! What a lot of interesting stuff. I personally can't wait for Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers, which I'll be reading soon - if you can't guess who it's about, I obviously haven't been harping on enough...

Sunday 22 June 2008

Going Postal

I've made cursory mention a few times about the postal book group I'm in - I send a book to someone, and receive a book from someone. Repeat every two months (always the same people), and at the end of 18 months or so, my book has been round a circle, and come back with comments from lots of people. Plus, I've had the chance to read and comment on a bunch of books, too.

A week or so ago I got my book back from the end of 2006, and was able to see what people thought - and so I thought I'd share the outcome with you all. I chose Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head. I chose it for a couple of reasons - first, I wanted an excuse to read another ICB after having really liked Mother and Son, and secondly, Ivy Compton-Burnett was sure to raise some reactions! She is very much a love-or-hate author (Our Vicar's Wife hates her; I love her). I think the reason she causes such a divide is the play-like style of her novels i.e. they are almost completely dialogue. For me, this brings characters alive - and often dialogue is the site where authors can be the most amusing or their most poignant.

A House and Its Head follows the Edgeworth family, none of whom (except perhaps Nance) are particularly likeable - and some rather dramatic storylines, expressly the father's unpopular remarriage. But it's more about Ivy C-B's writing style than the plot... so... what did the recipients of the book have to say?

"I C-B certainly has an individual style of writing. As I started reading I noticed that she would describe each character when they first appeared, in fair detail, incl. their age, and then just dialogues would follow. Actually this style didn't bother me at all (at first I thought it might!) I found the novel quite austere and gloomy, nevertheless I enjoyed the experience of reading my first I C-B. I'm certain I would enjoy a second reading sometime & I'll certainly sample some other I C-Bs." - Angela

"I tried with it, I really did, Simon, but I must place myself in the 'hate it' category, which puts me in the same camp as your Mum. The style really grated on me - I found it difficult to follow the play-like dialogue, and the characters irritated me more than I can say. Yes, they are of their time, but so are the Provincial Lady's, and I though hers - even the unpleasant people - were delightfully drawn.
Maybe it was the scene at the begiining when Duncan is cheerfully throwing a book he disapproves of INTO THE FIRE - and that is in a book published in 1935! I just could not forgive Ivy C-B for that." - Rhona

"The jury was out for a long time, as they say, but in the end, I'll be adding my name to the 'love' camp. At first I was struck by the claustrophobia-inducing atmosphere - a house full of not particularly likeable people who have nowehre to go and nothing useful to do and so submit to the tyranny of its head. Ass to this the ever watchful and oh-so well-meaning neighbours, prepared to gossip about the slightest irregularity. But despite - or because of - it all, the book is hilarious. I kept waiting for each and every one of Dulcia's appearances - inwardly cringing, of course, but unable to suppress a giggle." - Susan

"For quite the first 100 pages this book irritated me beyond belief, but I decided that I had to stick with it and get it finished. Then it just 'grew' on me - I can't say I loved it. I found it very hard going, but I was intrigued by the characters. [The rest of this comment has too many spoilers!] - Barbara

And a few people either didn't have time or gave up!
Make of those responses what you will... I was quite pleased with them. And hopefully it's convinced some of you to dip a toe into Ivy Compton-Burnett territory... if only because you have the back-out of solidarity if you hate it.

Friday 20 June 2008

Oxford Revisited

'Oxford', the word, is a powerful thing. It means so much to people; it means different things to different people. There are oceans of myth and speculation, assumption and history - almost anywhere in the world you'll find someone enthralled by the idea of Oxford. Oxford University, I should say, but the two are so closely linked (especially in reputation) that extricating them is difficult and almost pointless.

I spent all my first year here pinching myself (metaphorically...) thinking "I'm at Oxford! Me!" - mostly, perhaps, because the myths are not reality. I had to keep reminding myself that this was Oxford, perhaps also because I'd never before lived somewhere significant in the eyes of the world. Is there anywher
e else in England, excepting London, which holds such a place in people's imagination? Sadly, this goes both ways. The long-dead ideas of privilege and idle rich boys are persistent, as are all sorts of unfairly derogatory things. One of things which saddens me most is that some of my closest friends detest my student life in Oxford - and thus, unwittingly, detest the way I choose to live. The city and the university are swirls of academic ativism, tradition and learning, fun and fantasies.

