Tuesday 31 March 2009

Two People

Hurray for Capuchin Classics, reprinting an AA Milne novel - Two People, which was first published in 1931. A slightly less significant event in the Two People timeline is January 2003, when I first read it. This was back in the days when I could really blitz a single author, and read everything they'd written - by the time I read Two People (doing quick sums) I had read 29 books by AAM in the space of two years. Gosh. I've read only nine since, so I was pretty much getting to the end of the available AAMs.

With plays, sketches, essays, short stories, an autobiography, pacifist literature, poetry and, of course, children's books to his name, his
novels have always felt a little like an afterthought. Not quite the same joyously whimsical Milne of the early days, nor yet the serious Milne of the Second World War. And, for the most part, I have forgotten everything that happens in his novels. What really remains is a single image from the book - for Mr. Pim it is a pair of orange curtains; for Four Days' Wonder it is a haystack; for Chloe Marr it is a woman looking into a mirror. For Two People I mainly remembered those two people standing by a pond... which turned out to be fairly insignificant.

As Ann Thwaite points out in her short introduction, and
is evident to any who has read her very excellent biography of AAM (in print, or available from a penny on Amazon), Two People is pretty autobiographical. Not only is the male half of those two people a writer, but the portrayed marriage between Reginald and Sylvia Wellard bears a striking resemblance to that between Alan Alexander and Daphne Milne. There are two novels in Two People - one about a naive rural novelist seeing his first book, 'Bindweed', become a success in London literary society; one about a man married to much younger, beautiful woman who is not his intellectual equal.

And that's the crux. Sylvia is often wise, always kind, ludicrously good - but she doesn't understand Reginald's jokes, ignorantly assumes any obstacle will be simple for him, would be content to live a quiet, unassuming life in Westaways - a thinly disguised Cotchford Farm, the Milne's Sussex residence. At first I though Sylvia's astounding beauty was showing the prejudiced viewpoint of Reginald, but people all over the place stumble over themselves and exclaim involuntarily at her beauty - which is sweet but a little exaggerated and, it has to be said, no true depiction of Daphne Milne.

Ann Thwaite warns in her introduction that even those who 'have an aversion to novels about writers' will enjoy this. I didn't know people had such aversions - I think novels about novelists are fascinatingly revealing about the author. But there is much more to Two People than that - I'd be astonished if anyone could finish the novel thinking Reginald wholly appealing (his views about laying on water for villagers are rather reprehensible, for example) but, much more importantly, it is an honest and true depiction of a marriage. Says I, who is not married, but certainly it seems to deal with the genuine, everyday issues that a marriage would face - with temperaments as catalysts, rather than adultery and murder and all those extremes.

Being Milne, the novel is also very funny. I recognise that AAM is an acquired taste - some find the whimsy a trifle sickening, whereas I find it delightful and clever. Two People isn't the most representative of Milne's work (I'd look towards The Sunny Side for an in-print example, from Snow Books) but I do encourage you to seek it out. Milne's non-children's work is seriously underrated, and I loved this novel upon re-reading it. Bright but also with a serious undertone - and possibly the nearest thing Milne wrote to an autobiography of his marriage, since his actual autobiography It's Too Late Now rather skirted around it.

Here's a scene which illustrates the perils-facing-a-writer strand, and the humour (they're at a tennis party):

"Fella in the Sixtieth out in Inida with me wrote a book," said Colonel Rudge suddenly.

"Oh?" said Reginald

"Fact," said the Colonel. "Fella in the Sixtieth."

Reginald waited for the rest of the story, but it seemd that that was all. The Colonel was simply noting the coincidence of somebody over here writing a book and somebody in India also writing a book.


"Tranter, that was the fella," came from his right. "Expect you know him."

Reginal awoke and said that he was afraid he didn't. (Why 'afraid', he wondered. Afraid of what?)

"Well, he wrote a book," said the Colonel stubbornly. "Forget what it was called."


"What d'you say your book was called?" said the Colonel, evidently hoping that this would give a clue to the title of Tranter's book.

"Bindweed," grunted Reginald, feeling suddenly ashamed of it.


"Bindweed!" (What the devil does it matter, he thought angrily.)

"Ah!... No, that wasn't it. Bindweed," said Colonel Rudge, pulling at his moustache. "That's the stuff that climbs up things, what? Gets all over the garden."


"Thought so. [...] Sort of gardening book, what?" said Colonel Rudge.

"What?... Oh... No."

"It is the stuff I mean, isn't it?"

"What is?"

"The what-d'you-call-it."

"Is what?"

"What I said. Climbs up things. Gets all over the garden?"

"Oh yes, yes. Always!"

"What d'you say it was called? This stuff?"


"Yes. And what d'you say your book was called?"


"That's right," said the Colonel fretfully. "That's what I said."

This, thought Reginald, is one of the interesting people brought down from London who want to talk to me about my book.

Monday 30 March 2009

West is West

Quick post today - slowly reading through the Paris Review Interviews, and came across this great, slightly catty, bit from Rebecca West (who was interviewed by Marina Warner):

MW: Do you do many drafts?

RW: I fiddle away a lot at them. Particularly if it's a fairly elaborate thing. I've never been able to do just one draft. That seems a wonderful thing. Do you know anyone who can?

MW: I think D. H. Lawrence did.

RW: You could often tell.


