Wednesday 29 April 2009

Getting to know you...

I think a few different people have done this quiz over the past few weeks, but I spotted it on Simon S's blog, and it looks like fun.

1) What author do you own the most books by?

That would be AA Milne, I think, or perhaps Agatha Christie pips him to the post. I've spent so long trying to find Milne's books, whereas you stumble across Christies whenever you go into a charity shop, so it feels like I have more by Milne.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?
Hmm... probably Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, of which I have four copies. I have three copies of Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, which will become four when the Bloomsbury edition comes out.

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
Yes, quite a lot.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
Wouldn't be a secret if I told you, would it?

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?
Alway I re-read all the time as a child, it's only the last few years that I've started re-reading again. Once more I think Diary of a Provincial Lady has been read the most. And I've never heard of Goodnight Moon.

6) What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?
Gosh. I didn't list them in the way I do now. Ten years old... at that age I loved Goosebumps and Point Horror, actually, so it would have been something awful like The Girlfriend, which I'd be far too scared to read now.

7) What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
Looking at the books I've read in 2009 so far, there's actually only one that I've really not liked - Blasted by Sarah Kane. Vile, graphic, disgusting, violent and horrible.

8) What is the best book you've read in the past year?
Excluding books I've re-read in 2009 - and there have been a lot this year - I think it's The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.

9) If you could force everyone you know to read one book, what would it be?
I don't really like the idea of forcing everyone to read a book... but I would encourage everyone to read the Bible (or at least some of it) and Pride and Prejudice.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
Goodness, I know so little about living authors... I literally can't think of anybody I think is worthy of it. All the authors I revere are dead.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
Is it boring when I answer every question with Miss Hargreaves? I just see Maggie Smith in the title role, so vividly. Other than that, I think We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson would make an amazing film. Apparently it's been almost filmed many times.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
Whilst I love Diary of a Provincial Lady, I don't think it would work at all as a film. And I don't want my cookbook to be made into a film.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
What a strange question! I can't remember any, but I'm sure I've dreamed about meeting Jane Austen.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
High School Musical: The Book of the Film, I think. I've never been tempted to try those awful celebrity autobiographies or cheap romances. I'm middlebrow through and through.

15) What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
That would be Ulysses I think, which was a real slog. There are quite a few books which aren't technically 'difficult' but I've found too dull to get through quickly.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?
Is there such a thing as an obscure Shakespeare play?
I've not seen any obscure ones... All's Well That Ends Well? One I want to see when I can is Cymbeline, which doesn't seem to be produced much.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
I've read two short books by 'the Russians' and one by 'the French', so I feel completely unqualified to answer...

18) Roth or Updike?
I've not read a word of either.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
I've not even heard of these people! Wow, I feel badly read.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
Ah, this is more like it. Definitely Shakespeare. I admire Chaucer, was a little bored by Milton, but love so much of Shakespeare - though the comedies and 'problem plays' more than the tragedies.

21) Austen or Eliot?
There wouldn't be many names to stand up to our Janey, so she is an easy winner of this category!

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
This questionnaire is providing quite a few... The more I read, the more I feel poorly read. To take a smattering, Great Expectations, Middlemarch, anything by Proust or Tolstoy or Hemingway or... so many.

23) What is your favourite novel?
Miss Hargreaves, Diary of a Provincial Lady and Pride and Prejudice continually fight it out.

24) Play?
Much Ado About Nothing or AA Milne's Mr. Pim Passes By

25) Poem?
'The Listeners' by Walter de la Mare

26) Essay?
Something by AA Milne. Or Ginny's A Room of One's Own, if that counts as an essay.

27) Short story?
'The Garden Party' by Katherine Mansfield

28) Work of nonfiction?
AA Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now.

29) Who is your favourite writer?
Mr. Milne to the fore once more. I think. Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf are coming up on the inside track.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
Louis de Berniere, though I've only read one of his books, so perhaps the others aren't so awful. Lionel Shriver also dreadful.

31) What is your desert island book?
The Bible, though that's usually a given, isn't it? I could read Diary of a Provincial Lady over and over again and never tire of it.