So I couldn't resist when I was offered a review copy of Justin Cartwright's This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited. It's a non-fiction account of novelist Cartwright returning to his alma mater decades after studenthood, wandering through the streets and colleges, reminiscing and presenting a history of this fabled city. But, oh, that someone else had written it. There is certainly enough of Oxford in this little book to engage me - interesting history, and oc
casionally a rather winning sympathy with natural and academic Oxford... but there is so much else. Cartwright can't stay on topic for more than a few moments, and wanders off into his own, fairly irrelevant, thoughts and opinions. Like many of those who most fervently proclaim open-mindedness, Cartwright is as close-minded as they come - his rhetoric frequently strides between psychobabble and bland - but strident - atheism. (One of the things I love about Oxford University is that it was built to the glory of God - just look at the college names! Jesus, Trinity, Corpus Christi...) Cartwright labels a rather witty joke about evolution as indicative that someone may be a 'religious bigot and sneering oaf', and... oh, if I have to read Isaiah Berlin's name again! Cartwright states, unnecessarily, at one point: 'I have often thought of Berlin and Oxford as one' - unnecessarily, because Berlin is mentioned on almost every page. I'm sure he's an admirable chap, but he's not the reason I was reading this book.

These irksome traits aside, This Secret Garden has its hig
h points. The tutorial Cartwright takes with an English tutor (despite never, as far as I could tell, studying English as a student) is diverting, and the meandering through Oxford's spots of beauty is touchingly told. I had a couple of serendipitous moments whilst reading the book - I'd got to a bit about the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the exterior wall of Oriel College, only to realise I was standing immediately beneath it (yes, I was reading whilst walking, again). And there are interviews with Clive Hurst, one of my colleagues in the New Bodleian, in the room where Justin Cartwright looked at a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio.

In the end, like the temporary footprints each generation of undergraduates makes on the sturdy permanence of Oxford, the city and the university are able to outweigh their narrator. Cartwright's opinions are overshadowed by the mystique of Oxford - and you could do worse than find it in these pages. If nothing else, it has offered the finest epithet for Oxford that I've found: 'In Oxford you can read a book anywhere you like, without attracting attention.'

Thursday 19 June 2008

Eyes, Exams and Excellence

I've managed to misplace my glasses this evening, so am currently looking blearily at the computer screen and hoping that I don't get a headache... throughout my life I've had quite a talent for losing things in small spaces, and though I know the glasses must be in quite a limited area, they are proving good hiders.

In more exciting news - Colin aka The Carbon Copy has passed the first lot of actuarial exams! Told him he would. They're quite tricky to pass (and 'pass' is the best you can do), so well done to him. I *almost* understand what he does now...

Oo, since writing the above, my glasses have turned up under a pile of things on my desk; a pile I'm sure I looked through at least twice.

It's Thursday, so I'm going to do Booking Through Thursday, but haven't much to say to a very difficult question:

Think about your favorite authors, your favorite books . . . what is it about them that makes you love them above all the other authors you’ve read? The stories? The characters? The way they appear to relish the taste of words on the tongue? The way they’re unafraid to show the nitty-gritty of life? How they sweep you off to a new, distant place? What is it about those books and authors that makes them resonate with you in ways that other, perfectly good books and authors do not?

Well! For a start, my favourite authors and books... what can tie together Miss Hargreaves and The Diary of a Provincial Lady and Mrs. Dalloway and Sense and Sensibility? Even having a look through the 50 Books (or how many I've got to so far) in the left-hand column... no, not a lot they have in common. They share a few absences - none of my favourites are Issue-led books, or gritty. They're about characters, and a good/witty/evocative/beautiful use of language. Characters and language. That's all I can come up with. Hmm. Maybe you'll have better luck?

Wednesday 18 June 2008

First Things First

Something on Susan Hill's blog the other day led me to think about the 'right' order to read an author's novels... obviously there is no single correct way to read an author (note my continuing, slowly, project Backwards With Daphne), but there might be methods more conducive to enjoyment and appreciation...

More specifically: should you read the best book first?

This makes an assumption, of course, that an author has a 'best' book. Perhaps it would just as well be replaced with the word 'favourite', because the dilemma is just the same. My initial response, on Susan's blog, was that reading the best/favourite novel first would lead to all subsequent reads being a disappointment - Lynne pointed out, in the same comments, that one might just give up after an average read. If you read an excellent novel, you'll continue with that author, even if there are a few duds or mediocre reads along the way.

