Saturday 29 November 2008

Miss Buncle's Book

One of the books I got for my birthday was a new Persephone - Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson. My lovely friend Lucy, who knows more about modern fiction than anyone else I know, gave it to me - so thank you Lucy! D. E. Stevenson is one of those authors whose name has been at the back of my mind, and on my shelves, for years - but never made it to actual reading. I have two or three already, but have been on the lookout for Miss Buncle's Book for quite a while, as it is reportedly Stevenson's best. The folks at Persephone Books obviously agree, and have made this hard-to-find title a lot easier to find. The premise is difficult to dislike - Barbara Buncle, a quiet, amiable lady in a quiet, amiable village decides to write a novel, and features all her neighbours in it under thinly disguised names. Luckily for her all the villagers seem to have surnames which are adjectives or nouns (Bold, King, Pretty) or with obvious associations (Fortnum/Mason; Dick/Turpin) and this all adds to the fun. The village all read the novel, and are scandalised at the accurate (and thus not always flattering) depiction of themselves - and are determined to root out the identity of 'John Smith', the alias Miss Buncle chose for herself.

A rather wonderful idea for a novel, which somehow doesn't get too complicated, Miss Buncle's Book would have been even better in the hands of Angela Thirkell, and a literary classic if E. M. Delafield had penned it. As it is, D. E. Stevenson's writing isn't quite as good as her ideas - a lot of cliches and unoriginal turns of phrase which prevent the novel from being in a higher league. Don't misunderstand me, this is better than a lot of writing out there, but Persephone so often publish those whose writing is exceptional (perhaps my recent immersing in Katherine Mansfield has spoilt me for lesser writers, which is most of 'em) that I didn't expect to have to be on cliche-watch.

Having said all that, Miss Buncle's Book is still a delight. The characters are fun and the situation very amusing. She handles it all with liveliness and a healthy dollop of whimsy, and I would certainly recommend the novel wholeheartedly - it just doesn't quite become the classic it could have been.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Putting bread and butter on the table

You know that, even when you have hundreds of unread books, not a lot of spare cash, and no spare reading time - sometimes, even with these limitations, a book will make you buy it? Impossible-to-resist, head-straight-to-Amazon-to-buy sort of book? Well, my e-friend Lyn (from dovegreybooks Yahoo group, a source of many such books) mentioned one the other day, and, mere days later, it is in front of me.

It's The Bread and Butter Stories by Mary Norton. For those who recognise the name but can't think where, it's probably because she is the author of The Borrowers, a back I'm shamefully never read, but indeed to do so soon. We grew up loving the TV series. I'll tell you what Lyn wrote about it, not sure where it's quoted from, perha
ps the Virago website...

Reminiscent of Elizabeth von Arnim and Elizabeth Taylor, these 15 recently discovered short stories by the author of The Borrowers are wonderful period pieces about being an upper-middle class woman in the 1940s and early 50s. Many are reminiscent of Brief Encounter with their longings for adventure or romance to break the stifling constraints on their lives. Here are respectable conventional women settled into dull marriages finding themselves entertaining the notion of an affair while on holiday; a dowdy woman who suddenly decides to have her face done and take the £1.00 post-office savings and blow it on a fine hat. Then there are funny, satirical pieces: useful knowledge like how to cure cold feet at bedtime, a sideways look at acting for a television drama and a very entertaining and fascinating piece on writing for children which includes dialogue with an editor who wants short words and happy stories. Written with a wry and gentle humour, the collection makes for fascinating reading.

Doesn't it sound wonderful? I've yet to read them, but it will only be a matter of time... Lyn did only mention the book four days ago, after all. I have read the Introduction by Mary Norton's daughter - apparently Mary Norton called these stories 'bread and butter stories' because they put bread and butter on the table - written for magazines, but not published together until the 1990s when found in the attic... I'll report back when I'm done, but I'm willing to bet at least one person will already be scrambling to Amazon or abebooks to get their hands on a copy!

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Friend or...