32) And... what are you reading right now?
At the moment I'm reading Jane's Fame by Clare Harman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman, The Paris Review Interviews vol.1. That's it, actually. Only three and they're all non-fiction.

I won't tag anyone, but it's a fun quiz and I recommend you have a go! Let me know in the comments if you have done so.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

A Shot in the Dark

The other day I mentioned, amongst my goods from Liverpool, A Shot in the Dark by Saki. This is a beautiful Hesperus edition, which initially I bought just because my collected Saki is unwieldly, and I wanted to have some in a pocket edition. (I should add that it's actually Mum and Dad's collected Saki, which I've 'borrowed'... call it short-circuiting my inheritance) But then I discovered, upon reading the introduction, that A Shot in the Dark is a collection of works discovered after the Complete Ed. was published - i.e. they're not in there.

A few are familiar. 'The Miracle Merchant' is essentially Clovis story 'The Hen' dramatised; an earlier published version of 'Tobermory' is included; 'A Sacrifice to Necessity' is very, very similar to 'The Stake'. But A Shot in the Dark isn't just for Saki completists - some stories have lain undiscovered. 'Dogged', which was published in St. Paul's magazine in February 1899, is thought to be the very first story Saki had published - and has never been anthologised or collected before. And, what's more, it's probably the best one in this collection. To be quite so witty and brilliant from the off is a little astonishing, not to say irritating to us lesser mortals.

'Dogged' is about a mild-mannered man being cajouled into buying a dog at a church bazaar: 'A rakish-looking fox terrier, stamped with the hallmark of naked and unashamed depravity, and wearing the yawningly alert air of one who has found the world is vain and likes it all the better for it'. The dog manages to take over his life, and the story is representative of Saki's merciless style and exaggerated incident.

I've already eulogised about how wonderful Saki is - see this post - but I never got around to writing about Beasts and Superbeasts, which I read last year. I can't imagine why it didn't make my Top 15 of 2008 - I must have been feeling serious when I composed that list, as it is the funniest book I've read in a long time. His tales dabble in the absurd, the commonplace, the mystical, the down-to-earth - but always with a great understanding of humanity (especially children) and a fondness for hyperbole which I love. If PG Wodehouse had written short stories, and had a very slightly crueller sense of humour, these would be the result.

If you've never tried Saki, do so immediately. Even if you don't like short stories usually, I can't imagine anyone disliking these - if you're the sort of person who keeps a book in the loo (and I am) then Saki could work a treat. If you think you've got a Complete Saki, then you're missing this selection - which comes with an interesting Introduction by Adam Newell and Foreword by Jeremy Dyson. Rectify the omission as soon as possible.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Sisters By A River

Continuing my Barbara Comyns interest, I spent my train journey back from Liverpool reading her first novel Sisters By A River. I bought the novel in Somerset, but there are loads available on Amazon. I say 'novel', but there is no structure to this book, really - lots and lots of little essays or vignettes or really just anecdotes. They're vaguely chronological. I was especially interested by this novel as it's openly based in Bidford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, where my very close friend Lorna was brought up, and I've been several times.

I can't stand books which use incorrect spelling to reproduce the mind of a child (which put me off
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths a bit) but I discovered in the Introduction that Barbara Comyns couldn't actually spell as an adult, and the publishers decided not to edit her manuscript (the Intro says she couldn' spell because her mother went deaf when Barbara was young... I couldn't really see the connection).

This book is actually autobiography - never sure how accurate, and it certainly has all the surrealism I've grown to expect from Comyns. Her childhood makes the Mitfords seem dull. Quite similar, actually - six daughters in her case, in a rambling old house with an angry, mad father. The mother is also pretty mad, and the children are fairly uncontrolled, running riot over the house and area, making their own rules and creating their own world. This is representative of the insanity (spelling mistakes intentional! ):

'Things at home were getting pretty grim about this time, Daddy was particularly mororse and glum through money worries, then he would drink and try and forget but it only made things worse, he never got jolly when he drank, just miserable, I can't think why he did it. Mammie was always quarreling with him, they were the two best people at agvergating each other I have ever met, she was getting awfully sick of us too, more even than usual, she had got an awful new habit of thinking people were falling in love with her, it was very trying and embarising, we would come on her gazeing into space, her lips moving in an imaginaru conversation with a ficticious lover, she even went so far as to tell Daddy she had lovers and was unfaithful to him, this caused the most frightful rows, usually ending in him throwing all her clothes out of her bedroom window or Mammie running down to the river bank screaming and saying she was going to drown herself, sometimes waving an unloaded revolver above her head, but she never did commit suicide, sometimes the maids, if they were new, would run after her and drag her back to the house, but we would just sit on the chicken pen roof or somewhere peaceful.'