Let me think. I've done this both ways. Barbara Comyns, for example - Our Spoons Came From
Woolworths was enjoyable, but I much preferred Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which was on my shelf for years before I read it. Luckily Our Spoons was good enough for me to keep looking for more Comyns, though without any urgency - had it been a shade less enjoyable, I might not have bothered. On the other hand, as always, is Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I've only read one other novel by him - Before I Go Hence - which was likeable enough, but nothing compared to Miss Hargreaves. If I'd read Before I Go Hence first, I probably wouldn't have bothered seeking out Miss Hargreaves - which might well be my favourite novel; certainly top five.

What to do! More importantly, what to recommend? If someone asks me about an author, should I send them towards the Pride and Prejudices or the Mansfield Parks? (Now, there's a cat among the pigeons!)

Monday 16 June 2008

Star Gazing

I get sent quite a few 'first novels', so it's a pleasant change to receive a novel which is the third from an author's pen. Of course, I love seeing the first-offs too - but when Star Gazing by Linda Gillard arrived, I had the experiences of Emotional Geology and A Lifetime Burning to which to compare it. Plus, Linda has been an e-friend for a few years now, and it's always lovely to hear from her.

I was in a position of knowledge when it came to Linda's second novel, A Lifetime Burning. I wrote about it last year, and though there were obvious aspects of the book which I hadn't experienced (shan't spoil it for you, but let's just say I might have a criminal record if I had experienced them) I am a twin and in a vicar's family, and so could understand those. I've never been so impressed by any literary portrayal of being a twin - Linda understood it so well. I can only assume she has found a similar level of empathy and recognition with blindness. Marianne, the central character of Star Gazing, is blind.

Blind, but not a victim. Bolshy, is our Marianne - "crabbit", to quote Keir. Keir is the man in the novel - an oil rigger who spends his time away from work living on Skye, he's a heady mixture of shy and sensitive and rugged and... does he exist? Linda has said that she was intrigued by the idea of writing a hero who might not exist - since Marianne has to rely on her other senses, she can't be sure that Keir isn't a projection of her imagination, and the reader spends quite a few chapters equally unsure.

But I haven't said much about Marianne, yet. She's middle-aged, and has been blind since birth. A widower, she lives with her vampire-romantic-novel writing sister Louisa (sisters Marianne and Louisa... the influence of Jane Austen hovering somewhere, perhaps?) and is a very determined woman. I always have a little trouble with people who are desperate to be independent - the sort of person who complains that people are being 'patronising' to them - but perhaps that's because I function best in a unit (back to the twin thing, mayhap). With Marianne, she has enough endearing features that I rarely wanted to throttle her. I can't be cross with a woman who says "Pure Enid Blyton - a much maligned author, in my opinion." My only criticism is that she so often mentions that she is blind. Her prerogative, I suppose, but I'm sure most visually impaired people can let the expression "You see what I mean" pass, without pointing out that they can't...

Star Gazing uses three narrative focalisations - Marianne, Louisa, and a third person narrative. Linda uses this skilfully, as she has done before, and the transition from Marianne's internal view to an external perspective highlights the smallness of Marianne's world - as she says, her experience of it stretches only as far as she can hear, smell or touch. The success of Star Gazing must ultimately hinge on the story, and the portrayal of blindness. As I said, I can't judge from my own experience - I'd love to hear from someone who can - but I was fairly convinced. It must be such a difficult task: how to describe the absence of sight from the perspective of one who doesn't know what she hasn't got? There is a strong theme of music throughout - I hardly knew any of the references, but visual things, especially scenery and natural phenomena, are often described to Marianne by their musical equivalent. The beautiful intricacy of a cobweb, for instance - which Marianne has only experienced as sticky and unpleasant - is compared to The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Star Gazing is not as ambitious or controversial as A Lifetime Burning - and consequently, where A Lifetime Burning was a great novel, Star Gazing is a good one. A very good one. It would be surprising if an author had two novels of A Lifetime Burning's power in them, let alone consecutively. Star Gazing, though, demonstrates Linda Gillard's continuing power as a storyteller, a creator of vivid and unusual characters, and a novelist who will hopefully soon get the recognition she deserves. I'm delighted that a fourth novel has already been written - can't wait.