Wow! Unanimous for 'music' - I thought the results would be a little more even... and, in fact, I'm going to put in the lone vote for 'art'. I counted doing-it-myself, and pictures on the covers of books, etc. etc. - I couldn't cope without it, whereas music has always been an enjoyable peripheral to my life. But I feel a little culturally out of my depth now that I know what aficiandoes you all are! Art 1: Music 20.

Without any attempt at a link here, I'm going to mention a book I read the other day for my course - Foe by J. M. Coetzee. I'd always avoided him, mostly because I got him mixed up with another author, whose name I can't now remember... somehow these prejudices stick, even when they are proved irrational, and I'd never picked up one of his books. After Foe, I think I might change my mind.

Foe is a novel related to Robinson Crusoe - which I haven't read, so I daresay I missed hundreds of nuances, but I know *enough* not to miss them all - not really a retelling or a new perspective, but an exercise in the idea of storytelling, narration, truth... The lead character is Susan Barton, washed up on Crusoe's island after having been victim to a ship's mutiny. The Cruso (note the missing 'e') and Friday she encounters are subtly different to Defoe's, and sometimes not so subtly different (Friday's race is changed; Cruso seems to have no real knowledge of his background and continually gives different versions of it). But the most interesting part comes when Susan is back in England, meeting the author Foe - or (De)Foe if you will - who is turning her story into a novel. But here the tussle for control over the narrative begins - and becomes increasingly complex as Susan's long-lost daughter arrives, though Susan is adamant that she is not her daughter - has Foe invented her? What power does he have over their lives?

As a venture into the stormy waters of postmodernism, this is happily an utterly accessible and enjoyable novel (the overlap of experimentation and readability is sometimes narrow in this field, isn't it?) - Foe raises all sorts of fascinating questions, but also lets you nod at these with interest and still read a rather good novel. Oh, and it's short - always a tick in the 'pro' column for me!

Monday 24 November 2008

Choices choices

Another sleepy evening, and so another little poll. I'm quite intrigued by the results for this one... imagine you could only keep one: Art or Music?

and yes I know music is an art, but you know what I mean...

sponses in the comments, please, and we'll see which wins out!

Sunday 23 November 2008

With the Woolfs

Glad you all took a trip down memory lane with me - I'm sorely tempted to buy the DVD of The Herbs... but probably shouldn't.

That book I was going to talk about... A Boy at the Hogarth Press by Richard Kennedy, which my friend Barbara gave to me, and which (I hear) is being republished by Slightly Foxed. I've had my eye on this for a while, but somehow hadn't got around to buying it when Barbara sent me a copy, and so I was rather delighted. The list of Woolf-related books I've read isn't small, and it is growing - I like to dip back into Bloomsbury waters every now and then, especially the books which are first-hand, but from the peripherals. The most recent addition t
o 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About was one of these - and while Kennedy's isn't *as* good, it's still rather wonderful.

Richard Kennedy was just what the title suggests - a boy at the Hogarth Press, the small publishing venture started by Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Kennedy did the day-to-day tasks, but was also occasionally asked his opinion about the books people sent in - winning something of a victory when he (with the help of his uncle) called Ivy Compton-Burnett a genius, while Leonard Woolf dismissed her as being unable to write. His book was written about forty years after his time there, but is still in the form of a diary, which leads to a rath
er odd mix of naivety and disingenuosness - but an uncomplicated eye amongst the complicated which is difficult to resist. All new angles of Virginia are welcome to me, but perhaps especially one who wasn't all that afraid of her, and judged her by such standards as it being 'bad form to laugh at your employees'. Love Virginia Woolf though I do, sometimes contemporary accounts of her can be a little nauseating. How much more precise is: 'I think she is rather cruel in spite of the kind, rather dreamy way she looks at you.'

Richard Kennedy would never rival his employers in terms of writing - the boyish charm is needed to carry a patchwork of recollections, tied together by similarly boyish sketches - but A Boy at the Hogarth Press is a refreshing and amusing addition to the canon of Bloomsbury onlookers.

Blame Parsley...

Sorry, I meant to review a book tonight. But I've spent my time using YouTube to re-discover children's programmes from my youth... and before. Especially The Herbs. I await joyful cries...