Sunday 29 March 2009

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

If you can cast your mind back to 27th November 2007 and this post (yes, that is 16 months ago) you'll remember Danielle and I did a book swap. Miss Hargreaves sailed across the Atlantic, and in return I got two books by Christopher Morley - Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, both featuring Southern farmer's-sister Helen McGill and travelling bookseller Mr. Mifflin. And earlier this month I got around, finally, to reading... er, one of them. But it was rather brilliant so I will be reading the second one soon.*

Parnassus on Wheels, which is nice and short, was w
ritten in 1917 and has that unmistakable early-20th century tang to it. Wise, straight-talking women of the sort people like Ethan Frome probably stumbled over all the time. Helen McGill, said straight-talking woman - at one pointshe measures a length of time as 'about as long as it takes to peel a potato' - lives a life of domestic routine on a farm, and is disgruntled rather than delighted when her brother someone writes a book which becomes famous. She burns letters from publishers and tries to distract him from this high-falutin' life, which seems insignificant compared to finding all the eggs in the farmyard.

Until Mr. Mifflin comes along, in his Parnassus. A travelling wagon, the sides come down to reveal shel
ves of books, which he travels the countryside selling. His patter is wonderful; he truly believes in the power of good literature for anyone and everyone (often his only competition is the man who has been around the area previously, selling everyone bound funeral orations). Known as The Professor to most, he is a firecracker, but one with an utterly infectious love of books.
"No creature on earth has the right to think himself a human being if he doesn't know at least one good book. The man that spends every evening chewing Piper Heidsieck at the store is unworthy of to catch the intimations of a benevolent Creator. The man that's got a few good books on his shelf is making his wife happy, giving his children a square deal, and he's likely to be a better citizen himself."

However, he's come to the farm to sell Parnassus on Wheels to Helen's brother, Andrew. His literary reputation makes him a potential seller - and Mr. Mifflin wants to retire. S
imply to prevent the distraction to her brother, Helen decides to buy it - leaving a note for her brother:

Dear Andrew, Don't be thinking I'm crazy. I've gone off for an adventure. It just came over me that you've had all the adventures while I've been at home baking bread [...] I'm going off for a little while - a month, maybe - to see some of this happiness and hayseed of yours. It's what the magazines call the revolt of womanhood. Warm underwear in the cedar chest in the spare room when you need it. With love, Helen.

How can you not like a woman like that?
So, off she goes. Mr. Mifflin shows her how, and soon Helen's off selling the books herself - though as exuberantly wonderful a creation as Mr. Mifflin can't stay out of the narrative for too long, and he's back soon, and in the sequel. This short novel isn't filled with 'exciting adventures' (though there are one or two) - rather it is a paean to the love of books in whatever shape or size they come, and a good-humoured, sensible depiction of a slightly bizarre couple of people pursuing a slightly bizarre aspiration. Utterly wonderful, it's one of my books of the year already, and I encourage any and every book-lover to give it a go.

*Soon is a relevant word. I mean before books become obsolete.

Saturday 28 March 2009

The History Book On The Shelf...

Sorry to start this post by setting the cultural barrier quite low... if you don't recognise the lyric in the post title, then consider yourself much more highbrow than me.

As promised, The History Boys by
Alan Bennett. I did the unthinkable and came to this play through the film first - in fact, I still haven't seen it on stage, but I have read it. What first attracted me to the film was the shots of Magdalen in the trailer - I thought it would be fun to see my place of residence on the big screen. As it turned out, the shots from the trailer were about all you saw of Magdalen in the film. Which makes sense, as they only go to Oxford towards the end...

A bit of plot synopsis, for those who don't know. It's a 1980s boys' school, and eight students are going for a place studying History at Oxford. They have a wise, quirky, lonely teacher Hector - and in is brought a savvy, slightly awkward teacher Irwin. In between is the quite wonderful feminist teacher Mrs. Lintott. The play is really about different styles of knowledge and uses of it, and the purposes of education. Hector has taught them enormous amounts of interesting facts, but focuses equally on re-enactments of famous film scenes, and practising French through rather bizarre scenarios. Irwin is all about getting them into Oxford, teaching them the way to answer interview questions which is a little edgy, a little conspicuously different. Hector thinks examinations 'the enemy of education', and thinks with the boys that he has 'lined their minds with some sort of literary insulation, proof against the primacy of fact' - Irwin sees this trivia as 'gobbets' to be sprinkled into any exam or interview answer.

I didn't think much of the film. All the acting was great, but the fact that almost everyone was lusting after each other (which I missed out of the synopsis because it's complicated and quite dull) rather ruined it. Reading the play, there are so many fascinating ideas in it - alongside genuine wit - and it isn't all clear-cut. It seems that Hector is right to start with - but so much of the entertainment of the play comes from these 'gobbets', out of context, out of passionate discovery. Tricky. The depiction of Oxford is hideously out of date, even for the 1980s, but Bennett's introduction detailing his own application experiences is worth the cover price alone.
Bennett's major achievement is having so many distinct schoolchildren. So many in fiction are good or disruptive or clever-but-misunderstood, and so forth - these are all intelligent creations and memorably characterised. Dakin - cheeky, bright, canny - is the most impressive, perhaps, but I grew fond of vulnerable Posner and authentic Scripps. Having seen the original cast members in the film, they are inextricably linked in my mind - especially Frances de la Tour's beautifully sardonic portrayal of Mrs. Lintott - and this helped a reading of the play.

Do seek out a copy to read, or hopefully a local theatre will put it on (is someone still touring with it? I don't know. Obviously the original cast aren't). And you could watch the film, but it doesn't do The History Boys justice at all.

Thursday 26 March 2009

The Play's The Thing

This morning I handed in the thesis I mentioned the other day, and I have a few days off before I need to start thinking about my dissertation (the difference in definition is perhaps negligible, but in practice a thesis is 5-7000 words and a dissertation is 10-12000). My end-of-year book total is going to be quite massive for 2009, and that's because of all the plays I've been reading, which can be got through in an hour or so (can't take longer to read than they are to watch, I figure). But, though they've dominated my reading this year, they've not been mentioned much on Stuck-in-a-Book. A bit like the elephant in the room - or perhaps rhinoceros would be a more apt theatrical simile.