Long sentences, as you see! Everything in the book is told with a child's calm indifference and no sense of causality. Difficult to know how disingenuous the writing is - either way, it is very effective, and this bizarre autobiographical- novel-anecdotal- chat is quite unlike anything I've ever read. At first I thought I'd find it too affected, but in the end I loved it. Would make great reading alongside Mitford stuff.

The tone throughout was rather surreal - 'Daddy very much dislike finding odd human bones about the house, they had a habbit of getting tucked down the sides of the morning-room chairs' is the comment on an archeological dig in the garden - but even more surreal when you realise it's mostly true. Tales of ugly dresses and bad haircuts are told in the same captivating, undemonstrative style as those of Grannie dying and Father throwing a beehive over Mother. If this motley assortment of remembrances were made-up... well, I don't think they could have been. Such a bizarre childhood, so of its time, and yet utterly fascinating. Completely devoid of charm, but somehow, in a way, it charmed me. I still think
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyn's best book, of the five I've read (standardised spelling for a start!) but Sisters by a River is mesmorising, and a book I'll return to many times from sheer incredulity and amazement.

Thought I'd just finish off these thoughts by quoting the blurb Barbara Comyns wrote herself in 1947:

The river is the Avon, and on its banks the five sisters are born. The river is frozen, the river is flooded, the sun shines on the water and moving lights are reflected on the walls of the house. It is Good Friday and the maids hang a hot cross bun from the kitchen ceiling. An earwig crawls into the sweep's ear and stays there for ten years. Moths are resurrected from the dead and bats becomes entangled in young girls' hair. Lessons are done in the greenish light under the ash-tree and always there is the sound of water swirling through the weir. A feeling of decay comes to the house, at first in a sudden puff down a dark passage and the damp smell of cellars, then ivy grows unchecked over the windows and angry shouts split the summer air, sour milk is in the larder and the father takes out his gun. The children see a dreadful snoring figure in a white nightshift, then lot numbers appear on the furniture and the family is dispersed...

Saturday 25 April 2009

Bits and Bobs

All sorts of bits and pieces which I've been meaning to write about for a while, today...

- Telegram Books emailed me a while ago, wondering whether I'd consider their publishing house as one of my Places of Beauty (which reminds me that it's not been updated for a while, actually). I must investigate them further at some point, but they look like a really fascinating translation press. See; they have works from Siberia to Egypt, Pakistan to Belgium. Some of them truly are beautiful, too - my favourite c
over is on the right, The Old Man and His Sons by Faroese author Heoin Bru.

- do go and check out Smartish Place, a ten year old literary magazine. The website is really well laid o
ut, and though I don't know much about poetry, there seems to be a lot of potential interest there - interviews, reviews, original work and so forth.

- Alma Books launched, in March 2007, a series of Oneworld Classics, and have also taken over the Calder list, including authors like Duras, Ionesco, Celine and more. They blog at, and have books which range from Wuthering Heights to The Decameron, Oscar Wilde to DH Lawrence to some really lovely Jane Austen editions. Most of these editions have some new illustrations, apparatus about the author, and all sorts of other intriguing bits and pieces, and are beautifully produced. I love it when a publishing house puts real effort into the cover images - especially when it's a book that isn't too difficult to track down, this can really make an edition worth having. A couple of my favourites shown on the left, Great Expectations by Mr. Dickens, and The Italian by Mrs. Radcliffe.

