Monday 31 August 2009

OUP - an expression of excitement

I've been sorting through my shelves here in Somerset, and have managed to get rid of about 25 books - aren't you proud of me? That's about 2% of them. Ten or so were duplicates, but that's still a fair few wrenched from my grasp, for various reasons... Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife were doing the same thing with their shelves, and discarded quite a few duplicates (does anybody need four editions of Sense and Sensibility, one asks oneself?)

Anyway. This has suddenly become less impressive when you realise that I've just had a lovely box of books from Oxford University Press to review. Kirsty (blogger at Other Stories when she's not working for OUP) sent me a catalogue and asked whether I'd like anything... so of course I sent it back, saying "No, thanks, nothing I like there..." Oh wait, no, that's the exact opposite of what I did. I sent an enormous list, telling her to stop reading it when it got ridiculous (you don't want to ask less than you can get, do you?) and she sent me most of them. Here they are...

I'll be writing about them individually, bit by bit, but I thought I should bring them all to your attention now. I didn't much like the old Oxford World's Classics before, but since they've revamped the way they publish, I am absolutely in love with them. I bought most of the Virginia Woolf editions back here, and now I have all these beautiful books to read through as well:

New Grub Street - George Gissing
Casting The Runes - M.R. James
The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy
The Mark on the Wall and other stories - Virginia Woolf
Much Ado About Nothing - William Shakespeare
Married Love - Marie Stopes
Selected Stories - Katherine Mansfield
The Yellow Wallpaper and other stories - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Years - Virginia Woolf
Cecilia - Fanny Burney
Camilla - Fanny Burney

Not pictured, because I put them in a different pile, are a new edition of the Alice books by Lewis Carroll, and A Very Short Introduction to Biography by Hermione Lee.

Obviously I have read some of these before, but I'd be keen to hear any recommendations you have, or which you'd like to hear about yourselves? I'm quite tempted to sink my teeth into a novel by Burney, since I loved Evelina and haven't followed up on it yet.... more anon.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Life According To Literature

I saw this quiz on Read-Warbler, though it's been all over the blogosphere I believe. Looks fun and quite tricky, so I decided to give it a go... do check out her answers, and maybe follow the blog link trail back to its source.... Oh, and give it a go yourself, of course!

Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It's a lot harder than you think!

Describe yourself: Two People (A.A. Milne)

How do you feel: Cloud Nine (Caryl Churchill)

Describe where you currently live: Forever England (Alison Light)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The House at Pooh Corner (A.A. Milne)

Your favorite form of transportation: Parnassus on Wheels (Christopher Morley)

Your best friend is: The Entertainer (John Osborne)

You and your friends are: Dreamers (Knut Hamsun)

What's the weather like: Cheerful Weather For The Wedding (Julia Strachey) - and I actually went to a wedding today!

You fear: A Shot in the Dark (Saki)

What is the best advice you have to give:
Say Please (Virginia Graham) - I was so tempted to choose 'Put Out More Flags (Evelyn Waugh)'

Thought for the day: It's Hard To Be Hip Over Thirty (Judith Viorst) - I'm finding it quite tricky *under* thirty...

How I would like to die: Tea and Tranquilisers (Dianne Harpwood) - not really! But it is an amusing title match.

My soul's present condition: Saved (Edward Bond)

Saturday 29 August 2009

Persephone Week: The End

Apparently Persephone Week finished on Friday... but here at Stuck-in-a-Book we're going to keep it going right until the end of the week. No Weekend Miscellany this weekend, then, but instead the final two Persephones will be proffered. (And maybe even a redux tomorrow). No, I didn't manage to read six (though I'm quite pleased with four), but today you're going to hear about Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles and, more excitingly, see the product of Our Vicar's Wife's interaction with Good Things in England by Florence White (which is also coming out in November as a Persephone Classic, with a really beautiful cover, below)

Right - Lettice Delmer, my first novel in verse, and the only one which Persephone have published. [Edit: Sorry, I forgot, Amours du Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough is another one.] Not in rhyming verse, at least most of the time, but in blank verse. (If you need a brush up on what blank verse is, have a look here.) I bought this in a secondhand bookshop a while ago and, to be honest, I might not have bought it otherwise - like a lot of people, I suspect, the concept of a novel in verse was a little off-putting. Me more than most, since I've always struggled with reading poetry - probably because I read quite quickly, and poetry really needs to be read slowly, or even aloud.