Difficult to discuss them all, though below is a list of the ones I've read over the past three months in case anyone wants to launch into a discussion about any of them, or ask me to elucidate - I'll talk about two or three over the next few days, and welcome any suggestions!

Drama is a surprisingly unpopular medium for study amongst my masters course. We all like prose or poetry best (which is a rather reductive statement, but seems to hold true) while most of the group put drama a distant third - for myself, it is second to prose, but not too far behind, and far above poetry. The history of theatre, and how performance influences text and vice versa, fascinates me - studying Shakespeare from contingent angles of the effects of actors, stages, all male casts, printers etc. etc. was captivating. In fact, the whole history of theatre interests me - because the texts are so unstable, presented in inherently variable performances, but all this can be imagined and investigated by reading a playscript too. Now I'm babbling, but I hope I can make my enthusiasm contagious, because so few people seem to read plays! Even those who love going to the theatre (and of course this is the ideal way of experiencing plays) find it difficult to read plays themselves. I think AA Milne helped me read plays, because he wrote so many of them and he was the first author I got really excited about post-teenage reading.

So. The list. Do say any you've read, or would like to hear more about. I'm going to kick off tomorrow with The History Boys by Alan Bennett.

The Colleen Baum - Dion Boucicault
The Octoroon - Dion Boucicault
Black Ey'd Susan - Douglas Jerrold
The Bells - Leopold Lewis
Uncle Tom's Cabin (adapted) - George L. Aiken
Mrs. Warren's Profession - George Bernard Shaw
The Philanderer - George Bernard Shaw
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray - Arthur W. Pinero
The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith - Arthur W. Pinero
Mrs. Dane's Defence - Henry Arthur Jones
A Woman of No Importance - Oscar Wilde
The Master-Builder - Henrik Ibsen
The Lady From The Sea - Henrik Ibsen
Hedda Gabler - Henrik Ibsen
A Taste of Honey - Shelagh Delaney
The Lion in Love - Shelagh Delaney
The Deep Blue Sea - Terence Rattigan
The Winslow Boy - Terence Rattigan
Separate Tables - Terence Rattigan
The Entertainer - John Osborne
The Birthday Party - Harold Pinter
Travesties - Tom Stoppard
Indian Ink - Tom Stoppard
Rock and Roll - Tom Stoppard
Arcadia - Tom Stoppard
Saved - Edward Bond
Early Morning - Edward Bond
Loot - Joe Orton
What The Butler Saw - Joe Orton
Blasted - Sarah Kane
Cloud Nine - Caryl Churchill
Making History - Brian Friel
The History Boys - Alan Bennett
Our Country's Good - Timberlake Wertenbaker
Oh What A Lovely War - Theatre Workshop

Tuesday 24 March 2009

The Letters

Fiona Robyn has been going on a blog tour with her book The Letters. Here's her intro to the novel:

Violet doesn't have the best people skills in the world, but when she moves to the coast after her divorce she's determined to become a part of the community. She's just finished a stormy relationship with a new lover when mysterious letters start arriving on her doorstep. They're written by a young girl who's staying in a mother and baby home, and they're dated 1959. Who is this young girl, and why are the letters being sent to Violet?

Think you'll agree it sounds very enticing... but sadly I didn't find time to read The Letters before my allotted blog tour spot (what with the theses and all) - so instead I decided to challenge Fiona to a little game, involving the *other* sort of letters! A bit of a tangent (and do go find out more about the book or Fiona's blog tour at her websites) but it really makes me want to read the copy I've got...

A, B, C - three adjectives to describe The Letters
Bolshy (well, the main character Violet is)
Cat-filled (this is a new adjective as I got stuck)

D - if you like d_____, you'll like The Letters (this could be any word, a book or not)
Digging home-grown new potatoes from the dark crumbly earth

E - something to do while reading The Letters
Eat cake, of course.

F - someone to give The Letters to
Your best Friend.

G, H, I - you're making a menu to serve with The Letters... what do you serve?
Greek salad
Horseradish (the only other food-stuff I could think of was haddock and I hate haddock)
Ice-cream (very expensive ice-cream, maybe pistachio)

J, K, L - three adjectives to describe yourself

M - favourite character in fiction beginning with M?
Owen Meany (from John Irving's marvellous A Prayer for Owen Meany)

N, O, P - find three words in The Letters beginning with these letters, to pull us in...

Q - favourite word beginning with Q?

R, S, T - three books you love?
Anything by Raymond Carver
Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner
Tinker at Pilgrim's Creek, Annie Dillard

U, V, W, X, Y, Z - here's a challenge... try to write a sentence using words beginning with these letters...
Under very wet xylophones, young Zebras!

Monday 23 March 2009


I've been busy today writing my thesis on [clears throat] Semiotics and the Unspoken in 1890s and 1950s Theatre. Yes sirree. That's the subtitle, actually - the title is 'The Inheritance of Props', an oh-so-funny pun that not many people have understood. The Inheritance of Loss... The Inheritance of Props... geddit? Never mind.

So I'm afraid this is another relatively book-less blog. I actually have a little pile of ones I've finished recently which I want to writ
e about, but all require rather more brain power than I currently have - so instead I'll point you in the direction of something I discovered after my recent post on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (possibly the most delight I've taken in a blog post ever, it was such fun).

Not only has Alice found her way to Simon at Savidge Reads (you can often see us both commenting on the same blogs, Simon S and Simon T, endearing really) but also to the silver screen. According to IMDB.com there have been 26 films or TV programmes with 'Alice' and 'Wonderland' in the title - irritatingly most follow my pet peeve of calling it 'Alice in Wonderland' rather than 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. Tsk! BUT the one I wanted to draw to your attention will be coming out in 2010 - and who else but Tim Burton could direct it? He really is the perfect choice - his zaniness and humour should go perfectly with Lewis Carroll's.