- emailed me about their website, filedbyauthor, for connecting readers and authors, check it out

- Steve Lee emailed me about his book What If... (which I mentioned back here) - if you buy copies from they now give $4 to Save The Children for every copy bought. We used to put on 'fun days' to raise money for Save The Children, so it's a cause close to my heart.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Liverpool has no books... least it doesn't anymore. I've brought most of 'em back to Oxford with me - a quick list, with reasons for buying them, and do chime in with any thoughts! All of them are secondhand, though quite a few were from the most upmarket remainders shop I've ever seen - Blue Court Books (one in Liverpool, one in Chester)

Sylvie & Bruno - Lewis Carroll
Re-reading Alice books, and hungry for more...

A Shot in the Dark - Saki
Lovely Hesperus book of Saki stories found after The Complete Saki was collected

Prelude - Katherine Mansfield
Another wonderful Hesperus find. Nice to have it separated from the other collections.

Four Frightened People - E. Arnot Robertson
I now have three Robertson novels, none yet read... this one is much mentioned in Nicola Humble's book on middleb
row literature

The Girls - Lori Lansens
I can't resist a novel about twins... my first conjoined twins novel.

A House in the Country - Jocelyn Playfair
A London Child of the 1870s - Molly Hughes
Two Persephone books I've been umming and ahhing about for a while

After the Death of Don Juan - Sylvia Townsend Warner
Terrifying cover of what seems to be a dead woman with butterflies for mouth and eyes... but good for current STW interest

The Millstone - Margaret Drabble
When I wrote about Lynne Reid Banks' The L-Shaped Room, Vivienne mentioned this novel, so I've k
ept an eye out for it since

Blaming - Elizabeth Taylor
With Nicola Beauman's new biography of Elizabeth Taylor high up on my reading list, I'm stocking up

Sylvia Townsend Warner - Claire Harman
Biography by the author of Jane's Fame, which is also on its way to me.

Monday 20 April 2009

Yellow Goes To...

Patch stepped forward to help me with this draw, as usual, and he excelled himself - not only a very deserving winner of Janni Visman's Yellow, but one which doesn't even require me to use postage.

Lucy worked with me in the Bodleian library last year, and since we're both still in Oxford, she'll be given the book in person. Hopefully I'll get her to report back...

I'm away in Liverpool until Thursday, so no Stuck-in-a-Booking for a few days!

Sunday 19 April 2009

The House of Dolls

I'm afraid I haven't taken the draw for Yellow yet, and so there's another day to enter the draw.

Good guesses, guys, but nobody got the novel I'm going to talk about - it's The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns, author of 50 Books... entry Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. (By the way, I always refer to the list as my 50 Books, but the 26 you see listed are the only ones I've added to it so far... it's ongoing, and suggestions always welcome!)

The House of Dolls has, in the very vaguest way, similarites with The Enchanted April - that is, both are about four women living in a building together. And that's probably where the similarities end. In Comyns' novel the women are middle-aged prostitutes - but ones which didn't enter the oldest profession in the world until they were middle-aged, in response to their rent prices going. They live in the upper portions of a house belonging to long-suffering Amy Doll and her young daughter Hester. The four women upstairs are, like The Enchanted April, distinct - well, Berti and Evelyn are slightly similar: catty, brash, sarcastic and, deep down, desperately needing each other. Evelyn is described as 'inclined to be a poor man's edition of Berti', and doesn't have her brilliant red hair. Spanish Augustina - known as The Senora - is the most successful of the women, and the least emotional. Finally their is my favourite, shy Ivy Rope, who invites a mild dentist to their rooms, and hasn't the heart to reveal her occupation when he believes it to be a date.

Before Our Vicar's Wife throws up her hands in horror at the salacious material I've been reading, this isn't salacious. Despite their lifestyle, absolutely nothing finds its way to the page, and this was from the pen of eighty year old Barbara Comyns whose humour is quirky rather than rude. I've commented with Comyns before that all her books seem to be very different - The House of Dolls is, stylistically, not wholly unlike The Juniper Tree (reviewed here) - but that was a Grimm fairytale updated, and had that air of myth and allegory. The House of Dolls doesn't have the wonderful, frenetic surrealism of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but does hint in that direction with daughter of the house Hester, who bunks off school to make china mosaics with a slightly mad man in an abadoned house - a lovely, entirely innocent, subplot of the novel.