Friday 21 November 2008

The Road to Revolution

I mentioned that I'd read Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road last week, for part of my Masters course, and Lucy added in the comments that a film is coming out - which probably means the novel (complete with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the cover, no doubt) will be rocketing up bestseller lists again. Well, whatever small amount my influence can do will, I hope, give the book a start on its way.

Published in the early 1960s, Revolutionary Road was successful in some respects, but widespread popularity doesn't seem to have been one of them, at least not for very long - Yates' is now described as a 'writer's writer', whatever that means. Has to be a good thing, one assumes. Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, idealists who live in non-ideal suburbia. The novel opens with a play in which April plays the lead - and it is an unmitigated failure. So (watch out for the simple transferral of allegory) is April's performance as a housewife; so is her performance as a latent revolutionary. The Wheelers dream of better things, and think they are hiding their gold amongst dross - but the credentials of that gold come under question when April decides to put their long-held plans into action.

Revolutionary Road is unmistakably American, and I don't know why. It's not just the "Geez, baby"s that crop up from time to time, but... well, I just don't know. The American Dream in the background, perhaps. The striving for an achievement, even when that achievement is impossible - striving where the English would have cynically given up and put on a pot of tea.

Similarly, I don't know why this novel is so good. All the usual - writing that grabs you, situations which need resolution, a subtle wit throughout - though undeniably sad, too. As I was reading (and before I knew that the Titanic co-stars would be reuniting) I kept thinking the book would make an excellent film - the plot is so event-led. Lots of emotions on the surface, or lots of surface emotions anyway. Kate Winslet rarely does a bad film, and never turns in a bad performance, so I'm quite excited at the prospect of seeing this one on the silver screen. Hopefully Yates will become a readers' writer.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Miss Read et al

Thanks for thoughts on Miss Read - they seem to be overwhelmingly positive, so I shall have to un-neglect this author! I always had her down as quite bad romance, but that was based on the covers seen in my local library - I was rather taken with the covers on the ones I bought. So I might read on and make my judgement on something more literary... the two which I have to sample are Miss Clare Remembers and Gossip from Thrush Green, which seem to be from vaguely the beginning and end of Miss Read's writing career respectively.

These were called comfort reads by a few of you - we were chatting about comfort reads at Book Group last week, and two people there didn't really understand the concept, and thought they'd probably never re-read a book... gosh! I don't re-read much (though have done more this year than usual) but some comfort reads are essential for me.

What else did I buy? Against my better judgement, a book by Jeremy Paxman, who irritates me a great deal - but The English was mentioned so often with fondness in Kate Fox's excellent Watching the English (my thoughts on it here), and seems to attempt a similar thing. Hopefully his writing isn't anything like his presenting/reporting... But it's non-fiction, so that will please Our Vicar (Dad, I've read 28 non-fiction books this year! Proud of me?) Also related to one of my 50 Books... is David Garnett's Aspects of Love: I was in the book shop and toying with spending £3 on a secondhand copy, then saw that there was another copy a few books away for £1.50. I love it when that happens. And I bought it, and read quite a lot of it on the train home - not up to Lady Into Fox, and rather hurried... I daresay I'll write about it soon.

And to finish with, Richard Yates' excellent novel Revolutionary Road - we had a class on this on Friday, and I read a library copy, so am delighted to have a copy of it myself. Will doubtless blog about Revolutionary Road soon too - I've been finishing so many books recently that I'll be able to fill days and days with them! Then again, sometimes there are so many that I forget... I never did blog about Passage to India, and now I can't remember much about it. So I'd better get onto these soon...

But for now, bed. With Miss Buncle's Book, the latest Persephone title.

Wednesday 19 November 2008


Hello! I'm back from a lovely time in London, where I attended a fantastic talk (as detailed below) and saw Elaine (Random Jottings) - also, unexpectedly, Lynne (dovegreyreader). After that, and during today, I saw many friends from uni who have made the move to London... Emily, Karina, Will, Hannah, Matt and Joy. Gosh! What a busy couple of days. Started and finished two books, too. And it won't surprise you to learn that I bought a few books... five, in fact, but four were in a charity shop. Shall reveal all later, when I'm not too tired to get my camera... but for a little preamble I shall ask... Miss Read: yes or no?