And it's got an impressive cast, too. Since it's Tim Burton we of course have Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and alongside them are Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman (I can hear Elaine's shrieks of joy from here), Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall, Michael Sheen, Christopher Lee, Geraldine James, Frances de la Tour, Crispin Glover... Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is one of those texts where parts could be given to more or less anyone. Stephen Fry will be the Chesire Cat - why not? And Alan Rickman the Caterpillar - sure, ok! Matt Lucas was born to play Tweedledum and Tweedledee, though.

And Alice? A relative unknown: Mia Wasikoska. She's only nineteen, so not quite the child Alice is supposed to be, but perhaps enough ingenue about her for it to work. I can't wait for the film - hopefully the wonderful story of Alice will survive all the stars being thrown at it, and the film will be a classic rather than a moving red carpet. Well, we'll have to wait and see - in the meantime I'm getting ready for a re-read when I'm at home...

Sunday 22 March 2009

Cake Wrecks

What wonderful suggestions for yesterday's question - thank you one and all. I'm especially encouraged to break my Elizabeth von Arnim novice status (own five; have read none) and read The Enchanted April. It's down in Somerset at the moment, but I'll be there in - appropriately enough - April, and hopefully the weather will still be lovely and Spring-like. Do keep suggestions coming.

The other tome I turned to today was Afternoon Teas: Homemade Bakes & Party Cakes which may or may not be by Valerie Ferguson (the cover claims this; Amazon claim Martha Day) - either way the recipes are actually submitted by a couple dozen different people, accord
ing to the page of publication info. Anyway, this book is absolutely beautiful to look at and flick through, even before you start baking - I can't remember if Our Vicar's Wife or Santa gave me this, but many thanks to whichever it was!

I don't read many Foody Blogs, but am always breathless with admiration at those - especially Karen at Cornflower - who seem able effortlessly to bake and cook elaborate and complex things every day of the week. Phrases like "left to soak in cider overnight" and "blanched in white wine vinegar" are thrown around nonchalantly, and accompanied by photographs which are indistinguishable from those in the cookbook. Now, it's no secret that I love baking, and my mother was once described as having 'baking Tourettes', but this visual thing never seems to work out for me when I steer away from your simple sponge cake. I can make things which taste very nice (and in baking it's difficult to make anything which doesn't taste nice - I mean it's basically fat and sugar and a few other bits and pieces) - but presentation... not so much.

Nothing daunted, I went to Sainsbury's (I drove there on my own! The first time I'd driven on my own anywhere!) and bought up most of their baking aisle. Afternoon Teas has some wonderful recipes in it, but I had settled on the Apricot Brandy-Snap Roulade. Mmmm. I was a little perturbed by the recipe not having any indication of difficulty, since some of the ones described as 'easy' looked terrifyingly difficult - I think the various contributors are the sort of people who sometimes accidentally make Victoria sponges just by walking through the kitchen, so where we mere mortals struggle to separate eggs successfully, they'll have whipped up a five tier cake using only matchsticks.

And Mel (my housemate) and I got to work. It was all going so well. We whisked and we folded and we baked and we pureed. All was well until we had to roll the roulade... oops. We forgot to keep a slightly damp cloth over the cooling almond sponge, and thus it got too dry... Apricot Cream Sandwich, anyone? (And whoever thought four crushed brandy-snaps would adequately cover the surface were horribly wrong)

Can you tell which is the picture and which is our product? (Mel's hands might help)
I was very much reminded of the hilarious website cakewrecks.blogspot.com, but as we're very far from professional, we're not eligible for submission.
But, boy, this tasted AMAZING. For anyone who buys this book (and on Amazon there are pretty cheap marketplace copies) and gives the recipe a go, I recommend not pureeing all the apricots - keep some to chop up and include like that. Less cream and more brandy-snaps, and you're away. And follow all the instructions, unlike me...

Yes, still, despite this fiasco, I encourage any fans of the English afternoon tea to go and get a copy of this recipe book. As well as different cakes (Caramel Meringe Gateau with Sloe Gin, White Chocolate Cappuccino Gateau, the Summer Shortcake on the cover... so many...) there are sections on cookies, scones, breads, jams, and novelty cakes. I dread to think what would emerge if I tried to make the Terracotta Flowerpot cake). All of them look delicious. Even if you're not the best baker in the world, the pictures and lay-out are done so well that you can salivate over them before popping out to the local cake shop...

Saturday 21 March 2009

Beautiful weather

It's been a beautiful week here in Oxford - sunny, but not too hot, with unmistakably scents and sounds of spring weaving throughout the city.

Some books are calling out to be read in certain places. Tara at Books and Cooks recently wrote about 'Just Right' books - ones which perfectly fit the time and place and mood you're reading them in. For me, that has to include weather and setting. Tove Jansson's A Winter Book turned out to be perfectly fitted to a windy beach in 2007; Jane Austen is wonderful in winter by the fireside. What book is perfect for a meadow in spring? Not too hot, but sunny and breezy and the sense of new life everywhere?

Suggestions, please! I've just started Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Dunbar, but, good though it is, I don't really think it qualifies.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Poetry Please

My book group always has discussion points separate to the discussion of the book in question (favourite hero in literature; books which evoke place; most overrated books - those sort of things) and yesterday we had the simple topic 'favourite poetry'.

And I always hit a bit of an obstacle.

There are some poems I love - a while ago I compiled a favourite eight for my friend Barbara, which I'll share sometime if I can remember - but, aside from a small selection, poetry usually leaves me cold. Perhaps because I read quite fast, and have to really slow myself down for poetry? Pe
rhaps because I nearly went mad trying to read The Faerie Queene? I don't know. But I'd be happy to hear about your favourite poetry, and maybe put me back on the straight and narrow.