Despite all Barbara Comyns' novels being different from each other, the one thing they have in common is my appreciation. And (hurrah!) they're pretty short. I don't think is her best by any means, but anything from her oeuvre is worth reading - next up for me is her first novel, Sisters By A River. This slightly bizarre author is too underrated, and if her novels are not all great, they are certainly very good.

Friday 17 April 2009


A while ago I asked about books which just fitted the environment in which they were read, and wanted something which would fit a meadow in spring. Danielle, Susan D. and IslandSparrow all suggested Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April, and since I was at home in lovely rural Somerset in April, it seemed the perfect book to try.

E von A is mentioned a lot in an online book group
I'm in, especially a few years ago, and in fact I'd bought The Enchanted April in 2004 or 2005, but not got around to reading it. No real reason for its being on the backburned - though perhaps the 1980s TV shot chosen by Virago for my edition didn't do it any favours. Well, now I've read it, and the novel is possibly my favourite read of 2009 so far.

For those who don't know the premise - shy, awkward and quirky Lottie Wilkins wishes to escape a lacklustre husband who thinks she is unintelligent; she meets Rose Arbuthnot who is best summed-up by this reaction to the idea of a holiday in Italy:
No doubt a trip to Italy would be extraordinarily delightful, but there were many delightful things one would like to do, and what was strength given to one for except to help one not to do them?

Nevertheless, she too has a situation she wishes to escape, and is intrigued by the idea of a castle for hire in Italy. Upon investigating, Lottie and Rose realise they'll need another couple people to share the rent. Step forward Mrs. Fisher, an older lady whose life is spent remembering the wise words of Victorian writers whom she probably met in her youth - and Lady Caroline Dester, a stunning beauty who is tired of everyone 'grabbing' onto her, and wants to get away from being the centre of society. They all head off to Italy, including an amusing jo
urney in which Lottie and Rose become convinced that they've been kidnapped, as all their Italian is 'San Salvatore', the name of the castle - which they repeat at intervals, to be met with empassioned nodding and agreement from the Italians travelling with them.

The castle is described beautifully, and especially the garden - attention drawn often to the wistaria, which happens to be my favourite plant. Everywhere is brightly sunny, airy, thick with the scent of flowers and bursting with nature
. It could have been horribly overdone, but E von A strikes just the right note - and thank you to those who recommended it, reading the novel with equally beautiful (but rather different) countryside around me was perfect. Though it might work also as a distraction to city life where trammelled nature does anything but burst.

All four holiday-makers arrive unhappy, and all have some faults - especially the very selfish Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline. From the start, though, Lottie is certain that the castle will have a positive, almost magical, effect upon a
nyone staying there. And she is, of course, right. I don't want to spoil all the events of the novel, but suffice to say each character is altered by the surroundings, friendships develop and faults evaporate. What prevents The Enchanted April from being too fairy talesque or saccharine is a wittiness and honesty which somehow make the changes in everyone seem not only realistic but inevitable, and still thoroughly heart-warming.

How the cousin of Katherine Mansfield and sister-in-law of Bertrand Russell wrote such a happy, warm novel is anybody's guess - but I do encourage you to seek out The Enchanted April is you haven't yet done so. It's a beautiful novel which is also extremely well written - the style flows by, perspicacious but unassuming, and the four central characters are incredibly well drawn. Not at all stereotypes, yet definitely distinct and memorable, they seem real, with real traits and feelings and failings, and must have been very difficult to create. Simply brilliant.

And soon I'll be writing about the next novel I read, also about four women living together in a house. It's written by one of the authors in my 50 Books list, and was published in 1989. A prize to anyone who can guess the book...

Thursday 16 April 2009

Do keep entering the draw for Yellow by Janni Visman! It'll be up til Sunday. And thank you for all your lovely comments - especially Jennifer Dee, how nice to have you visit everyday!

Yellow was, coincidentally, published by Bloomsbury - who also sent me some information today about a venture that they've got coming up - the info they've sent is below:

Bloomsbury is set to transform the relationship between publishers and libraries, and between libraries and readers, with an innovative development in public lending: The Bloomsbury Library Online.

At a time when the British library system is under pressure to reach larger audiences with tighter budgets, and when the reading public is feeling the pinch, Bloomsbury is launching a unique, affordable and user-friendly online initiative.