Sunday 15 June 2008

Happy Fathers Day!

For the apostrophe-minded, Fathers Day is a minefield. As you see, I have decided for an apostropheless celebration - I think it's a day of fathers, rather than belonging to one (Father's) or many (Fathers')...

Anyway - for Our Vicar, and all the other fathers reading, have a great day!

To celebrate the occasion - whom do you think is the best father in literature? I don't really mean the one I enjoy reading about the most, but rather the character who is the best father to his child/ren. If it were the former, I'd plump for Mr. Woodhouse from Emma, but he couldn't be described as a good parent... nor, indeed, could many of Austen's literary parents.

So, have a think. I'm going to ponder on it, and see what I think...

Or just comment on fathers in literature as you wish!

Friday 13 June 2008

Uncommon Arrangements

I had a book token...

As book-buying excuses go, that one is pretty good. I don't understand how people can have a book token for more than about a week - it's a free book, how can I withstand that temptation? Luckily I found a book I really wanted (always tricky... ahem) and so bought Uncommon
Arrangements : Seven portraits of married life in London literary circles 1910-1939 by Katie Roiphe. With a title like that, how could I not? It's the right period for me, it's domestic, and it is about these couples:

Katherine Mansfield & John Middleton Murray
Vanessa & Clive Bell
Elizabeth von Arnim & John Francis Russell
Ottoline & Philip Morrell
H.G. & Jane Wells
Vera Brittain & George Gordon Catlin
Radclyffe Hall & Una Troubridge

I've arranged those in order of my own interest - but I was pleased to say I'd heard of most of them, including at least one of every pairing. In many ways, this book seems catered just for me - I long to know more about so many of these couples. When a book is that obviously Simon, it would be churlish to leave it on the shelf. And I had a book token (did I mention that?)

'Each chapter is structured around a crisis in a marriage and how it is resolved or not resolved. In some cases the crisis is as large as life-threatening illness, and in others it is as small as a slightly drunken conversation over dinner that threatens the balance of carefully submerged emotions.' So Katie Roiphe writes in the introduction, which is the only bit I've read so far. The introduction does seem a little too touchy-feely, and lots of rhetorical questions (I was reminded of the stereotypical first-year undergraduate essay) but hopefully this will lessen as the main section of the book emerges. Anyway, it would be hard for Roiphe to write about these people without being interesting to me... at the same time, I want her to do them justice.

I'll report back when I'm done...

Booking Through Thursday

Today's question kind of answers itself, if you read through this week's entries. At least part of it is answered, anyway...

Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group choose (or, if you haven’t been, what do you think is the best way to choose) the next book and who would lead discussion?

Do you feel more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading experience?

So, YES, I am a member of a book group! Two, in fact, which both met this week. I love book groups; they're such a wonderful way of talking about literature without being scholarly (I also love academic English, but enjoy the divide between studying and reading groups.) One choose the books by compiling a shortlist of about four, and having an online poll (I'm currently rooting for My Cousin Rachel) while the other just decides six months at a time, from whatever people throw into the circle. My latest suggestion there was Edward Carey's Alva & Irva, which I haven't read, but looks fascinating.

To go onto the second part of the question, I don't think it really alters how I read a book (except that I'll probably be reading it very quickly, at the last minute!) - but it will affect the ways in which I reflect upon it. Except for writing about them on here, most books I read aren't dwelt upon - I don't forget them immediately, but I certainly don't spend much time considering my opinion. To have an evening spent discussing it is invaluable, and has sometimes changed my mind about a book.

I heartily recommend Jenny Hartley's book on the subject, Reading Groups, which was written up from questionnaires sent out to lots of book groups. Fascinating, and very well written. I wrote more about it here...

As always - over to you! Same questions as above.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

En Suite

Sorry not to write anything yesterday - I was tearing through the book for tonight's book group (metaphorically, you understand), having similarly dashed through one for Tuesday night's book group. They're not often on consecutive nights, so it was rather a challenge this time. Luckily both books were great - a re-read of Angela Young's Speaking of Love (see 50 Books You Must Read....) and the book I'm going to chat about today - Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. Both her name and the title are calculated to defeat Blogger's attempts to locate accents and cidillas (sp?) etc, so I'm afraid I'm going to leave the lot out. Sorry...