But I will also take a leaf out of Becca's book, and give a poem of the day - this battles out with some AA Milne, Psalm 51 and a sonnet or two of Shakespeare's, for my favourite poem. So atmospheric, so chilling.
(the image from this link, was a flickr image intended for the poem)


by: Walter de la Mare

      'IS there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
      Knocking on the moonlit door;
      And his horse in the silence champ'd the grasses
      Of the forest's ferny floor:
      And a bird flew up out of the turret,
      Above the Traveller's head:
      And he smote upon the door again a second time;
      'Is there anybody there?' he said.
      But no one descended to the Traveller;
      No head from the leaf-fringed sill
      Lean'd over and look'd into his grey eyes,
      Where he stood perplex'd and still.
      But only a host of phantom listeners
      That dwelt in the lone house then
      Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
      To that voice from the world of men:
      Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
      That goes down to the empty hall,
      Hearkening in an air stirr'd and shaken
      By the lonely Traveller's call.
      And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
      Their stillness answering his cry,
      While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
      'Neath the starr'd and leafy sky;
      For he suddenly smote on the door, even
      Louder, and lifted his head:--
      'Tell them I came, and no one answer'd,
      That I kept my word,' he said.
      Never the least stir made the listeners,
      Though every word he spake
      Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
      From the one man left awake:
      Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
      And the sound of iron on stone,
      And how the silence surged softly backward,
      When the plunging hoofs were gone.


More housekeeping - have slightly changed the way in which comments are added to the blog. If this doesn't work then... erm... I guess you'll have to email me (simondavidthomas@yahoo.co.uk) because clearly you can't comment to say the comments don't work!

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Tove Jansson and other bits and pieces

I stumbled across some exciting book news yesterday.
As you might know, I love the works of Tove Jansson - and I've reviewed The Summer Book, A Winter Book, and Fair Play in various places on Stuck-in-a-Book. And now I find that, in October, they'll be publishing another Jansson novel - The True Deceiver. Sounds a little different from the others - this from the Amazon website:

In the deep winter snows of a Swedish hamlet, a strange young woman fakes a break-in at the house of an elderly artist in order to persuade her that she needs companionship. But what does she hope to gain by doing this? And who ultimately is deceiving whom? In this portrayal of two women grappling with truth and lies, nothing can be taken for granted. By the time the snow thaws, both their lives will have changed irrevocably.

Can't wait! The Sort Of Books publications are always such beautiful objects, and I'm delighted that Thomas Teal is translating more and more Jansson books. If you've not read any before, start with either the Summer or Winter books, not Fair Play - that's more of an acquired taste, I think.

Other bits and pieces which I've seen or had emailed to me lately...

Colin (aka The Carbon Copy) has written a witty and, to my mind, entirely accurate review of The Catcher in the Rye. Read it here, if you scroll down to the March 15th entry, especially if - like me - you've never understood why pe
ople like Holden. I quote Col's review: 'whiny, hypocritical, deadbeat loser'.

Natasha Mostert won 'The Book to Talk About 2009' from Spread the Word - more info here. This is the award Stuck-in-a-Book favourite Speaking of Love (by Angela Young) was shortlisted for last year.

Soizick Meister emailed me about her website showing her humorous, surreal and generally beautiful paintings, with some nice book influences (see pic) - do go and have a look. I'm always interested to hear about artists websites, either from the artist themselves or just a fan, so keep 'em coming!

www.lowlylizards.com - Peter Pnin emailed me about this innovative and unique poetry website

Monday 16 March 2009

Russian Here, Russian There

I love the Alice illustrations so much that I'm a bit reluctant to move on from them... but I suppose they're still there for me and anyone else to look at. And if my copy of the Alice books weren't in Somerset, I'd have definitely re-read it by now... as it is, I have instead finished a book I've been dipping in and out of for quite a while now. One of those books to read at bedtime - it's EM Delafield's Straw Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia.

The astute among you will notice that this isn't the title in the little picture accompanying this post... blame latterday publishers. Straw Without Bricks is an account of EM Delafield's experience after her American publishers asked her to visit Russia and 'write a funny book about it'. She does so as herself and, though her voice is often quite similar to that of the Provincial Lady's in other books, there is no suggestion that this is one of the Provincial Lady series... in fact, it's not even written as a diary. The Provincial Lady tag was just added in reprints to sell more copies. Tsk.

Violet Powell's so-so biography of EMD makes little mention of this book, except to say that it wasn't very successful, and generally judged to have been a bad idea (and EMD may have shared this opinion). I imagine that was largely because at the time of publication, 1937, the world wasn't quite ready for an honest appraisal of life as a tourist in Soviet Russia. For readers of 2009, it is a fascinating book - EMD does write in quite a light style, but this is certainly not the 'funny book' that her publisher was hoping for. Delafield's own political leanings were to the left, though not as far as Communism, and she treats the country and its inhabitants seriously. Much of this is with a subdued horror - at the indoctrination, the lack of freedom, the systematic removal of beauty and individualism - but she never makes Communism's adherents appear ridiculous. The humour is often directed towards her fellow tourists, or such quintessentially British anxieties as having to wait around for something to happen, or wondering how to pass someone one is keen not to engage in trivial conversation.

Her accounts of visiting factories, maternity wards, farms are all deeply interesting - a very true version (one assumes) of a little-accessed situation, without being dry or documentary-style. In the end, it is the absence of a moderate reaction to Soviet Russia which frustrates and baffles EMD:

'My fellow travellers all have opinions of their own which they regard, rightly or wrongly, as being of more value than mine. Most of them are pessimistic, and declare that they don't ever want to come back again, and that the Crimea was lovely but the plugs in the hotels wouldn't pull, and Moscow was interesting but very depressing.