In association with and using existing technology in libraries across the country, Bloomsbury is rolling out a groundbreaking e-lending strategy which will allow readers to read collections of bestselling books at local library terminals or with the use of a library card on home computers and internet enabled devices.

The Bloomsbury Library Online will consist of a number of themed shelves: children’s books, sports titles, international fiction, Shakespeare plays, reference books and more. They will launch with a shelf of Book Group titles including Galaxy Book of the Year, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by Kate Summerscale, Orange Prize longlisted Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie, word-of-mouth phenomenon The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer, and international bestseller The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri. Embracing the advantages of the online format, users will be able to read the book, search the text, access author interviews, reviews, press features, and links to specially commissioned reading group guides.

How will it work?

The Bloomsbury Library Online will be sold on subscription – libraries will subscribe to a bookshelf for a year at a time and will pay according to the size of population served.

• New titles will be added on a continuous basis – free of charge within the subscription year.

• Users will click through from the Library terminals or through an online portal accessible via any web browser (including those found on iPhone and Blackberry) anytime, anywhere in the UK.

• Text accessible through screen readers and therefore available to blind and partially-sighted users.

Bloomsbury Executive Director Richard Charkin said “Libraries are hugely important to readers, communities and authors and are under severe financial constraints. While never forgetting the importance of books themselves, they’re also being pressured to adapt to the demands of the 21st century: bridging the digital divide, serving multicultural communities, attracting new users and reaching into homes. The Bloomsbury Library Online serves to fill that hole and will hopefully blaze a trail for similar developments in the library system.”

Kate Summerscale added: “I’m delighted that The Suspicions of Mr Whicher will be part of The Bloomsbury Library Online – it sounds a great scheme, especially for book groups.”

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Belated Birthday!

Oops... I forgot my own blog birthday. On 10th April I got to my second year of blogging - how time does fly.

To celebrate, I'll be giving away a copy of a book I loved last year - Yellow by Janni Visman. It was in my top reads of 2008, and I first chatted about it here.

Stella is agoraphobic and neurotic and jealous - Yellow is a sparse, taut narrative which is psychologically clever without being scary (why does 'psychological' always come with 'thriller'? Not in this case, really). And there's a cat. Ideal. For a more lucid discussion of the book, see that first review.

Pop your name in the hat, as it were, and I'll do a draw on Sunday.

Sunday 12 April 2009

Put Out More Flags

I've always vaguely connected Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster in my mind - not sure why, other than that 'E', since they didn't really overlap in their writing periods. Having quite liked A Passage to India (which would have been better as a short story, I think) and A Room With A View, but failed to be overwhelmed by them, I'd also placed Mr. Waugh on the backburner. Which, I discovered as I read Put Out More Flags on the train journey down to Somerset, was a mistake. The writers have more or less nothing in common, and whilst I could read Forster for months without any danger of laughter lines, Waugh is really rather funny.

I don't really know how popular Put Out More Flags is - certainly not one of Waugh's more famous novels, and I hadn't heard of it until someone mentioned it a few months ago. I found the title irresistible. It just sums up the earnest patriotism with no outlet for full venting - how shall we solve it? Put out more flags. Reminds me of a car Colin and I saw during the last World Cup, where someone had stuck seven British flags on their car. You could just imagine looking critically at their car festooned with six flags, and thinking "But will people realise that I love Britain?" Mentioning Colin gives me opportunity to shame him - when he found out I was reading Evelyn Waugh, his faux-intellectual response was "Evelyn Waugh? I love all her books."

Put Out More Flags was published in 1942 and is about the phoney war which preceded the war proper. The central character is Basil Seal - and, through him, his mother, mistress and sister. We see the interior, informal and jokily malevolent workings of the war offices (who continually send all the volunteers and insane visitors to other departments), the recruitment and training of soldiers, responses of the rich and elderly, the bohemian socialists, the unfit, unlikely soldiers. Basically the upper-middle and upper-classes dealing with a strange situation. Barbara (Basil's sister) features in my favourite part of the novel, and a central focus, placing evacuees:

Evacuation to Malfrey had followed much the same course as it had in other parts of the country and had not only kept Barbara, as billeting officer, constantly busy, but had transformed her, in four months, from one of the most popular women in the countryside into a figure of fear. When her car was seen approaching people fled through covered lines of retreat, through side doors and stable yards, into the snow, anywhere to avoid her persuasive, 'But surely you could manage one more. He's a boy this time and a very well-behaved little fellow.'