Suite Francaise has had a lot of publicity, in Europe anyway, so I shan't say that much about the plot of the book - a lot of others have done so better than I could, anyway. I should, actually, say books - these are the first two of a planned trilogy (potentially even more) which Nemirovsky was tragically unable to complete, because she was killed in Auschwitz in 1942. The two books are Storm in June, which documents the invasion of Paris and the fleeing of many from it; and Dolce, about a village under Nazi occupation. Some characters overlap, especially in peripheral mentions.

I'll launch right into my praise - Nemirovsky is an incredibly gifted novelist. Had these been further edited; had the trilogy been complete, this could have been one of twentieth century's most important works, I think. The people at Book Group agreed that her greatest talent was the delineation of character, and making people unique and fully formed.
A comparison of Dolce with the film Went The Day Well? is illuminating and quite amusing. Though I love that film, it could hardly be considered to offer sympathy to the German troops - it is a bitter irony that Nemirovsky could see these soldiers are people, with all their virtues and vices, and yet would die under the Nazi regime. Had these novels been written now, the French might be innocent victims and the German soldiers all baddies - Nemirovsky, especially in Dolce, is able to see them as humans, first and foremost. Perhaps Storm in June has one too many unpleasant rich men, but perhaps Paris had too many of them at the time. A pervasive theme is that money could help one escape most things. She laments the way those with no control over the situation are those to bear the brunt of the anguish:

'But why are we always the ones who have to suffer?' she cried out in indignation. 'Us and people like us? Ordinary people, the lower middle classes. If war is delcared or the franc devalues, if there's unemployment or a revolution, or any sort of crisis, the others manage to get through all right. We're always the one
s who get trampled! Why? What did we do? We're paying for everyone else's mistakes.'

Neither novel has a straight-forward, linear plot, and often novels which avoid these are difficult to keep reading. They don't grab you. But in Suite Francaise, despite the episodic and patchwork-like writing, I always wanted to read on. There are sharp points of drama amongst less shocking narratives; it is an experience rather than a plot. I did prefer Dolce, as I didn't lose track of characters as I did in Storm in June, and the central story between Frenchwoman Lucile and German soldier Bruno is touching and sophisticatedly complex - but both novels are evidence that Nemirovsky was a writer who should have had a very glowing future. Authentic, beautiful, understanding.

Monday 9 June 2008

Special Collections

Thought I'd keep you updated as to my movements around the Bodleian. Those of you who have been following my sporadic library updates will by now have a fairly comprehensive understanding of the various departments - in fact, if you've been attentive, you'll know more than most of the students in Oxford. More than I did, certainly.

Today I moved to Special Collections, which is awfully special - it more or less means manuscripts and rare bo
oks and nice old and exciting things. Back when I started in the Bodleian, I spent a week working underground in the stacks, and could peruse all sorts of interesting and odd things (a letter written by Jane Austen; Hitler's marriage certificate; a copy of Wind in the Willows handwritten by Kenneth Grahame) - now I get to see some more! It went rather from the sublime to the ridiculous today. First I saw a Shakespeare First Folio (with some amusing marginalia from an early owner - 'Beatrice and Benedict have much wit' by the opening of Much Ado About Nothing for instance, and a rather fanciful handwritten list of plays which the owner considered Shakespeare to have penned). After that I spent quite a lot of time with a few hundred copies of Buffalo Bill Novels, from the 1910s onwards. Hilarious stuff, looks like a comic but novel-length prose, more or less. Classic.

My favourite section of the library revealed today, though, was the section hidden away behind a grille. An odd miscellany, which have in common one thing - they simply can't be on the accessible shelves, for a number of reasons. For example: "page 32 of this book contains a serious libel" - ! That seemed to be the theme. These books allege all sorts of things which might still cause a legal kerfuffle. Since the Bodleian can't let things leave the library once stamped, they are kept here. What fun.

All in all, I think my time in Special Collections is going to be good fun. I've certainly been looking forward to it all year - although I shan't spend much time with the readers, I'll be with the most interesting material held in the Bod.

Oh, and "hello!" to anyone from the Bod who was alerted to this post by a Google alert...

Sunday 8 June 2008

Litopia etc.