Some, on the other hand - like Mrs. Pansy Baker - are wholly enthusiastic. (There is no juste milieu where the Soviet is concerned.) How splendid it all is, they cry, and how fine to see everybody busy, happy and cared-for. As for the institutions - the creches, the schools, the public parks and the prisons - all, without any qualification whatsoever, are perfect. Russia has nothing left to learn.'

As I said, Straw Without Bricks isn't written in a diary format - in fact, the format confuses me a little. I don't know the publication history (perhaps, like the PL books, this appeared in Time and Tide?), but most the book seems to be organised in separate but linked articles - sketches or anecdotes centred around certain events or people which vaguely follow on from each other, but could be read individually. The first eighty pages, though, are all about a Soviet Commune EMD lived in - a section followed, anachronistically, by an essay about sailing out to Russia. Odd. But easy enough to cope with, so long as temporal logic isn't sought to join these sections!

This book isn't as good as the Provincial Lady books proper, or rather it's different. Those are some of the warmest, funniest, truest books I've ever read, and I will read and re-read them for the rest of my life - Straw Without Bricks performs a wholly different task, and is in its own right an important, touching, sensible and informative book with many sparks of humour which is recognisably EMD. Occasionally I found myself wishing she'd simply written the 'funny book' her publisher asked for; in the end I realised how much more sensitively she'd approached the task, and the result is much more appropriate, even if somewhat less immortal.

Sunday 15 March 2009

Visions of Wonderland

The incredibly keen-eyed among you may have noticed that I've recently been building up a Places of Beauty section in my link list way down in the left column (yes, for IE users that will be somewhere riiiiiight down the bottom, touching the carpet). It started because I wanted to include Persephone Books website, but has morphed into a nebulous collection of websites which I think are beautiful, or are about beautiful places. That includes the artist I blogged about recently, Nicholas Hely Hutchinson (5 of his cards on the way to me, from this online shop), a wonderful illustrator called Alice Tait, the beautiful Arts & Craft house Blackwell in the Lake District and my own dear Magdalen. Any suggestions, especially for artists' and illustrators' websites, are welcome.

Today, however, I wanted to draw your attention to Lauren Harman's website of Alice's Adventure in Wonderland illustrations. Harman is a talented artist herself, but the website is a collection of all the illustrations she could find of the Alice books, from first publication to one which isn't even published yet. Think Alice illustrations begin and end with Tenniel and Rackham? Think again!

Now, I think Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Throught The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There are works of genius, and I don't use the term lightly. In fact, I'd only (in my very humble opinion) unhesitatingly use the attribute of Shakespeare, Woolf and Lewis Carroll.
(Please, no sidetracks into whether or not Carroll's motives were suspect...) BUT, even if - like Our Vicar's Wife - you don't like the Alice books, this assortment of illustrations is a truly wonderful resource artistically, or just to see how differently artists have interpreted the books.

And there are some surprising names - Lewis Carroll himself, even Salvador Dali (see immediately below). Stuck-in-a-Book favourite Tove Jansson isn't mentioned on Lauren's website, but her Alice illustrations can be seen elsewhere, here. (By the way, for each picture in this blog post, click on it to be taken to the corresponding page on Lauren's site, for a bit of artist information etc.)

Do go and have a look at the Alice illustrations, a few of which I've put in this post - I tried to contact Lauren, but if she'd like me to remove them, I will do so. From the simple designs of Roberta Paflin to the sweet depiction from Bessie Pease Gutmann, I also recommend AA Nash, Mabel Lucie Attwell, Anthony Brown and Henry Morrin. A wonderful resource, and making me want to go and read the Alice books all over again.

Any favourites - from this selection or from the website?
And what are your thoughts on Alice?
Favourite book or all a bit too silly?

Saturday 14 March 2009

Quiz answers, and Persephone prize

Right, to wrap up Persephone 10th Birthday celebration week, I'm going to give away a Persephone book and give the answers to the quiz I posted earlier in the week. Look away now if you don't want to know the results.

First off, the Persephone celebratory prize goes to... Donnafugata! Or possible Donna Fugata, I'm not sure. If you could email me your address to simondavidthomas@yahoo.co.uk and your choice of Persephone Book, I'll get it off to you as soon as possible. You went for A Very Great Profession or The Shuttle in your comment - well, I've not read the latter, but I can heartily recommend the former.

And now the quiz. It was a little difficult, and I applaud lethe's amazing attempt. Anyone who wants to test their Persephone knowledge - skip the rest of this post and have a go! Otherwise, here are the questions and answers:

1) Dorothy Whipple is the author with the most Persephone books under her belt - who's second?
Marghanita Laski (with The Victorian Chaise-Longue, The Village and Little Boy Lost)

2) Three of Persephone's books were originally published in the 19th century. How many can you name?
Reuben Sachs - Amy Levy
The Runaway - Elizabeth Anna Hart
The Young Pretenders - Edith Henrietta Fowler

3) Which Persephone reprint has sold the most copies?
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day - Winifred Watson

4) One of the Persephone titles has been filmed as The Reckless Moment (1949) and The Deep End (2001) - which one?
The Blank Wall - Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

5) By my reckoning, 7 of the Persephone authors are male - name as many as you can!
Leonard Woolf (The Wise Virgins)
Denis Mackail (Greenery Street)
Vicomte de Mauduit (They Can't Ration These)
Nicholas Mosley (Julian Grenfell)
R.C. Sherriff (The Fortnight in September; The Hopkins Manuscript)
Ambrose Heath (Good Food on the Aga)
Duff Cooper (Operation Heartbreak)

6) Which Persephone novel features the character Alex Clare and a convent?
Consequences - EM Delafield

7) Which Persephone author's real name was Kathleen
Katherine Mansfield

8) Name the longest and shortest Persephone books.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue - Marghanita Laski (shortest, 120pp)
Few Eggs and No Oranges - Vere Hodgson (longest, 624pp)

9) Fill in the place names in Persephone titles:
Good Things in --- : Florence White
Farewell --- Square : Betty Miller
The --- Stories : Katherine Mansfield
A --- Child of the 1870s : Molly Hughes

10) And, a really difficult one to finish with, can you remember the titles of the Spring 2009 Persephones, yet to be published!
Making Conversation - Christine Longford
(look out for a review soon)
Amours de Voyage - Arthur Hugh Clough
The Other Elizabeth Taylor - Nicola Beauman
(can't wait for this!)