There are touches of EM Delafield - especially, unsurprisingly, The Provincial Lady in Wartime, which also features the War Office and its internal 'workings' - but where Waugh diverges from Delafield territory is where I had problem with Put Out More Flags. I found Basil Seal one of the most repugnant, malicious and dislikeable characters I've encountered since Heathcliff. Throughout the novel there were punches of nasty, unkind humour which laughed at ruining the treasured home of an elderly couple, sending an innocent man in exile to Ireland for Basil's own ends, betraying friends for the sake of promotion. Whilst we probably aren't supposed to see Basil Seal as a moral guide, it did seem that we were supposed to be fond of him, look on the character as something of an amusing rascal - whilst in fact he is selfish, vicious and cruel. Give me the self-deprecating humour of EM Delafield, or the affectionate, harmless fun-poking in Mapp and Lucia - Waugh's idea of humour is mostly on the mark, and he uses comic language superbly (I laughed out loud several times) but too often the undercurrent was too nasty for me. I need to read a Wodehouse or two as an antidote.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Happy Easter

Hallelujah, He is Risen!

A very happy Easter to everyone.

Not only the most exciting day in the Christian calendar, but now Lent is over I can buy books again.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Two People - Another Person

Just a quick one this evening; on the off chance that anybody missed this post on Random Jottings/Elaine's blog, do go and read what she has to say about Two People by A.A. Milne, which I also reviewed recently. Like me, she was pretty impressed - but her take is slightly different, and very enticing - makes me want to re-read it all over again!

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Badly done, Emma?

This might be old news, but I've just found out about the casting for BBC's Emma, so perhaps others haven't heard. I think this is the last Austen-or-Dickens-or-Hardy etc. costume drama the BBC are planning on for the time being, and hopefully they'll put on something special. I'm very pleased with all the names I've seen mentioned - mostly with Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse. Romola Garai stars in one of my favourite films, I Capture the Castle, as Cassandra - she's also been Angel in the adaptation of Elizabeth Taylor's novel Angel, Briony in Atonement during her nursing stage, and the lead woman in Amazing Grace. I'm sure she's done lots of other things as well, but those are the films I own with her in them. She's a fantastic actress, though I haven't seen her do something as funny as Emma before... we'll see.

An actress who definitely does have comic ability is Tamsin Greig, and she'll be playing Miss Bates. I saw her play Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the RSC in London a while ago, and it was both the funniest and the best Shakespeare performance I've seen (she won the Olivier too). You might know her from sitcoms like Black Books and Green Wing, or perhaps as Debbie Archer on The Archers. She was also in the recent, very good, Anne Frank series on BBC. Who else... Michael Gambon, fresh from brevity but successful brevity in Cranford will be Mr. Woodhouse, and Jonny Lee Miller is becoming Jane Austen's creepiest hero (in my opinion) Mr. Knightley. I'd vaguely heard of JLM, and a quick trip to tells me that not only was he Edmund Bertram in 1999 Mansfield Park, but Charles Price in 1983 Mansfield Park. What credentials.
As usual, I don't think a new Jane Austen adaptation is really *essential* (there are so many books out there which haven't had the costume drama treatment) but it is comforting and familiar and the cast looks impressive enough that it might be quite fun. But, as the BBC decide to focus instead on twentieth-century drama, I really hope that they mean all of the twentieth-century, and not just the bit Irvine Welsh was fond of. More 1920s, 1930s, 1940s drama please - and why not look through some Persephone Books for inspiration?

Which book - not necessarily Persephone, of course - would you love to see adapated?
I have two which spring to mind. One, of course, is Frank Baker's Miss Hargreaves (have I mentioned that Bloomsbury will be publishing it?) with Dame Maggie Smith in the lead role - the other, perhaps more likely, is Eva Rice's The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. With dashes of Nancy Mitford and Dodie Smith, that novel would lend itself so well to filming. Watch this space...

