Thursday 31 December 2009

Books of 2009

At the end of each year, I leave you with a list of the books I've read during the year... this year I've read more titles than usual, but that's because I read rather a lot of plays for one of my courses... and re-reads have a 'x' in front of them. Again, rather more than usual. Anyway, here goes! (warning: if you're in the dovegreybooks postal book group, watch out! Some of these titles are in it, but I couldn't remember exactly which...)

x1. Winnie-the-Pooh - AA Milne
x2. The House at Pooh Corner - AA Milne
x3. The Feminine Middlebrow Novels 1920s to 1950s - Nicola Humble
x4. The Provincial Lady in America - EM Delafield
5. Breath - Tim Winton
x6. Orlando - Virginia Woolf
7. The Colleen Bawn - Dion Boucicault
8. Black Ey'd Susan - Douglas Jerrold
9. The Bells - Leopold Lewis
10. Melodrama - James L. Smith
11. Uncle Tom's Cabin (play) - George L. Aiken
x12. The Provincial Lady in Wartime - EM Delafield
13. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
14. The Octoroon - Dion Boucicault
15. Mrs. Warren's Profession - George Bernard Shaw
16. The Second Mrs. Tanqueray - Arthur Wing Pinero
17. The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith - Arthur Wing Pinero
x18. Jacob's Room - Virginia Woolf
19. Mrs. Dane's Defence - Henry Arthur Jones
20. Stage-Land - Jerome K. Jerome
x21. Between The Acts - Virginia Woolf
x22. A Woman of No Importance - Oscar Wilde
23. The Philanderer - George Bernard Shaw
24. The Master-Builder - Henrik Ibsen
25. The Lady From The Sea - Henrik Ibsen
26. Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
27. Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy - Rebecca West
x28. Lady Into Fox - David Garnett
29. The Heir - Vita Sackville-West
30. Hedda Gabler - Henrik Ibsen
x31. The Haunted Woman - David Lindsay
32. A Taste of Honey - Shelagh Delaney
33. The Deep Blue Sea - Terence Rattigan
34. The Return of the Soldier - Rebecca West
35. The Winslow Boy - Terence Rattigan
36. The Entertainer - John Osborne
x37. Miss Hargreaves - Frank Baker
x38. The Birthday Party - Harold Pinter
39. Travesties - Tom Stoppard
40. Indian Ink - Tom Stoppard
41. Rock and Roll - Tom Stoppard
42. The Lion in Love - Shelagh Delaney
43. Saved - Edward Bond
44. Loot - Joe Orton
45. What The Butler Saw - Joe Orton
46. Blasted - Sarah Kane
47. Early Morning - Edward Bond
48. Cloud Nine - Caryl Churchill
x49. The Love Child - Edith Olivier
50. Mr. Fortune's Maggot - Sylvia Townsend Warner
51. Making History - Brian Friel
52. The History Boys - Alan Bennett
53. Our Country's Good - Timberlake Werternbaker
54. Oh What A Lovely War - Theatre Workshop
x55. Arcadia - Tom Stoppard
56. It's Hard To Be Hip Over Thirty and other poems - Judith Viorst
57. Forever England - Alison Light
58. Parnassus on Wheels - Christopher Morley
59. Love Letters - Leonard Woolf & Trekkie Parsons
60. His House in Order - Arthur Wing Pinero
61. Separate Tables - Terence Rattigan
62. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher - Kate Summerscale
63. Straws Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia - EM Delafield
64. Making Conversation - Christine Longford
x65. Two People - AA Milne
66. Put Out More Flags - Evelyn Waugh
x67. A Very Great Profession - Nicola Beauman
68. The Ascent of Man - AA Milne
69. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim
70. The House of Dolls - Barbara Comyns
71. The Psychology of the Servant Problem - Violet M. Firth
x72. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
73. Hallucinating Foucault - Patricia Dunker
74. A Shot in Dark - Saki
x75. Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there - Lewis Carroll
76. Seducers in Ecuador - Vita Sackville-West
77. Jane's Fame - Claire Harman
78. The Fox - DH Lawrence
79. Paris Review Interviews vol.1 - Various
x80. The Heir - Vita Sackville-West
x81. The Hours - Michael Cunningham
82. Cheerful Weather For The Wedding - Julia Strachey
83. Fugitive Pieces - Anne Michaels
84. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont - Elizabeth Taylor
85. Say Please - Virginia Graham
x86. Flush: A Biography - Virginia Woolf
87. Picnic at Hanging Rock - Joan Lindsay
88. Home To Roost and other peckings - Deborah Devonshire
89. The Tales of Beedle the Bard - JK Rowling
90. Indiscretions of Archie - PG Wodehouse
91. Henrietta's War - Joyce Dennys
92. Maidens' Trip - Emma Smith
93. Parents and Children - Ivy Compton-Burnett
94. Dreamers - Knut Hamsun
95. Sex Education - Janni Visman
96. They Came Like Swallows - William Maxwell
97. The Holiday - Richmal Crompton
98. Henrietta Sees It Through - Joyce Dennys
99. The Secret History - Donna Tartt
100. The Tattooed Map - Barbara Hodgson
x101. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - JK Rowling
102. Alas, Poor Lady - Rachel Ferguson
103. The Last September - Elizabeth Bowen
x104. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - JK Rowling
105. Observatory Mansions - Edward Carey
106. The Other Elizabeth Taylor - Nicola Beauman
107. Oxford - Jan Morris
108. The Bird's Nest - Shirley Jackson
109. Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
110. Checkout: A Life on the Tills - Anna Sam
111. The Shutter of Snow - Emily Holmes Coleman
112. Life and Death of Harriett Frean - May Sinclair
113. Love's Shadow - Ada Leverson
114. Tea and Tranquillisers - Dianne Hapwood
115. Princes in the Land - Joanna Cannan
116. Minnie's Room - Mollie Panter-Downes
117. The Runaway - Elizabeth Anna Hart
118. Elizabeth and Ivy - Robert Liddell
119. Lettice Delmer - Susan Miles
120. Beg, Borrow, Steal - Michael Greenberg
121. Decline and Fall - Evelyn Waugh
122. Kisses on a Postcard - Terence Frisby
123. It's All Right If I Do It - Terence Frisby
x124. Miss Hargreaves - Frank Baker
125. The True Deceiver - Tove Jansson
126. The Dower House - Annabel Davis-Goff
127. Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill
128. Summer at the Haven - Katharine Moore
129. A Very Short Introduction to Biography - Hermione Lee
130. The Tortoise and The Hare - Elizabeth Jenkins
131. The Spare Room - Helen Garner
x132. We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
133. Economy Must Be Our Watchword - Joyce Dennys
134. Modern Delight - Various
135. The Beacon - Susan Hill
136. The Paper House - Carlos Maria Dominguez
137. Fiction and the Reading Public - QD Leavis
138. Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel, and EH Young - Chiara Briganti & Kathy Mezei
139. Making the Cat Laugh - Lynne Truss
140. The Venetian Glass Nephew - Elinor Wylie
141. Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger
142. Repeated Doses - Joyce Dennys
143. Manservant and Maidservant - Ivy Compton-Burnett
144. So Many Books - Gabriel Zaid
145. Olivia - Olivia
146. Dwarf's Blood - Edith Olivier
x147. Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell
148. A Kind of Intimacy - Jenn Ashworth
149. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture - TS Eliot
150. Impassioned Clay - Stevie Davies
x151. The Holiday Round - AA Milne
152. Women, Privacy and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century British Writing - Wendy Gan
153. High Brows - Bruce Marshall
154. The Innermost Room - Richmal Crompton
x155. Hunting the Highbrow - Leonard Woolf
x156. Mass Civilization and Minority Culture - FR Leavis
157. Civilization - Clive Bell
158. Crewe Train - Rose Macaulay
x159. Diary of a Provincial Lady - EM Delafield
160. Catchwords and Claptrap - Rose Macaulay
161. Try Anything Twice - Jan Struther
162. The Lagoon - Janet Frame
163. Keeping Up Appearances - Rose Macaulay
164. Dear Fatty - Dawn French
165. Pastors and Masters - Ivy Compton-Burnett