Suggest a Persephone...

Simon S (of Savidge Reads) asks which Persephone Books I'd recommend - well, there's a question!

We've all been putting our favourites in the comments of this post, so lots of good ideas there, but I'll put a few of my suggestions in this post, briefly. The little images are the endpapers for the book.

Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
The book that brought me to Persephone, this tale of two families with very different matriachs is told, as with all Crompton's novels, in a way that makes compulsive reading as well as presenting a large but very memorable cast of characters. Crompton isn't always a world-class prose stylist, if you take chunks in isolation, but her novels are filled with fascinating characters and addictive to read.

Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
This Oxfordshire novel is all about a family quietly struggling to bring up their children and maintain the marriage they envisioned at the beginning. Beautifully and simply written, this is
another novel without an overly dramatic plot, but an incredible understanding of human characer.

Tea With Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers
Persephone's range of short story collections don't always get the attention they deserve. I've not yet read the celebrated collections by Elizabeth Berridge and Mollie Panter-Downes, but can heartily recommend Frances Towers' delicate gems of stories - comparisons with Katherine Mansfield are not unjustified. I found 'The Chosen and The Rejected' especially poignant. And yes, the title does refer to the Mr. Rochester.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski
A chilling novella in which a woman, lying on her chaise-longue in the 1950s, is transported to the 1860s. Evocative and atmospheric and memorable, this book also has a striking message and is brilliantly written. And you know how I love short books.

There Were No Windows by Norah Hoult
Based on a real author and her descent into dementia, this novel might sound cheerless but actually combines a sombre topic with a real wittiness - entirely respectful to the illness and its victims, but refusing to quash laughter at life.

So, there you are, a few of my favourites from the past few years - I love so many of them that these were just the first to spring to mind. I talked about Someone at a Distance the other day, and Dorothy Whipple is probably the best 'way in' to Persephone and the most representative, but any of these five would also work a treat.

Thursday 12 March 2009

Persephone Quarterlies

Is it a coincidence that this week of grey-covered celebration is also one where I'm shaking my fists at modern technology?

Today we're moving onto Persephone Quarterlies - if I were feeling in a literary theory mood I'd describe them as institutional paratexts, but as it is I'll call them journally bookish things.

There are 32 PQs and, so far, four Persephone Biannuallies, since the books started coming out every six months instead of every three. Accompanying the new publications of Persephones, the first few pages are always concerned with the new titles - the authors' biography and some details about the books. But there is so much more to these. Elaine from RandomJottings very kindly gave me a present of all the past PQs - and so I've been able to read along with the very early PQs, which really make the reader feel they're part of the process.

I'm heading to bed, so can't think of anything more that I wanted to say about the PQs... except that they further demonstrate why Persephone are both so great and so addictive. They make readers feel even more involved in the company, and love the books as a collection. I can't think of any other publisher which strikes the chords of nostalgia and community in quite the same way.

Internet Explorer Advice

I've changed this post to be some advice for how to deal with Stuck-in-a-Book if you're using Internet Explorer... basically the columns etc. are created in HTML using percentages, and thus should work on all screen sizes and resolutions, but IE is being silly about it. The first column has probably slipped under all the others. My attempts at solutions...

1) Download Firefox... it really is just better. I'm a complete computer ignoramus, but I find Firefox much easier to use, plus it has (apparently) better virus prevention stuff. Click here for their website.

2) If you'd rather stick with Internet Explorer... try making the window smaller (click the box next to the red cross in the top right-hand corner), then dragging the window in horizontally, slowly. Sometimes this makes the column appear at the top...

3) Erm... suggestions welcome! You should be able to read posts and comment either which way, but for links to other blogs, and other bits and pieces, you'll have to scroll waaaaay down.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Persephone Quiz

Some housekeeping to start with: firstly, as well as the old address, you can now get to this page at:

Secondly, Our Vicar reports that the left column has slipped on his computer... anyone else finding this? Sorry to harp on about page arrangements...

The week of celebrations continues. Pace yourself with the trifle and ice cream; you don't want to eat too much and get over-excited. Actually, since this is a Persephone party, we should probably have Madeira cake and Earl Grey. Much more civilised. Yesterday I made tiffin, but that consisted almost entirely of sugar, so perhaps not a good idea.

Today's post might just be for the dedicated Persephone fan, as I've put together a little Persephone quiz... no cheating, now. See how many you can get right...

1) Dorothy Whipple is the author with the most Persephone books under her belt - who's second?

2) Three of Persephone's books were originally published in the 19th century. How many can you name?

3) Which Persephone reprint has sold the most copies?

4) One of the Persephone titles has been filmed as The Reckless Moment (1949) and The Deep End (2001) - which one?

5) By my reckoning, 7 of the Persephone authors are male - name as many as you can!

6) Which Persephone novel features the character Alex Clare and a convent?

7) Which Persephone author's real name was Kathleen

8) Name the longest and shortest Persephone books.

9) Fill in the place names in Persephone titles:
Good Things in --- : Florence White
Farewell --- Square : Betty Miller
The --- Stories : Katherine Mansfield
A --- Child of the 1870s : Molly Hughes

10) And, a really difficult one to finish with, can you remember the titles of the Spring 2009 Persephones, yet to be published!