Monday 17 November 2008

The Home-Maker and The Home-Wrecker

Just to make people jealous... I'm going tomorrow to London, to the fourth Persephone Lecture. I haven't managed to get to the others - where previous speakers have been Penelope Lively, Hermione Lee (my supervisor for my thesis!) and Salley Vickers - but shall be attending 'The Home-Maker and The Home-Wrecker: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Susan Glaspell, and 20th Century American Women Writers' by Elaine Showalter. Quite a combination there - one made perfectly for Elaine from Random Jottings, who very, very kindly bought me a ticket and will be going with me. For those not in the know, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and Fidelity and Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell, are novels published by Persephone Books. They're rather good, especially The Home-Maker, which is about a ruthlessly efficient mother and wife who is forced to let her husband become a househusband when he is injured and becomes a wheelchair user. From 1924, it is very ahead of its time in gender/job ideas - even ahead of today, I'd say. While a lot has been done to level the field in gender equality at work (still some way to go, of course) there is still enormous stigma attached to a househusband, and men don't really have the career/housework and parenting choice which is becoming open to more and more women, and so often debated.

But I don't think it's the plight of men which Elaine Showalter will address, and that's fine. She's probably best known (to me, anyway) as the author of A Literature of Their Own, about British women novelists, though I've been using it recently in regards the South African writer Olive Schreiner.

(As an aside, I know men have dominated literary history, but I was thinking the other day... my knowledge of it is swayed completely towards female writers. Those were the choices I made both academically and recreationally... which is really good on one hand, but means I'm quite ignorant of the path for male writers through the ages! And if I had to label three genii in writing... it would be Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf. Women are winning...)

Anyway - I fully expect to have a fascinating evening, and will report back in due course - might not be until Thursday, as I'm spending Wednesday catching up with friends who've moved to London. And don't they all eventually!

Saturday 15 November 2008

(Results) - Letters from Menabilly

What a nail-biter the Dickens vs. Hardy match was - and the final result was... a tie! 9 votes each, and 3 going for neither. And, what was even more interesting, most voters seemed not to have to hesitate for a moment. I wasn't sure which way it would swing, but didn't expect it to be so close as to be identical. Which, I suppose, means that my vote will be the decider... and I choose Dickens. Something unique in his writing, so witty but grotesque, a world which is unmistakably his. I admire Hardy a lot, but... Charles wins it.

Onto a wholly different topic, I f
inished Letters From Menabilly today. These are letters from Daphne du Maurier to Oriel Malet (Persephone author; I read the introduction ages ago, so can't remember the reasoning behind excluding Oriel's letters. Perhaps they weren't saved?) Bought it in the midst of my *intended* du Maurier spree, which ended up being just The Flight of the Falcon and My Cousin Rachel, and now this. Somehow it hasn't worked out exactly as I'd hoped... instead of building on my deep love of Rebecca, and hopeful adoration of Daphne du Maurier, she has rather faded in my estimation, both as a writer and a person. I shouldn't have expected her to be able to match Rebecca, but I found The Flight of the Falcon fairly tedious at times, though My Cousin Rachel was rather good. It was more on the personal front...

Others have read Letters from Menabilly and loved Daphne as a result. Lynne aka dovegreyreader rather liked it, I think Becca Oxford Reader was also a fan. I enjoyed reading it, but found Daphne to be rather cold-hearted, a little selfish, and not altogether charming. I think opinion shifted irredeemably when she wrote this to Oriel Malet: "If I had never married, and hadn't had financial success with my books, I think I'd have lived the same life you do". I paraphrase a little, because I can't find the quotation, but that's more or less it. How insensitive! Yes, perhaps I can't judge the friendship from outside, but so many of these letters seem to gloss over Oriel's concerns and talk about Daphne's own.