Tuesday 29 December 2009

End of Year Meme

I'm writing my posts in reverse order, but hopefully by now I'll already have unveiled my favourite books read in 2009, and before the end of the year I'll have listed them all. Today is a little meme I've done since I've been blogging (here's last year's).

Do have a go at this meme, if the will so takes you, and let me know any fun questions that you add in... The last question, about blogging, is a new one for this year.

- How many books read in 2009?
165 at the moment - possibly a lifetime record, but does include 36 plays

- Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
129/36 - which is actually the same number of non-fic as last year, though rather more fiction

- Male/Female authors?

69 books by male authors, 92 books by female authors, and four by mixed authors. Oddly, or perhaps not, the first half of the year (my masters course) was male-dominated, and the second half (my
doctoral course) female-dominated...

- Favourite book read?

Howards End is on the Landing
by Susan Hill

- Least favourite?

A few I didn't get on with this year, I must admit. Tea and Tranquillisers by Dianne Hapwood (though Verity had more luck), It's Hard To Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst irritated me beyond belief, but I am not over thirty, so perhaps that's why.

- Oldest book read?
Will be Black Ey'd Susan by Douglas Jerrold, from 1829.

- Newest book read?
Currently reading a promising novel, due for publication next summer...

- Longest book title?
I must confess, I haven't done a thorough count of all the titles, but I'm pretty confident that Wendy Gan wins with the snappily-titled W
omen, Privacy and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century British Writing. Phew!

- Shortest book title?

Last year I managed a mere three letters, but this year I have to add one to that, with Loot by Joe Orton.

- How many re-reads?

31 this year,
which is far more than I've ever done before. I've obviously got to that stage of life... (I'll be posting some guest bloggers on re-reading soon...) Too many to list, but they'll be indicated on my end of year list, in the unlikely event that anybody is desperate to know which they are.

- Most books read by one author this year?
For the second year running, AA Milne comes out on top - this year with five. EM Delafield, Virginia Woolf, Tom Stoppard, and Joyce Dennys are joint second with four books apiece.

- Any in translation?
Eight this year - The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, three plays by Ibsen, Dreamers by Knut Hamsun, The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez, Checkout by Anna Sam, and So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid.

- How many books were borrowed from the library?

You'll be proud, as 45 were from the university library this year.

- Name a book you've read this year which was recommended by a blogger?
The wonderfully eccentric Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley was not only recommended, but given to me by Danielle from A Work in Progress - so thanks Danielle!

Saturday 26 December 2009

Top Books of 2009

I'm not good at self-discipline, obviously, because I haven't managed to cut my top books of the year down to ten. This is always my intention, but I have failed - and so I have a Top 15. Obviously I could just have listed the top ten on this list, but I didn't want to ignore the others...

As always, I don't include re-reads in my list, or more than one book by each author. So some wonderful books (like Henrietta's War) are missing, because I preferred other books by the author. And I was a little surprised to see that no male authors made the list - at least six were quite close.