Just back from a very nice weekend in Somerset with Our Vicar, Our Vicar's Wife and The Carbon Copy - enjoyed the sunshine and fields and helping build a Kenyan hut's roof. It was never a normal upbringing, was it? Whilst at home I collected my new 'phone, which had been delivered there, and so Albert is my new ear-companion; farewell Orsino. Orsino (whose menu button is broken) was named after the Duke in Twelfth Night, of course, while Albert (who was bought because I wanted something dull and reliable; a Nokia) is after Queen Victoria's late husband, since dull and reliable were the watchwords of the Victorians.

Stuck-in-a-Book couldn't be considered the centre of techn
ological advancement in the Western World, but I got an interesting email this week from Litopia, a podcast about writing and all related malarkey. As far as I'm aware, podcasts are like radio, but released over the internet on a regular basis. Actually, what is the difference between radio and podcast? Someone tell me, if they know... All the news they gave is below for your perusal, but I'll give you my viewpoint for now...

True, I've only had time to listen to one podcast - it's the
one from 1st June - and I'm impressed! The discussion was wide-ranging - what started with Dickens' desk coming up for auction wended into Abe Lincoln's hair and Britney Spears' chewing gum... Are writing courses the new mental hospitals? Robert McCrum talks about how the literary world has changed over the past ten years; James Bond and plagiarism... A wonderful mixing pot of popular interest and highbrow topics, some witty commentators, and the amusing phenomenon of ' [comma] England' being added after every place name.

Pop along and have a listen. Nice to see bookishness taking over everywhere...


London, UK. LITOPIA DAILY is the world's first daily podcast for
writers. Employing a combination of leading-edge technology and
old-fashioned showmanship, it aims to become an indispensible part of every
writer's day. The team behind LITOPIA DAILY are particularly keen to solicit
news and contributions from writers everywhere – especially from
non-traditional sources – and they have an easy and innovative method to
facilitate contributions.


Six months ago, Litopia Writers' Colony launched the first weekly panel
show for writers - LITOPIA AFTER DARK. Hosted by Peter Cox, the show
quickly attracted rave reviews (winning an unequalled 9.5 marks out of
ten on the review site Podwatch). Every week, thousands of listeners
download LITOPIA AFTER DARK shows – making it one of the fastest-growing
podcasts in the world. Guests have included some of the most exciting
and innovative figures in writing and publishing.

Building on that success, Litopia Writers' Colony is proud to launch
the world's first daily podcast for writers - LITOPIA DAILY. Says host
Peter Cox:

"With things changing so quickly in the publishing industry, it makes
sense to produce a short, daily podcast where writers can get their
daily fix of news, comment and - we know what you like - entertainment,
too. LITOPIA DAILY is going to be succinct and to the point - it'll give
you what you need to know when, or before, you need to know it. Like a
morning coffee, it'll set you up for the day!"


"LITOPIA DAILY is in the vanguard", says Peter. "So, as you'd expect
from us, we're doing something very radical indeed. We call it - the
Open Inbox."

Litopia's Open Inbox is a simple web address that allows contributors
to drop anything into the inbox… notes… pictures… faxes… phone messages…
and e-mails, of course. "We go through our Open Inbox several times
every day, looking for great material to include in the next day's show"
says Peter.

"Not everything will make it", he adds, "but material that's witty and
original - and short and sharp -stands a very good chance of getting


Eve Harvey, Podcast officer for Litopia Writers' Colony, explains how
contributors will use it. "You might want to send us a note about your
new book that's coming out", she say. "Or send us a press release.
Or, you might want to record a phone message to give a comment on
yesterday's show. Yes - the Open Inbox will take phone calls, too! Or maybe
you'd like to upload a file of some kind - perhaps, an audio file for
possible inclusion in LITOPIA DAILY."

Litopia's Open Inbox uses cutting-edge technology pioneered by
Simple instructions are given on the page here:

The new show launches its public beta schedule from June 9th. "We're
feeling our way" says Peter, "just as we did with LITOPIA AFTER DARK,
which took some months to naturally evolve. I don't think listeners will
mind a work in progress to begin with. We really do want LITOPIA
DAILY to become an important part of writing life on the internet. And we
hope that our listeners will become an active part of this very
exciting new venture! "


• Unlike many forms of old media, we positively want to make it as
easy as possible for you to interact with us. We really do want to hear
from you! Contact us through our address:

• LITOPIA DAILY is constantly looking for interesting special guests
to take part in the show. Publicists looking to book a client or an
author are welcome to send an e-mail to Litopia's Open Inbox with brief
details of the author concerned. Guest are booked approximately six
weeks ahead, and they are trailed in advance both on the website and also
in RSS feeds.