And then the in-jokes and funny neologisms. We know, from reading the Mitford letters, that these can be adorable or witty - I just found them "tarsome", as Georgie would say, in Daphne's letters. Tell-him and crumb and a shilling and beeding and waine and pegging and Doom... incomprehensible without a glossary and so often used, and without any noticeable charm. Am I being contrary? Perhaps. But 'Tell-Him' (used to describe more or less anything Daphne found dull or lecturey, to the slightest degree) was a label for almost everything she encountered, and seemed a bit cruel.

There was one exciting bit, which I'd already read about in Lynne's review - when she writes about Frank Baker, the author of my beloved book Miss Hargreaves. He sent Daphne du Maurier a copy of his novel The Birds, which predates her short story which Alfred Hitchcock adapted so memorably - Daphne writes, 'So I began his, rather smiling derisively, thinking it would be nonsense, and it's frightfully good! Much more psychological politics than mine, and going into great Deep Thoughts, I was quite absorbed!' I have The Birds but have yet to read it...

One final thing I must say - Oriel Malet comes across as a lovely, lovely person. Not only the recipient of the letters, so intersperses letters every now and then with prose for context. Usually explaining where they both were at the stage of their lives when writing, but also with such interest and charm and I looked forward to these sections the most. Her experiences living on a houseboat are especially delightful. So, though Daphne comes across as no fairy godmother, the book is worth seeking out - and I shall be turning my Daphne-fest into an Oriel hunt.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Questions for the Tired

I think I'm going to introduce a little series for the days when I'm too tired to write anything more sensible... it'll be a simple x versus y question, and we'll see who comes out on top! They might have something in common or they might not...

Today, a battle of the Titans: Charles Dickens or Tho
mas Hardy?

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Black Dogs

Somehow, over the years, I've read five novels by Ian McEwan. Not such an astonishing fact, except that he is far from being my favourite novelist - I admire quite a few of them, really like some, dislike others. And, thinking about it, four of those five have been read for book groups or similar - including Black Dogs which I finished (and, indeed, started) today.

It certainly battles out with Atonement for being my favourite McEwan - people have recommended 'early McEwan' to me, and I can see why. The writing here is compact, tense - so often I'd finish reading paragraphs or phrases and think "wow" - quite the opposite of Saturday.

Black Dogs centres around an incident which happened on a couple's honeymoon, involving the dogs in question. We spend most of the novel knowing that something took place, but not knowing what, so I shan't spoil it
for you - the novel is filled with the impact and effects of the event. June and Bernard are the central couple - both old by the 'present day', both recounting their lives to the narrator, Jeremy, who is writing a sort of biography. We flit back to their youth, forward to their separate old age, to Jeremy's life and marriage (to their daughter). Bernard is an ex-Communist whose narrow ideology cannot be made compatible with June's spiritual 'conversion'. I give that word inverted commas as, though June is supposed to represent 'religion' in the novel, she never does much other than embrace a hazy spirituality.

Nevertheless, she is the novel's most interesting character, one with more depth than the rest. It is particularly to see her in an old people's home; how disorientated she is: 'In the few seconds that it took to approach slowly and set down my bag, she had to reconstruct her whole existence, who and where she was, how and why she came to be in this small white-walled room. Only when she had all that could she begin to remember me.' Makes me want to watch Away From Her again...

Perhaps the most intriguing bit of the book is something Jeremy thinks, when researching the lives of June and Bernard: 'Turning points are the inventions of story-tellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by, a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character's growth.' If McEwan is anything, he is the novelist of turning points. And usually very good with this technique, I must say - why is he arguing against it here, I wonder?

All in all, I thought it was very good - not much of a linear plot, more vignettes pulled together by the centring force of the Black Dogs incident. Some incredibly taut language and effective writing. I should add, however, that the majority of the group's response at book group was middling or negative - but we all agreed it was better than Saturday!

For the benefit of those who have found their way here from the book group, here are the links to other Book Group Books which I've written about here.... not as many as I'd thought. And, for anyone interested, this is the book group's website. Very nice it is too.