Friday 3 April 2009

Love Leonard

I always have a collection of the letters on the go, usually several, and the other day I finished Love Letters: Leonard Woolf and Trekkie Ritchie Parsons 1941-1968, edited by Judith Adamson. (Which, incidentally, was on my list of books I intended to read soon, back in April 2007. After two years I've read... 12 out of 17, having started and given up on another one. Not bad.) It was catapaulted to the top of my reading pile when my friend Phoebe gave me a second copy of it.

My interest in all things Bloomsbury, especially all things Virginia Woolf, presents something of a quandry - yes, I want to find out more about their lives, but reading Leonard professing love for someone who isn't Ginny - 'To know you and to love you has been the best thing in my life' - is a little disconcerting. True, this started a while after Virginia's death - but not that long.

Leonard's met Ian Parsons through publishing, they were colleagues somewhere or other, and through Ian met his wife Trekkie, a painter. And they fell in love. Being the wacky world of Bloomsbury, none of the three seemed to think it particularly odd to carry on as they were - eventually Leonard moved in next door to the Parsons, and Trekkie would spend some holidays with Ian, some with Leonard - basically living two separate, but close, lives.

These letters, then, made slightly odd reading. By the second half they were the sweet, attached letters of two people who loved each other going about everyday life (with Ian usually quietly not mentioned) but the first half was quite awkward - Leonard professing his love in flowery, lengthy descriptions and Trekkie replying about her vegetable patch or latest clothing purchase. Really quite embarrassing how ardent he was and how cool she is in comparison - but obviously he wore her down.

They do make a slightly odd pair, and one with some connection with Two People - Leonard being both older and more intelligent than Trekkie - though she was an independently creative person, which Sylvia was not. She doesn't come across as being remotely like Virginia, which is probably why Leonard's relationship with Trekkie worked and Virginia is so seldom mentioned in these letters - but, for me, her absence spoke volumes over the entire, ahem, volume. Though interesting, this collection of letters really demonstrated to me how central Virginia Woolf is to my interest in Bloomsbury, and how bizarre I found the idea that it all carried on without her.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Puds and Psychoanalysts

Having attempted a Apricot Roulade a while ago, with fairly disastrous results (albeit very tasty ones) yesterday I returned to the Afternoon Teas recipe book. My friend Lou had half a carton of double cream which didn't have long left to live, and thought we might be able to use it... and I knew there was a recipe that I wanted to use involving double cream. Not only that, but 'double (heavy) cream' - do they intentionally include the inevitable result upon the consumer?

That recipe was for Chocolate Torte. Mmmmm. As you can see from the picture, it turned out pretty well - and tastes amazing. But when the main ingredients are cream and chocolate, you can't go far wrong. We didn't have any liqueur, so that couldn't go in. Being this recipe book, though, everything was slightly over-complicated. They kept wanting me to leave the pastry to rest for an hour, and thought I should use
an electric mixer to make flour and fat into breadcrumbs... tsk. But it was worth all the labour, and I can feel myself getting larger just looking at it.

What else has happened lately... Today I read my first Freud! 'Femininity' (1933). I'm really interested in th
e reception to Freud, especially in middlebrow literature of the 1920s and '30s - it's amazing how pervasive his theories, or vague outlines of them, were - but I hadn't ever got around to reading anything he'd actually written. Somehow it *felt* like I'd read it before... and that must be more or less how these interwar novelists dealt with Freud. I'd go so far as to say most of the novels I've read from the period make glancing mentions of him - for example, EM Delafield's The Way Things Are, as quoted in Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession:

'Well,' said Christine kindly, 'I can't say that I believe you. And any decent analyst would tell you that you're doing yourself a great deal of harm by this constant pretence. It's bound to create the most frightful repressions. What sort of dreams do you have?'

But Laura, even though she did live in the country, knew all about Herr Freud and his theories, and declined to commit herself in any way upon the subject of dreams.'

In fact, I've proposed a section of my doctorate on the influence of, and response to, Freud - so if ever you find a comment about Freud in an interwar novel, do let me know!