• Important: Any and all material sent to LITOPIA DAILY may be
broadcast. By sending us material, contribution or communication, the
contributor warrants that they are the legal owner and grants LITIOPIA DAILY an
irrevocable, non-exclusive license to use the material in any way seen

Thursday 5 June 2008


Booking Through Thursday time again, and a very good question this week which has got me thinking...

Have your book-tastes changed over the years? More fiction? Less? Books that are darker and more serious? Lighter and more frivolous? Challenging? Easy? How-to books over novels? Mysteries over Romance?

Well, there was a definite change in my tastes between 1985 and 1990...

Hmm. I suppose I'd be better qualified to answer this question in a few decades' time, since I'm only twenty-two, and haven't really had time to alter my reading patterns since I started reading 'grown-up books'. Those started to appear on my horizon when I was about thirteen - up unto that point I'd gone from Enid Blyton to Goosebumps to Point Horror, with only some dips into Agatha Christie which could really count as more mature material. That's an interesting development in my reading, actually - I certainly couldn't cope with horror now, unless it's heavily tempered by exaggerated Gothic aspects, such as Shirley Jackson's novels.

So, interwar domestic literature became my reading choice of choice, and to a large extent it still is. I suppose my reading trends have mostly developed into being more widespread, because of a far-reaching English degree, and latterly all the review books I read. If it were up to me, I probably wouldn't read so many modern books - but I don't get sent much by authors writing in the 1930s, funnily enough! I try and dabble in more foreign works now, and more non-fiction (though still almost always connected with literature in some way). So perhaps I'm in the midst of a widening phase, and will settle with some favourites in a few years' time. I wouldn't like to spend the rest of my reading life trying out new things all the time - it would be like always trying to find a comfortable chair, and never buying one. By all means, dip toes in lots of pies (to mix metaphors in a rather unhygenic way), but I need a comfort zone to which to retreat. Or, rather, quality guaranteed.

Over to you...

Wednesday 4 June 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

If that title doesn't make you want to find out more, then your natural curiosity is sadly deficient. Elaine at Random Jottings obviously felt the same, and I am indebted to her for asking Bloomsbury to send me a proof copy to review of Mary Ann Shaffer's novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. In fact, lovely Steph from Bloomsbury sent 12 books, but my Reader's Block struck at the same time, and I'm only now able to pay proper attention to the beautiful pile of books. This one had to come first.
It's been a while since I read an epistolary novel - I think the last was Fanny Burney's Evelina, (that is letters, isn't it?) or perhaps the joyous Pamela, which repeats the same letter more or less every page anyway (oo, almost caught by my master in some thin disguise; wasn't quite...). My sentences do tend to wander off into the obscure, don't they! ANYWAY, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes the form of letters to a
nd from writer Juliet Ashton, in 1946. She has become popular under her pseudonym Izzy Bickerstaff, writing Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War - which put me in mind of EM Delafield and The Provincial Lady in Wartime, which is all to the good. She describes herself in one of her letters, saving me the trouble of doing so:

'I am thirty-three years old... In a good mood, I call my hair chestnut with gold glints. In a bad mood, I call it mousy brown. It wasn't a windy day [in a photo]; m
y hair always looks like that. Naturally curly hair is a curse, and don't ever let anyone tell you different. My eyes are hazel. While I am slender, I am not tall enough to suit me.'

I think I fell in love with Juliet when she revealed that a)she had also written an unpopular biography of my favourite Bronte sister, Anne - and b)that she broke up with her fiance when she found him 'sitting on the low stool in front of my bookcase, surrounded by cardboard boxes. He was sealing th
e last one with tape and string. There were eight boxes - eight boxes of my books bound up and ready for the basement!' What is more, he'd replaced her books with his sporting trophies. Obviously he had to go.

All this has happened before the novel opens - Juliet is in the throes of trying to find material for a new book. Her correspondance is with her loveable publisher Sidney and his sister Sophie, until out of the blue a letter arrives from a Guernsey farmer, Dawsey Adams, who has found her address inside a secondhand copy of Charles Lamb. Juliet gets the idea to write about Guernsey under Nazi Occupation - and strikes up a correspondance with several Guernsey residents (shy Dawsey; eccentric Isola; fisherman Eben) and decides to visit them to find out more. The letters continue to those back home, including would-be lover Markham Reynolds, and Juliet's life becomes increasingly bound up in Guernsey and its inhabitants.