Do put a link in the comments to your own Top Books of the year, or if you don't have a blog, feel free to list your favourite books in the comments.

15. Life and Death of Harriett Frean (1922) - May Sinclair
A short Virago Modern Classic about the life of
Harriett, touching most often on themes of spinsterhood and moral choices. More here...

14. Oxford (1965) - Jan Morris

Our Vicar gave me this book about the history of Oxford back in 2004, and I've finally read it - though still not got around to writing about it on here. In turns bizarre, affectionate, unlikely, and (being from the 60s) often a historical piece itself, the book is endlessly interesting and characterful.

13. Love's Shadow (1908) - Ada Leverson

The best thing to happen in publishing this year, in my opinion, was Bloomsbury's set of reprints, The Bloomsbury Group. This hilarious, wry novel from one of Oscar Wilde's pals was a wonderful find on their behalf. More here...

12. Straw Without Bricks (1937) - EM Delafield
Also published as The Provincial Lady in Russia, this book is in fact non-fiction about EMD's time in Soviet Russia - very much split into two halves, and a bit confusing - some very funny, some very serious. More here...

11. Manservant & Maidservant (1947) - Ivy Compton-Burnett

Of the three ICB novels I've read this year, this was my favourite - I don't know how she controls dialogue and characters so excellently, and though the density of her writing means I have to ration her books a bit, she's becoming one of my favourite writers. More here...

10. The Enchanted April (1922) - Elizabeth von Arnim

One of those novels I've had on my shelves for years, and finally read. Manages to be delightful and optomistic without being saccharine - a really lovely book. More here...

9. Lolly Willowes (1926) - Sylvia Townsend Warner
An excellently written novel which begins with showing the plight of a spinster in her brother's home, but turns around when she moves to the countryside and becomes a witch... More here...

8. The Return of the Soldier (1918) - Rebecca West
Brief but very striking, the best of the many books I read for various book groups this year (and the only one to make my top 15, in fact). An excellent look at shell-shock, as well as a biased narrator, and class wars. Bafflingly, I don't seem to have blogged about it - I'll try to do so at some point in 2010.

7. Say Please (1949) - Virginia Graham
A very amusing faux-etiquette guide, with excellent illustrations by Osbert Lancester. More here...

6. The Runaway (1872) - Elizabeth Anna Hart

I read ten Persephone Books titles this year, and this is the first of two to make my top 15 - a charming and unusual children's story, with Gwen Raverat's beautiful accompanying woodcuts from the 1936 edition. More here...

5. The True Deceiver (1982) - Tove Jansson

One of my favourite writers, I wait eagerly for Thomas Teal to translate more of her atmospheric, wintery, stark novels and stories. More here...

4. Cheerful Weather For The Wedding (1932) - Julia Strachey

The other Persephone title - short but hilarious and memorable - though this tale of the problems and characters surrounding a wedding day has rather divided the blogosphere. More here...

3. The Heir (1922) - Vita Sackville-West

Short books are doing well... A man becomes, unexpectedly, the heir of a rambling house Blackboys. This novella charts his growing love for the place, and was so good that I read it twice this year. Hesperus' beautiful edition didn't hurt either. More here...

2. Economy Must Be Our Watchword (1932) - Joyce Dennys

I hadn't heard of Joyce Dennys before the Bloomsbury Group reprinted her fictional war diaries, Henrietta's War - but it was this gem, of a foolish, selfish and utterly un-self-aware woman trying to do war work which was my favourite Dennys book this year. I haven't blogged about it because it's impossible to find... for the moment... A little bit more here....

1. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) - Susan Hill
ot often does a book win me over so completely - Susan Hill's non-fiction book about her year of reading from home is a beautiful paean to books. Whether or not you agree with her opinions, it would be hard not to fall for a book as delightfully bookish as this one. More here... This also marks the fourth year in a row where a non-fiction book has been my favourite read - quite surprising, given how much novels outweigh non-fiction in my reading... perhaps 2010 will be the year of non-fiction for me?

That list again, for clearer reading - and don't forget to link to your own lists.

15. Life and Death of Harriett Frean - May Sinclair
14. Oxford - Jan Morris

13. Love's Shadow - Ada Leverson

12. Straw Without Bricks - EM Delafield

11. Manservant & Maidservant - Ivy Compton-Burnett

10. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

9. Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
8. The Return of the Soldier - Rebecca West

7. Say Please - Virginia Graham

6. The Runaway - Elizabeth Anna Hart

5. The True Deceiver - Tove Jansson

4. Cheerful Weather For The Wedding - Julia Strachey

3. The Heir - Vita Sackville-West

2. Economy Must Be Our Watchword - Joyce Dennys

1. Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill

Friday 25 December 2009

A Joyous Christmas one and all!

"Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!"

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

love Simon

Sunday 20 December 2009

A Proper Family Christmas

I'm going to be honest with you, today's blog post is copied wholesale from an entry in December 2007. Back then I was sent a copy of A Proper Family Christmas by Jane Gordon-Cumming, and it was perfect Christmas reading. Dollops of Wodehouse and Just William, and even Jam and Jerusalem. I've just spotted that there's even an audio book version available now. Anyway, I don't often just repeat posts, but lots of people won't have spotted the review two years ago, and Jane's book is just so delightful that I want more of you to know about it. A bit late to order it for Christmas presents, perhaps, but might be good for the post-Christmas rush... Anyway - here goes:

I also have an AA Milne quotation for every occasion. Well, I can't remember exactly how this goes, but something along the lines of: "Every critic instantly assumes that, should a writer be able to make his audience laugh, he secretly wishes he were making them cry". Milne didn't always love his critics, but the point is that we shouldn't underestimate the comic writer - I think it's much more difficult to make readers laugh than it is to make them cry, and a comic novel done well is a wonderful thing.