Speaking of Love - Angela Young
Alva & Irva - Edward Carey
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

Those who remember my Stuck-in-a-Book's Oxford Tour, back in July 2007 (goodness! what a long time ago) might recall this post and Arcadia, my favourite shop in Oxford. Some secondhand books, lots of lovely gifts and wrapping paper and cards, I go whenever a birthday is coming. Occasionally I'll buy a card just because I love it, and want to have it on my desk. That was how I discovered Nicholas Hely Hutchinson.
He creates beautiful portrayals of nature - sloping and slid
ing and seemingly on a pivot, as it were. Rather than a straight landscape, the pictures then feel alive (though not frenetic); humourous, without losing a reverence for beauty. I'll keep quiet, and show you some examples. (I hope I'm allowed to do that! I'll remove them if I need to... but since I hope this leads people to buy prints or even paintings, it might be in his favour...)

Do go to his website - I've just been for the first time, and it has a slideshow of his paintings. I may be a little in love with them. They're what the art world would term 'affordable', but at the moment I'd need them to be under £10 to qualify. Even so, I'm horribly tempted...

Monday 10 November 2008

Deborah Harried

The collected letters of the Mitford sisters, which I raved about here, is still my favourite book read this year - and so it was with delight that I discovered Deborah Mitford (or Deborah Devonshire - or perhaps m'lady) would be having more letters published this year. In Tearing Haste is the letters between Debo and Patrick Leigh Fermor, who share the unusual trait of being alive whilst having their letters published. I imagine they are writing some amusing letters to each other about it already.

What makes this new book even more exciting is that Charlotte Mosley is editing it - how she found the time after The Mitfords is beyond me, but I'm very glad she did. With so much material, especially for that previous volume, the task of the editor is (I should imagine) incredibly difficult and incredibly skilled. I even wrote to Charlotte Mosley to say how much I enjoyed (nay, loved) her work on The Mitfords, and got a nice note back.

I have only just bought it - rather quailed at the price (£25, down to £20 at Blackwells and probably discounted in a lot of places) but an online friend, Sherry, and I made a cunning plan. We both have November birthdays, so we're buying In Tearing Haste for each other - but since I live in England and she lives in the US, we'll collect our presents from the local bookshop. Plus, I have Blackwells vouchers from Magdalen... down to my last £10 there, actually - expect a full run-through of how I spent Magdalen's money soon. And this book will be very useful for my writing on the middlebrow, I daresay, and thus qualifies as an 'academic text' (on which the vouchers had to be spent). One of the great things about studying 20th Century Lit is that fun books are also work books!

I've not read anything by Patrick Leigh Fermor before, but apparently his style is the opposite of Debo's avowedly philistine writing. Will just share the opening to the first letter from the book, and you'll understand why I love her:

Dear Paddy Leigh Fermor,
I'm beginning like that chiefly because Nancy [Mitford] says one mustn't, but as she says I'm mental age of 9 it doesn't signify how one begins. I'm ever so excited about you coming to Ireland. Do really come & don't just say you are.

The Mitfords, in some circles, had become bywords for the affluent and senseless - hopefully the recent succession of published letters, and Debo's unavoidable charm, will lead the next generation of the Mitford-curious to a different conclusion.

Sunday 9 November 2008


I don't usually go in for reading challenges, because I have enough demand on my reading time as it is and deadlines make me panic, but I loved one I saw on Books Please so much that I had to join in. I rather anticipate that I won't *actually* read the books in 2009, but the fun will be choosing books to fit the categories...

The challenge is What's In A Name (2) - (2) because a successful challenge was run last year with different categories. I'm going to go through my unread-but-owned books and see where I can fit them in...

A book with a “profession” in its title.

  • The Professor - Charlotte Bronte
  • The Calligrapher's Night - Yasmine Ghata
  • The Sailor's Return - David Garnett

  • A book with a “time of day” in its title.

  • Endless Night - Agatha Christie
  • As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee
  • A Clear Dawn - Winifred Peck

  • A book with a “relative” in its title.