So what is 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society'? To cover up the eating of an illicit pig (one of the things Nazi Occupants forbade) quick-thinking Elizabeth says that they were at a literary society - to make the story believable, they start one up. And the sustenance is in the form of potato peel pie, being all the food they could find. Elizabeth - who was sent away to a Continental prison during the war, and has not returned - becomes the central figure of these people and the novel, despite her protracted absence.

Like many people, I suspect, I knew little about the wartime occupation of the Channel Islands - Mary Ann Shaffer's novel is so illuminating about the conditions and experiences of those being controlled, but more than that, she creates unique and sympathetic characters. Th
ere are some upsetting details, but never gratuitously harrowing - Mary Ann Shaffer obviously knows how much more affecting it is to give us lovable characters and then see how the situation changed them. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is full of such characters - I worried that there were so many letter-writers, but they swiftly became identifiable and dear to me. Above all else, the novel is warm, funny and lovingly written. Bloomsbury plan a large-scale advertising campaign for this novel when it is published in August (sorry! you'll have to wait) and no novel deserves it more - it is sad that Shaffer passed away before she could see her novel published, but she died knowing that it would be, which must have been a great joy.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is something special - Juliet Ashton is a protagonist with just the right levels of humour, fondness and self-deprecation ('Oh, I can see it all now: no one will buy my books, and I'll ply Sidney with tattered, illegible manuscripts, which he'll pretend to publish out of pity. Doddering and muttering, I'll wander the streets carrying my pathetic turnips in a string bag, with newspaper tucked into my shoes'.) The characters are an ensemble cast, you'll love the lot of 'em, and fall in love with Guernsey too. I confidently predict that potato peel pie will be plat du jour up and down the country all August. Maybe.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

More Tea, Author?

I think it was Becca's post about Daphne du Maurier, and my recent purchase of Letters from Menabilly, which got me thinking about authors' houses, and visiting them. A while ago my friend Barbara-from-Ludlow wrote to me, mentioning a course she was running - the importance of the horse in literature; as an extra character; providing atmosphere etc. etc.... I was bemused until I realised that I had misread 'horse' where she had in fact written 'house'... !

Authors' own homes are fascinating. I find it really interesting to see where other bloggers are blogging from - and have provided shots of my views in Magdalen and Somerset - but it is even more engaging to seek out the sta
mping grounds of my favourite writers. Sometimes these are open to the public - like Jane Austen's lovely home in Hampshire, Rudyard Kipling's 'Batemans', and Thomas Hardy's in Dorset - others, like AA Milne's and EM Delafield's aren't. In fact, with both of those, I had to use my knowledge from biographies to find the house - the photos are below - and took the photos illicitly by running down the driveways.. It is Milne's and Delafield's which felt most special, because, being privately owned, it felt more like I was visiting them rather than a tourist attraction. I suppose seeing the home is a step away from visiting the author; makes them more tangible and almost friendly.

E. M. Delafield's in Kentisbeare, Devon - I first went there in 2005, and lost the photo when my computer crashed. Our Vicar's Wife very kindly took this picture for me on a return visit through the village.

AA Milne's house in East Sussex, hidden away along a rough track - a very special moment for me. Taken in the days before the digital camera, so this is a photo of a photo... it sat on my wall at university, and confused those who thought I lived there (I wish!)

Which authors' houses have you visited? Open to the public or, like me, hunted out? Do tell...

Sunday 1 June 2008

More Malvern

Some photos I took during my day out yesterday...

The view from the park where I had my ice cream... and later fell asleep on top of my book (no indictment of the book, which was excellent)

A lot of Malvern is an beautiful mixture of maintained and natural - none of the fussiness of some cities' parks, but still well looked after.

If anyone fancies buying me a house, then I would be willing to accept this one...

I accidentally discovered the world's smallest theatre! (Shown both above and below) Converted from a Victorian lavatory, it hosts a tiny theatre, which at the moment does shows on request. Sadly, I made no such request, but next time might be tempted. Tis wittily called The Theatre of Small Convenience, and they even have a website. Apparently they were on BBC's The One Show recently.