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Someone at a Distance

Continuing the week of Persephone Birthday celebrations here at S-i-a-B (and do keep telling us in the previous post about your favourite Persephones and how you found out about them, and put your request in for a chance to win a Persephone book of your choice) - I don't think I've ever talked about one of my favourite Persephone books. Appropriately enough it was one of the first three to be published, so it's now ten years since it came back into print.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple was Whipple's last novel, published in 1953 and received no reviews at all. For a once bestselling novelist, this was quite a blow - and, what's worse, it was a wholly undeserved silence. I've only read four of Whipple's books - SaaD, They Knew Mr. Knight, Greenbanks, The Closed Door and other stories, all except Greenbanks published by Persephone - but Someone at a Distance is the best of those. A lot of people agree that it's her best novel, and it should have been treated with fanfares and red carpets.

The plot appears, on the surface, to be conventional. A contentedly married couple, Ellen and Avery, are disrupted when a French companion arrives and runs off with Avery. The narrative moves back and forth across the channel, looking at the dignified devestation of Ellen and the homeland and family of Louise, the French interloper. What starts as a not unusual trio is given enormous depth and believable emotion when we investigate why Louise acts as she does; witness Avery's confusion and attempts to organise his life and mistakes; Ellen's need to look after her two children as well as retain her dignity and integrity. And all the time the reader is asking him/herself - who is the 'someone at a distance'? Whipple sometimes creates some great titles that make you think all the way through the novel, and while I have set views on which character the 'someone' is, others disagree.

I'm a big believer in judging books on their writing, rather than plot - and Whipple is a prose writer par excellence. Not showy or grandiose, but both moving and compulsive - Someone at a Distance is a fairly long book, but I wouldn't be surprised if you read it in one or two sittings. Dorothy Whipple may well be the great undiscovered English novelist - certainly Someone at a Distance is an excellently constructed, sophisticated and emotionally taut novel which should never have been allowed to go out of print.

As well as being one of the first three Persephone Books titles published, Someone at a Distance was one of the first Persephone Classics, and treated to a wider publication and beautiful cover. I love the uniformity of ther Persephone library, but I also think this Persephone Classics cover is the most beautiful cover I've ever seen. And so I had to own both...

I'm sure lots of people here have read Someone at a Distance - thoughts? Who do you think the 'someone' is? If you've not read it, I really encourage you to give Dorothy Whipple a try.

Monday 9 March 2009

Happy 10th Birthday Persephone!

Happy 10th Birthday, Persephone Books!

March 1999: Persephone published their first trio of
books - William - an Englishman by Cicley Hamilton; Mariana by Monica Dickens; Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. Ten years later they have 81 books in print, and I have just over half of 'em on my shelves.

I discovered Persephone through
their reprint of Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout, already a favourite of mine, in January 2004, so I came in at the 5th anniversary - nice to know I've been reading them for just over half the time they've existed, though I'm sure a lot of readers of this blog have been there from the very early days.

I know I'm not the only one who loves, adores and cherishes Persephone books - so I'm handing over this week on Stuck-in-a-Book to a celebration of Persephone! To kick off we're going to be find out people's favourite Persephone book, and the one they really want to read. Here's a link to all of them, in case you need reminding - once you've decided, comment with 1.)your favourite one, 2.)the one you want to read. If you've not read any (and where have you been for the last ten years?) just do number 2.) - and at the end of Persephone Birthday Week I'll send someone's choice to them. How exciting!

And while we're at it, if you also love Persephone Books, why not tell us how you found Persephone in the first place?

I'll kick off proceedings -
1.) Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton remains my favourite
2.) I've not read A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair yet - my copy is currently with a friend in Liverpool, so I'll be reading it before too long!

Get commenting. And pass round the party hats.


(Firstly, make sure you don't miss the previous post on Mary Ann Shaffer's favourite books - it's so interesting, and may be hidden by my unusual trick of posting twice in one day)

Hopefully you'll have spotted a change or two at Stuck-in-a-Book! I've spent the morning playing with HTML, using websites written in language so simple that even I go understand it... so, feedback please! Does the new three-column look work on your computer (I know it's different on different screens - let me know if one of the columns has disappeared to the bottom of the page, or if everything has gone crazy). Less technically - what do you think? Better or worse??

Mary Ann Shaffer's Books

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by the late Mary Ann Shaffer was one of my favourite books last year, and so many people in the blogosphere and the wider world agreed. Someone a little while ago asked, on my earlier post about the novel, what Mary Ann Shaffer's own favourite books were - and we are so privileged that Shaffer's daughter Morgan has given us the answer. Here is her reply:

The odd thing is, we actually have a list of my mom's favorite books, but it took me a while to locate it. And, because you asked such a perfectly unique question, I wanted to make sure it was answered properly!

My mother was an avid, voracious reader. Never without a book in her hand - everywhere she went. (She was a librarian so her choices were endless.)

You may be sorry you asked, but here they are (in no particular order):

Time and Again
A Very Long Engagement
Corelli's Mandolin
Angle of Repose
Flaubert's Parrot
Covenant with Death
In the Time of Butterflies
Women of the Silk
The Samurai's Garden
If a Lion Could Talk
My Antonia
Brideshead Revisited
The Pursuit of Love

(is it time to rest, get a glass of milk, make a potato peel pie?)

Straight Man
The Playmaker
A Dry White Season
House of Sand & Fog
A Gesture Life
English Passengers
The Human Stain
Fall of a Sparrow
Black Dogs
The Shell Seekers
A Prayer for Owen Meany
Cold Mountain
Poisonwood Bible

There you have it! My mother loved to recommend books, so I hope you find at least one that brings you enjoyment.

Morgan M.