Step forward Jane Gordon-Cumming, and A Proper Family Christmas. I was worried people didn't write books like this any more. Don't get me wrong, I love pensive, slightly depressing, high-literary fiction more than anyone - Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, after all (though she is incredibly funny, I must add) - but where did novels go which gently laugh at human nature and the tangles
they get themselves in? Thankfully Jane G-C has written one such novel, and I know you'll love it.

William lives by himself in a rambling old house, such as are only found in fiction - well, I say alone, he actually lives with a rather wonderful cat called Scratch. You can't go wrong with cats in fiction - they're such amusing and characterful creatures. Anyway, William is an obstreperous old man, but one you can't help loving. Despite his best efforts, every member of his family descend on his house for Christmas - his forthright siser Margery; widow Hilary and her attractive teenage son; neurotic Lesley and Stephen with their spoilt child Tobias and put-upon nanny Frances; scatty Julia and innuendo-flinging Tony with worldy-wise daughter Posy and flirty nanny Shelley; arty Leo who seems to be perpetually ignored by all; charmer and antiquities exp
ert Oliver. Phew, think that's everyone. What a cast! Despite a lot of characters and a lot of names, like one's own family one never gets confused. They all have their place and, like them or loathe them, you can't help being quietly fond of each and every one.

This novel is definitely a character piece - throw together a lot of disparate and amusing people, and a few Wodehousian plots, and see what happens. And what happens is a witty and touching romp through the intricacies and politics of a family Christmas. If you don't recognise it all, you're lucky, but you'll love it nonetheless. A perfect Christmas present for someone who loves something to read on Boxing Day, just so long as they can't recognise themselves in its pages... and best not give it to anyone called William, Leo, Margery, Lesley, Stephen, Tony, Shelley, Tobias, Posy, Julia... at a pinch Frances, Oliver, Hilary and Daniel will take it as a compliment...

Saturday 19 December 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book Cartoon

Sometimes (and very little of late, for which I apologise) I put little sketches up on Stuck-in-a-Book - which are very much amateur, and just to make things a little different around here. I'm a little embarrassed that they will, from now on, appear on the same site as this fantastic caricature/cartoon by Sarah Bailey, a lovely lady local to us in Somerset (go and visit her website). Admittedly most of my blog readers don't know what I look like, but the sketch does have a little photo of me in the bottom left corner, to give you a clue...

Friday 18 December 2009

Quiz Answers

Well, you've done me proud, readers - especially on Round Two, I was mightily impressed. I shan't single out anybody in particular because there are no prizes... but compare what you got to these answers, and give yourself a Christmassy pat on the back.

Round One: Book Covers
(quiz here)
1. To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
2. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
3. Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
4. Chocolat - Joanne Harris
5. Notes on a Scandal - Zoe Heller
6. Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger
7. Spies - Michael Frayn
8. The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
9. Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
10. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
11. Filth - Irvine Welsh
12. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark
13. A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess
14. Enduring Love - Ian McEwan
15. Lady Chatterley's Lover - D. H. Lawrence

Round Two (Characters' Names)

(quiz here)
1. Oliver Mellors = Lady Chatterley's Lover (DH Lawrence)
2. Quasimodo = The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo)
3. Bilbo Baggins = The Hobbit (JRR Tolkein)
4. Clare Abshire = The Time Traveller's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
5. Rachel Ashley = My Cousin Rachel (Daphne du Maurier)
6. Sir Robert Chiltern = An Ideal Husband (Oscar Wilde)
7. Michael Henchard = The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy)
8. Anne Catherick = The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)
9. Liesel Meminger = The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
10. Cedric Errol = Little Lord Fauntleroy (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

Round Three: Views and Reviews
(quiz here)
1. AS Byatt
2. The Old Curiosity Shop - Charles Dickens
3. Ulysses - James Joyce
4. Martine McCutcheon
5. Dan Brown
6. Saturday - Ian McEwan
7. Jane Austen
8. John Keats
9. Enid Blyton
10. Jordan/Katie Price

Thursday 17 December 2009

Quiz: Round Three

Right, final round from me, hope you've been enjoying it so far.

Views and Reviews

1) Which female novelist got in trouble for saying, in a 2003 New York Times article, that Harry Potter was written “for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the
exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip” ?

2) Which book was Oscar Wilde talking about when he said: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

3) Which significant, and very long, 1922 novel did Virginia Woolf dismiss as the work of a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”

4) Which ex-soap actress published her debut novel The Mistress this year, described in The Guardian as ‘arguably one of the most baffling publishing decisions since Headline paid more than minus 37p for Ashley Cole's emetic memoir My Defence’?

5) Which American author's writing, from his novel's first word 'Renowned' onwards, did linguist
Geoffrey Pullum describe as “not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad”?

6) What is the title of the novel, all of which takes place on February 15th 2003, which John Banville described as “a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces are hinged together with the subtlety of a child’s Erector Set.”

7) Who was Mark Twain talking about when he said that, every time he read her most famous book, ‘I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone’?

8) Which poet’s Endymion was dismissed by a contemporary reviewer as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy”?

9) It was recently revealed that the BBC had a ban on d
ramatising a certain children’s author’s books, from the 1930s to the 1950s, describing the author as a ‘tenacious second-rater’ who wrote ‘stilted and longwinded’ books. Who is the author in question?