  • Daddy's Gone A-Hunting - Penelope Mortimer
  • Good Wives? - Margaret Forster
  • Miss Linsey and Pa - Stella Gibbons

  • A book with a “body part” in its title.

  • The Eaten Heart - Giovanni Boccaccio
  • By The Pricking of My Thumbs - Agatha Christie
  • The Heel of Achilles - EM Delafield

  • A book with a “building” in its title.

  • The Orchid House - Phyllis Shand Allfrey
  • Hotel du Lac - Anita Brookner
  • The House of Dolls - Barbara Comyns

  • A book with a “medical condition” in its title.

  • The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
  • I don't think I have any others for this category... I don't own Love in a Time of Cholera... does 'Death' count as a "medical condition"...?

    Even if you don't intend to carry out the challenge, have a think of books on your shelves which might slot in... we'll see next year how many of these I've read.

    Thursday 6 November 2008

    Happy Birthday To Me!

    I had coffee with Becca (aka Oxford Reader) today, and she pointed out that I hadn't put any new sketches up on here for ages... and she is right. That was one of the things I wanted to do from the beginning, to make my blog a little different, and I apologise for the slackness. I shall use today (November 7th, although this post will claim to have been published in the final minutes of November 6th), as the birthday of me and the Carbon Copy, to put up a new one. If you want to know how old I am, just count the candles...

    Wednesday 5 November 2008

    Homage to Catalonia

    As promised, today I'm going to write about Homage to Catalonia. Perhaps I should start by acknowledging Obama and everything - but since I know less than nothing about the whole thing, I'll just say that I was rather hoping he'd win (in an unfounded sort of way) and always imagined he would.

    Right. To the Spanish Civil War. Hom
    age to Catalonia by George Orwell was one of two works (the other being an Auden poem) which were chosen by our tutor to represent 'Literature of the 1930s'. If I had to choose a decade about which I knew the most, I'd plump for the 1930s, but nothing like either of these texts. My knowledge centres around the novel, perhaps with a little drama thrown in - I'd hoped to do my presentation this week (I'm now doing Theatre and Revolution next week) and I'm quite glad I was too late. Interesting as I found Homage to Catalonia, I feel completely unqualified to present a paper on it.

    For those who don't know - and I'd like to point out that Our Vicar did know - Homage to Catalonia is non-fiction. It's more or less autobiography, military autobiography if you will, of George Orwell's experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It's one of those events which wasn't taught much in school - it was wheeled in every now and then to explain certain reactions towards World War Two, but has been rather overshadowed by it. The only thing I knew about it, really, was that Julian Bell (Virginia Woolf's nephew) died there, bombed whilst in an ambulance. So Orwell's text really informed me, and what is more it was written in the six months after he returned to England. WW2 hadn't started, and all the events were fresh in his mind.

    Despite not being hugley
    interested in military history, I found Homage to Catalonia absolutely fascinating and incredibly engagingly written. My only experiences with Orwell before were, like a lot of people, 1984 and Animal Farm. Although they both have evident left-wing morals, I hadn't realised quite how active Orwell had been for the left-wing cause - and the same great writing that he uses in these novels is transferred to discussing life 'at the front'.

    I say 'at the front'. Some of it is, and he describes the unreality, frequent tedium, and unexpected priorities: 'In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco candles and the enemy. In winter on the Saragossa front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last.' After a spate there, he is back in Barcelona, once more faced with frustrating inactivity and boredom. And later he is shocked by the fact that the voluntary militia he joined, the POUM, is being used as a scapegoat by the government to blame for all ills - even while they are fighting for the cause.

    Perhaps I should pin my colours to the mast. I am more or less a pacifist, probably through inclination as much as ideology; I find the concept of warfare sickening, and also find it unfathomable that Orwell cannot connect the danger, indignity and pain he experiences with that of the men on the other side of No Man's Land. I recommend Homage to Catalonia - and I certainly recommend it - for Orwell's exceptional writing and for interest, definitely not as a how-to manual or political treatise!

    My copy is from the 1986 Complete Works - most editions after this have moved two chapters to be appendices, supposedly based on notes Orwell left - these are the two most overly political chapters, and what is left is more his personal experience. The tutor leading discussion was rather scandalised by this, but it makes the book much more captivating for me. And captivating it certainly is - if you're intrigued to find out more about the Spanish Civil War, or if you are simply interested by the 1930s as a period, I think Homage to Catalonia would be an excellent starting point.

    Tuesday 4 November 2008

    Sleep, perchance to dream...

    I was going to write about George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia this evening, but I'm just too sleepy... something to do with an enormous fancy dinner at Magdalen, I think. So those who've read it can hurriedly gather their thoughts to throw in opinions when I (hopefully) write about the book tomorrow!

    Will also be discussing my dissertation title for Literatures of Empire and Nation course, so might be able to give you a nearly-final idea about what that will be...

    Monday 3 November 2008

    A Book by any other name...

    The book I want to write about today isn't one I'd necessarily recommend that you rush out and buy, but more of an interesting look at what the book can now be. A lot of people say that the book is dead, or will be in a decade or two - of course, people have been saying things like that more or less since the book was invented. Whilst I don't believe there is any truth in that prophecy, I do believe that the range of possibilities for the book might well expand. Step forward Mistakes in the Background by Laura Dockrill, which was sent to me by Rachael, who works for Borders books, to review. See their page about it here.

    The publishing information in the back of Mistakes in the Background describes it as a novel, but it's difficult to see how it could be called that - it is basically a scrapbook. Laura Dockrill's blurb says: 'I draw like a left-handed baby, I can hardly spell my own name and watching me use a gluestick is a bit like watching a large bear trying to ram his own head into a pocket-sized cat flap... no, really.' She's not far wrong - the sketches (which appear throughout) are pretty amateur and look like they were done in haste, but with an enthusiasm and sprightliness which is what Dockrill is going for, I imagine.

    There is no continuity in the book, really - a page will have a little story about ice skaters, or a cartoon of a snail, or bits and pieces stuck in with sellotape. There's the typewritten sheets of a Rolf Harris obsessive; footprints, stickers. None of the book is typed, it's all in the scrawl of Laura Dockrill. I must confess I found the whole book rather self-indulgent, and already feel too old for it... but I was born 70 years too late anyway.

    And this is where a segment of the book market is heading - it won't replace traditional novels, of course, but - though it might not be everyone's cup of tea - it will bring the book form to more people. That's got to be a good thing.

    Saturday 1 November 2008

    Heart of Darkness

    Apologies for the lack of content here in the past few days - as I rather anticipated, my degree has been taking up quite a lot of my time! It's not so much that I have a huge workload, but more the fact that I don't have designated leisure time... and so no time to assign especially for this blog. But fear not, I shall continue apace!

    ot a very enthused review today, however, and one I hope won't upset my tutor if she comes across it... we read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for the course on Empire Writing. I think a few of you expressed distaste for the book when I mentioned it a while ago - and I have to say I agree. Not distaste, actually, just a complete indifference. I sat and read the novella (if such it is) in one sitting, and just couldn't bring myself to care about any of it - certainly some is well written. The final scene, and 'the horror the horror' demonstrate an interesting dabbling in Modernisty writing, but in general... well, let's just say I finished it with only a minimal idea of what it was about, having already forgotten all the details. Which is quite shameful.

    I'd be very happy for someone to offer a counter-argument... please step forward if you love Heart of Darkness, I'd love to here the case for the defence.

    But, this possibility aside for now, I'm intrigued - how on earth did Conrad's book become so renowned? As far as I can tell, from my fairly early copy, it was initially only a subsidiary to the story 'Youth' (my copy is in a volume called Youth and Two Other Stories), which is in itself a rather underwhelming story. Perhaps Heart of Darkness revolutionised narrative or something, and I daresay I should appreciate it as a benchmark of literature, but... well, people my age have a little expression which goes like this: "meuh". That about sums up my feelings for this novella.

    Those of you who aren't tutting in disgust - which 'classics' leave you feeling "meuh"? Not hatred, or even dislike, just indifference....?