10) Which celebrity ‘novelist,’ whose 2007 book outside the Booker shortlist, did Lynda La Plante call ‘a terrible thing for young girls who just want pink welly boots.’

Bloomsbury wins!

We interrupt normal broadcasting (there is a second round of the quiz to have a go at) to say... there's a Bloomsbury Group competition! If you're in a book club or reading group, or however you want to term it, you have a chance to win eight copies of one of Bloomsbury's titles (go for Miss Hargreaves, go on) as well as limited edition greetings cards and bookmarks. For all info, click here. The competition isn't open for long - I think it closes tomorrow - so hurry, hurry, hurry!

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Quiz: Round Two

Though I'm writing all these posts on Tuesday afternoon, I'm going to assume that you all did really well on the picture round yesterday - so give yourselves a hearty pat on the back.

Tonight is a round which is harder to describe, but much easier for me to copy and paste into blogger. These are all characters who are better known by the titles of the books in which they appear. I think I'd better give an example - if the character were 'Mary Boleyn' then the answer would be 'The Other Boleyn Girl'. Here goes... (same idea as yesterday - have a go in the comments, but make sure you don't read the comments first if you want to have a go!) (Oh, and Thomas family - don't cheat!)

1.) Oliver Mellors
2.) Quasimodo
3.) Bilbo Baggins
4.) Clare Abshire
5.) Rachel Ashley
6.) Sir Robert Chiltern
7.) Michael Henchard
8.) Anne Catherick
9.) Liesel Meminger
10.) Cedric Errol

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Quiz: Round One

By the time you read this, my Book Group Quiz will have finished. Inspired by Gaskella's literary quiz in Abingdon, we decided to make our own - five of us have contributed rounds, with me doing three of them. Over the next few days I'll pop up my questions for your delectation. Do have a go in the comments, but make sure you don't read the answers if you want to have a go yourself!

First off, the picture round. These all fit nicely onto an A4 sheet, but I don't know how to transfer that to my blog - so I've had to put them all up individually. They are all sections from book covers - I'm only looking for the title of the book, but feel free to throw in the author too, if you're up for a challenge.


6. 7.









Monday 14 December 2009

Thank you Miranda!

No, not Miranda the adorably daft BBC sitcom which has just come to an end, but Miranda from Skirmish of Wit - for it is she who drew my name from Stacy's (aka Book Psmith) Persephone Secret Santa. December 15th is the day of the Big Reveal, I believe, and by the time anyone reads this it'll be December 15th in England at least. It must be already the 15th in about half the world (though don't ask me which half, because I can never remember which side the sun rises and which it sets... I remember this ruining a poem I wrote when I was about ten.) Talking about poems, to bulk out this post out, I've included the poem I contributed to the Thomas Family Newsletter. Yes, I'm afraid we're one of those families which send out Newsletters... I can never think of anything to write (although last year I'd just passed my driving test, so I think it was all about that) so this year I went for style rather than substance.

Back to Persephone - Stacy asked us to send a list of the Persephone Books we already have, but I thought it would be quicker to send a list of the four or five novels which I'm lacking (except now the new books have come out, I need all those t
oo - especially keen to get hold of To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski because the title is so good). Miranda chose to send *drum roll* House-Bound by Winifred Peck, which looks wonderful, so thank you Miranda!

Not only that, oh no, she also sent a rather lovely desk calendar featuring woodcuts by Gwen Raverat - isn't that nice? Sorry the photo's a bit blurry.

I'm looking forward to seeing which other Persephone Books cropped up around the blogosphere... And, to leave you, here's that poem - with apologies to AA Milne's 'Disobedience' (in case you don't know it, it's here)

Simon Simon
David David
Thomas (to be brief, me)
Took great
Trouble at learning
Though he was twenty three.
Simon David said to his Parents
"Parents," he said, said he.
"I mustn't go down
Til I've got the best gown.
I'll stay on for the PhD."

Simon David
Thomas's Parents
Wore a distinctive frown.
Simon David
Thomas's Parents
Thought he was playing the clown.
Simon David
Thomas's Parents
Said to their son, said they:
"If you must hang round
In that Oxford town,
Just don't expect us to pay."

Magdalen College
Put up a notice:
Step in, penniless students,
Apply for our hardship fund."
Simon David,
Wondering vaguely
If the offer is all it appears,
Applied and agreed
And found out that he'd
Signed up for three more years!

Simon Simon
David David
Thomas (the name is mine)
Has done
A few other things
In the year 2009.
Simon David says to his readers,
"Readers," he says, says he:
"I'd tell you it all,
From the big to the small,
But - this is the final line."

Sunday 13 December 2009

Try Anything Twice

Good things come to those who wait, we are told, and that's generally how I treat books which come to my shelves. A few leap immediately to hand, read within minutes of arriving, but most are left - like fine wines - to mature. And so it is that Try Anything Twice by Jan Struther, which arrived in October 2007 from lovely Ruth (aka Crafty Person), has finally been read. And it's like a hot cup of tea on a wintery afternoon.

Jan Struther is best known for Mrs. Miniver - which I wrote a bit about back here - the voice of quintessential middle-class Englishness leading up to World War Two. Though she altered dramatically for the film, there was still that kernel of being England's everywoman (within the remit of those with servants and children at boarding school and jolly outings.) Though Try Anything Twice doesn't feature Mrs. M, the voice is instantly recognisable. Published in 1938, the volume collects articles and essays that Jan Struther wrote for Spectator, New Statesman, Punch, and other journals. They're all from that middle-class world, but what an observant world it can be - whether noting the vagaries of updating an address book ('Zazoulian, the little Armenian painter. His pictures are not very good, nor his conversation amusing, and it is eighteen months since you saw him: but a "Z" is a "Z"') or going to a Registry Office to find a nanny (one who is neither a dragon nor a duchess) or the poetic potential of a builder's plans.

As always with short stories or essays or poems - anything where there is no uniform whole - it is near impossible to write a convincing review of Try Anything Twice, especially since I read it over the course of some weeks. Verity's review is worth seeing, by the way, but for now I think the best way to talk about the book is to give you a sample. It's not necessarily the best in the book, but it's fairly representative of the style of Try Anything Twice. All of the book is actually available online, but of course (!) it's better to get hold of the book itself. If you like the following, as they say, you'll like the book. Ladies and Gentlemen; 'With Love From Aunt Hildegarde'

THERE are three ways of choosing presents for other people. The first is to choose something you think they would like; the second, something you would like yourself; the third, something you think they ought to have. Of these methods the first is the wisest but the least common; the second is less wise but more usually followed; while the third is wholly unforgivable and accounts for much of the post-Christmas bitterness from which we are apt to suffer.

My great-aunt Hildegarde is an almost fanatical devotee of the third method. Many people would call her an ideal aunt; that is to say, she gives us presents not only at Christmas but for each of our birthdays and often in between times as well. But her gifts have, so to speak, a sting in the tail; they represent her unspoken criticisms on our habits, customs and whole mode of living. Whenever we see her firm capable handwriting on a parcel, or a box arrives from a shop with one of her cards enclosed, we pause before unpacking it any further, sit back on our haunches and wonder what we've done wrong now.

"I know," says T. "Last time she dined here the spout of the coffee-pot was chipped and it dribbled all down her frock."

"No," I reply, "I know what it is. The menu-card was propped up against the candlestick, and she said how awkward it was the way it kept slipping down."

And when we open it, sure enough, if it isn't a new china coffee-pot it is a pair of menu-holders–contrivances which we particularly dislike, even when they are not made from tooled gun-metal in the form of two hedge-sparrows rampant, regardant and proper.

Once she came to tea with me on a pouring wet day and found nowhere to park her umbrella. The next day a large tubular object arrived. It had vaguely military associations, but it had been so converted and distorted that it was difficult to tell whether it had originally been a large German shell or part of a small field-gun used in the Russo-Japanese War. A third possibility is that it was once a moth-proof travelling container for a Balkan field-marshal's top-boots. At any rate, it takes up a great deal of room in the hall.

And another time, I remember, she wanted to write a note at my desk and was scandalised because there was no proper pen and ink–although, as I explained, I had three fountain-pens, any of which I was willing to lend her. Four days elapsed and I began to breathe more freely. But on the fifth there came a small square parcel containing a silver-mounted ink-pot with my initials irrevocably engraved upon it (which accounted, no doubt, for the delay). Like the umbrella stand, it was a convert; but in this case there was no difficulty in guessing its original function. To make matters quite clear, Aunt Hildegarde had attached a note saying: "I feel sure you will like to have this little memento of poor dear Blackie, on whose back you took your first ride. This is the very hoof which she used to lift so prettily to shake hands. May it bring you lots of inspiration for your little poems!!"

I groaned, filled it with fountain-pen ink and set it fair and square in the middle of my writing-table, where it remains to this day, a constant reminder of the agonies and humiliations of childhood; for it was the self-same hoof with which Blackie once stood for a full five minutes on my toe, I having neither the strength nor the courage to remove her.

I do not wish to look a gift-hoof in the mouth or to seem in any way ungrateful, but the thing is getting on our nerves. Not only are we developing an inferiority complex about our own home but we are becoming self-conscious about entertaining Aunt Hildegarde. We dare not give her grapes, lest she should think that we are hinting at grape-scissors; nor lobster, for fear of invoking a set of silver-plated picks. But however careful we are we cannot think of everything. We did not, for instance, foresee that she would give us an electric clock for Christmas.

It is true that when she came to stay with us a month ago our drawing-room clock was not behaving quite as a good clock should. One day it was a few minutes slow and she missed the weather forecast on the wireless. And another day it ran down altogether and made her late for church. "Your Uncle Julian," she said gently, "used to wind all the clocks in the house every Sunday morning." But this mild fragment of reminiscence did not at all prepare us, though perhaps it should have, for the grey maple rhomboid which now adorns our mantelpiece.

At least, it looks like maple, but it is actually (so the accompanying leaflet informs us) made of steel, which can neither shrink nor warp, neither rust nor tarnish. It runs off the electric mains; it needs no winding; it is guaranteed to keep absolutely perfect time; and ever since it came into the house we have felt acutely ill at ease.

Our old happy-go-lucky days are over. No more can we think comfortingly as we start out rather late for a dinner-party: "Oh, well, perhaps our clock is fast," nor, when we arrive there to find hostess champing and fellow-guests ravenous, can we murmur, "We are dreadfully sorry, but our clock was slow," for our friends have already got to know about our new, our abominable possession. Gone too are sundry minor pleasures, such as listening for the radio Time Signal and leaping up to make a half-minute adjustment; and, better still, squandering pennies in a lordly way by dialling T.I.M.

And gone–worst of all–is the small friendly sound which used to accompany our thoughts, the balanced alternation of tick and tock, like the footsteps of a little dog walking very quickly beside you on the pavement. Time now proceeds for us in a series of hard metallic clicks, one every minute, each identical with the last: it is a large, slow, hopping bird of prey which follows relentlessly behind us. For fifty-nine seconds it stands still; we escape it; we are immortal; and then with a sudden deft leap it catches us up again. Better never to escape; better to have our little trotting dog.

But there is nothing to be done about it. If we did not use the clock, or if we banished it to the dining-room, Aunt Hildegarde would not only think us both mad and decadent–for what sane responsible citizen would not jump at the opportunity of being always certain of the time?–but she would also be terribly hurt. It was touching to see her when she came to tea yesterday, gazing up with reverent eyes at the angular, impersonal, implacable monster on the mantelpiece.

"Your Uncle Julian," she said, "would have found it such a boon."

The vulture took another hop forward.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Festive Reading

I've spotted a few different bloggers, and people in my reading groups, talking about the books they intend to read over Christmas - and quite often they're picking specifically seasonal titles. My friend Lyn reads A Christmas Carol every year, for example, and Claire at Paperback Reader has just put up some she intends to read (including Barbara Comyns' A Touch of Mistletoe, which may not have a very Christmassy theme, but certainly has a Christmassy title.) I'm feeling a little odd-one-out, now, since I never do seasonal reading. I read Tove Jansson's The Winter Book on a beach in summer (though admittedly it was windy and perishingly cold); I'm just as likely to read something set in sunny Spain by a fireside in December as I am in June. And I do feel I'm missing out, a bit... but somehow I don't plan my reading that well.

The one exception which springs to mind is Jostein Gaarder's The Christmas Mystery, a lovely book which has a chapter for each day of Advent - I read it in that style a few years ago.

How about you? Do you just read what comes your way, or do you plan books for seasons? Is it every season, or is Christmas special? The books I've set aside to read over the festive weeks (aside from ones for my research) are The Bell by Iris Murdoch, In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill (completely unseasonal, you see), Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett, and The Unspoken Truth by Angelica Garnett. Whether I'll actually get around to reading any of them is another question - others might force their way in, I like to keep my reading spontaneous when I can, since so much (for research and book groups) can't be.

I'd be interested to hear from you - especially if you have an unusual choice for this time of year...

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Won't somebody think about the children?

I left it a few days, to see what the final count would be, and Enid Blyton surges ahead of JK Rowling - last time I checked, it was 19 votes to 14, I think. That includes my vote, which went to Enid - without her, I'm not sure I'd be such a big fan of reading.

Congratulations, Ms. Blyton - and now I'm throwing the competition open. We've already had recommendations for E. Nesbit, and I'm keen to read more of her books, but now I'd like to know which children's books mean the most to you. Either growing up, or reading them to your own children and grandchildren. It would especially fun if they're a bit out of the ordinary. One I always remember is Albert the Dragon by Rosemary Weir, and its various sequels, illustrated by the always-delightful Quentin Blake. I don't know how old we were when this was read to us, but I've always remembered (in vague outline, of course) the friendship between Albert and the dragon. I suppose I should say I remember the feeling the books gave me, because in terms of plot I can only remember something vague about food turning into seaweed... Col? Mum? Dad? Am I remembering correctly?

A few years ago I bought one of the Albert books as a Mothering Sunday present for Mum (of course), and I wonder if it's still in the house... I might try and investigate when I go home for Christmas.

So, yes, favourite children's books, please, and why they mean so much to you...

Monday 7 December 2009

Ladies in Lavender

I spent an enjoyable evening re-watching Ladies in Lavender, a 2004 film starring the indisputably wonderful Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. I first watched this when it came out (of course I did, with those ladies at the helm) and I've watched it once or twice since, but never did it captivate me so wholly as tonight. And so I've been spurred on to write about it - encouraging you to watch or re-watch it.

The film, the directorial debut of Charles Dance, is based on a 1916 short story by William J. Loc
ke. The setting is moved to the mid-1930s, though, which gives the poignancy which is there in everything which takes place on the brink of war. Ladies in Lavender is set in Cornwall, and the ladies in question are elderly sisters - a widow and a spinster - living together quietly, affectionately, and uneventfully. Until one day, while checking the garden for storm damage, they spot a washed up body on the beach. Upon checking, it turns out that the body is alive - and is an unconscious Polish man, Andrea, who is later discovered to be a very talented violinist. The sisters Ursula (Dench) and Janet (Smith) nurse him back to health, and the film watches the repercussions on all of their lives - especially Ursula's.

Ladies in Lavender rests upon the extraordinary talents of Judi and Maggie, of course, and well they might. Ursula is a kind, naive, easily distressed old lady who has never experienced the peaks and troughs of life. Janet, a little more world-weary, cares intensely for her sister, but has a no-nonsense view on life. She tries to protect Ursula from getting too involved with Andrea's recovery, aware of the hurt she will suffer, but is helpless. I can't begin to describe how these women act as sublimely as they do - if you've seen them in anything, you'll know what I mean. The screenplay (also Dance's) is so subtle, so sparse - each scene is realised through the inflections in their voices, and their expressions, movements, touches. Alongside this pathos, comedy is provided by Miriam Margolyes as the sisters' cook Dorcas, who is as perfect as always at defusing well-mannered, softly-spoken scenes with lines in the vein of 'Nothing I haven't seen before'...

The term 'beautifully shot' always sounds pretentious, but I can think of no other for Ladies in Lavender. Even if the story weren't touching, the film would be worth watching on mute - some reviews seem to think this was overkill, but I don't think a film should avoid being beautiful. And this one really is beautiful - both in the dramatic views of the sea and scenery, and detailed domestic shots.

I should mention the other principal players, who are wonderful too - Daniel Bruhl spends quite a lot of the film without dialogue, since the character only gradually learns English, and so must put everything into his body language - and he does it brilliantly. Also, I don't know if he can play the violin well (it is actually played by Joshua Bell, who also released the soundtrack) but, if not, he acts it extremely convincingly (I was fooled, and I play the violin). And then there is Natascha McElhone, whom I have loved ever since The Truman Show.

This isn't the sort of film which proves very popular in the mainstream, and nor is it edgy or brittle enough to appeal to the indie market, so it probably isn't regarded as a classic in many circles. But I think it is the most subtle and beautiful of films, desperately and quietly moving, with extraordinary actors, making mild, everyday characters so important and vital. One I'll watch many times.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Oh, Mr. Porter...

Rose Macaulay first hoved onto my horizons when I read Nicola Beauman's wonderful book
A Very Great Profession (which I discover, rather to my horror, I've never blogged about - it's essential reading for anyone remotely interested in Persephone books or any interwar domestic novels). On the strength of that, I bought Told By An Idiot in Pershore market, and... I still haven't read it. This is the story of so many of my books, of course, but Told By An Idiot (like, for some reason, Rosamund Lehmann's Dusty Answer) has been close to the top of the tbr pile on numerous occasions. It's come away on holiday with me, been placed by the bed, somehow never quite been read...

And I still haven't read it - but I have read a Rose Macaulay novel. While researching my middlebrow stuff,
Crewe Train by RM was mentioned a lot, especially in an interesting and newish book by Wendy Gan called Women, Privacy, and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century British Writing. My curiosity piqued, I got hold of the novel and read it, and isn't it good? I don't know if I'm last to the party on Rose Macaulay. I had read some of her letters, but that was it, so forgive me if everyone else has read everything she ever wrote. Those whom I've asked seem to have been almost universally put off by The Towers of Trebizond...

Crewe Train (1926) takes its name from the popular rhyme:
Oh, Mr. Porter, whatever shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham, but they've sent me on to Crewe!
and is about Denham, who has got onto the wrong path in life. Brought up by her clergyman father in Andorra, she has instincts and a lifestyle which are fairly primitive. Or so they seem when her father dies, and she must move to live with relatives in London, the Greshams, who live in high society and all write or publish or at least read books. That sort. In Denham's view:
Books were mostly dull enough, but criticisms of books were quite unreadable. The Greshams all read them, but then they appeared to be so constituted as to be able to read anything. It was nearly a disease with them.
Imagine! Denham is mystified by most of their activities, which seem to her to make no sense - the solemn dancing, the table manners, most of all the need to visit each other and hold conversation all the time. She is at a loss to either initiate or join the sorts of conversations that her relatives' circle expects of her - the only successful topic she lands upon is puddings - and she believes that people should stay in their own home, and not bother each other all the time.

But nothing is simple, of course, and Denham finds herself in love with (thankfully distant) relative Arnold - and they marry. The tidal wave of first love is enough to get them through a lot, but then the differences start to spring up. She is desperate not to live in London, and he can think of nowhere else to live. She never reads anything but maps, he writes stream-of-consciousness novels (one, Lone Jane, is a cruelly funny pastiche of Joyce et al, to which comes the response: "I suppose," said Denham doubtfully, "Jane did think like that. I suppose she was a little queer in the head.") Though never openly antagonistic, their marriage becomes a struggle - whose lifestyle and wishes will be sacrificed for the other, or will they reach an unhappy compromise?

If this sounds bleak, then it's only really bleak for the characters. The author and the reader are mostly having a whale of a time - Rose Macaulay has that affectionate, ironic voice which is so characteristic of the time, able to expose the ridiculous aspects of her characters without making them wholly ridiculous people. She uses the extremes of society to comment wryly on all of it, and uses Denham's unusual perspective on good manners and protocol for good comic effect. For example, when Denham's mother-in-law is instructing her on good house-management:

"It’s the only way of getting everything done in order. Monday morning clean the silver, Tuesday the knives, Wednesday, the paint, Thursday, the taps – and so on through the week. No day without something cleaned. And one room thoroughly turned out each day, too – that’s most important.”

“Turned out…” Denham repeated it vaguely.

“Yes, turned out. The things all taken out of the room and put back again, you know.”

What for, Denham silently wondered. The same result would surely be achieved, with less effort, by leaving the things where they were. But the maids would not then have done a morning’s work; that was of course important.

All in all, as well as being useful for my research, I found this a really fun novel, and I'll definitely be reading more. In fact, I like Keeping Up Appearances even more so far, it's very clever. If you haven't read any RM yet, do give Crewe Train a go. Of course, it's not in print... but there are plenty of 1p copies available on Amazon. And, who knows, Rose Macaulay might make a last minute addition to my Best Books of 2009, which I drafted the other day....

Thursday 3 December 2009

Gloves on...

Time for another of our sporadic vote-offs, I think. In the past Jane Eyre has triumphed over Wuthering Heights; Music over Art; Hardy and Dickens came out equal, and... well, I can't remember the others. But it's been gripping.

Today we're taking a step into children's literature. I've noticed that whenever I mention Enid Blyton, I get lots of happy com
ments - she inspires that sort of nostalgic joy in a lot of us. When JK Rowling's name is heard, we reveal a slightly guiltier pleasure - perhaps because, for most of us, it's not a nostalgic issue, not yet.

But today they're going head to head - please cast your vote for your favoured author:
Enid Blyton vs. JK Rowling.

Of course you can also vote for 'neither of the above' if you're feeling very grown up... but I shan't settle for a 'both of 'em' answer - ladies and gentlemen, it's time to nail your colours to the mast!