But, nothing daunted, I gave Lettice Delmer (1958) a go for Persephone Reading Week. If I'm ever going to read it, thought I, now is the time. The Publisher's Note writes that it is 'a novel, i.e. narrative with plot, characterisation and psychological insight, where the verse form is readable, not too intrusive - but essential.' Lettice Delmer is the privileged daughter of extremely charitable parents, who are always seeking to help others for the sake of Christ. She herself is uncertain at the welcome her parents give to Flora Tort and her young son Derrick. Flora was a patient at a Special Hospital (a euphemistic title) and her son is rather an unpredictable, savage creature - at first. The rest of this novel looks at the Delmer household; Lettice's leaving of it, and her subsequent life of difficulties, weaknesses, loves, losses and spiritual journey. The secondary depiction of a Christian girl struggling to communicate with God, and seeking further depth in her relationship with Christ, was very honest, moving, and genuine.

The Persephone edition has a Plot Summary section at the end, giving summaries of each 10-20 pages - I occasionally flicked to it to clarify a poin
t or two, but largely didn't find I needed it. Its inclusion does speak volumes about an anticipated readerly response - you can't imagine a plot summary at the end of a novel, can you? It is true that, now and then, I'd miss a pivotal event - perhaps because I read verse a little too fast, and the nature of its lay-out, with dialogue incorporated into stanzas alongside everything else, means that it's trickier to make significant points stand out. But this didn't happen very often, and in general, I didn't find the verse format a problem.

I suppose that's the central part of this review, in terms of whether or not I'll convince others to give Lettice Delmer a try - was I able to read it? For the first thirty pages, I thought I wouldn't be able to. It was tricky, I get stumbling, and r
ealising I hadn't taken in anything on the page - but then it clicked. Something suddenly worked - and, though every time I picked the novel up it would take a few lines before it clicked again, I was immersed more quickly each time.

But, of course, unobtrusive wouldn't be good enough. If a verse format did nothing but disappear into the background, it would be pointless. Of course, Susan Miles uses it to much better effect. Difficult to pin down what the verse *does* achieve: it is more of an atmosphere than anything specific. A subtle beauty and poignancy is lent to the pages, an almost ethereal quality. The verse enables Miles to discuss hard-hitting topics such as death, suicide, abortion, and depression without this feeling at all like a gratuitously gritty novel - they are serious topics, dealt with seriously, but almost through a glass darkly.

The lines I really want to quote give away a big spoiler. So I'm going to post them in white, and you can decide whether or not to read them. Below that are two other quotations, little moments in Lettice Delmer which were illuminating examples of how the verse can be used to accurately reveal a character. The last shows just how well this book fits into the Persephone canon.

He lets the subtle Tempter's guiding hand
direct his footsteps to the sea-dashed brink.

Not till the waters close above his head

does any plea for mercy stir in him.

* * *

"It's want of confidence, I truly think,
that keeps him so resentful.
I've watched poor Flora hold a stick - quite low -
and try to make him jump.
It seemed as if he were afraid to raise
both feet at once in case when they came down
the earth would not be there!"

* * *

For Lettice insists scratchily
that aching to be in the war is a whim that merits contempt.
"You are doing far better serving at home humbly
than seeking false glory, it seems to me, Hulbert,
out on the battlefield,
for unmarked, unpraised, wholly unheroic home service
is, to my mind, self-satisfying or not self-satisfying,
much more admirable than a soldier's blatant offering."

To conclude, I thought I'd find Lettice Delmer impossible to read - but I was pleasantly surprised. Though it won't become one of my favourite Persephones, the novel has a lyrical beauty for which it is worth acclimatising yourself to the unusual form. Do have a step outside your comfort zone, and give this novel a try.

Onto the second Persephone title of the post:

Our Vicar's Wife had a flick through Good Things in England, (in its Persephone Originals edition) trying to decide what to make - the first thing she found was something involving a pig's head, and thought not. Which is nice for me, because I'm vegetarian. Instead, she opted for gingerbread. 'Eliza Acton's Gingerbread', no less, appropriately enough a recipe submitted from a Rectory. Here Mum is, holding her offering (doesn't she look nice?)

And this is what it looked like when sliced up.... it's even nicer than it looks. The yummiest gingerbread I've ever eaten, and a fitting end to Persephone Reading/Eating Week. Mmmm.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Persephone Week: Oh dear

Oh dear. It was all going so well. I went out tonight, and I'm exhausted, so will have to stop at p.120 of Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles... I have failed in my Persephone Reading Week Self-Appointed Challenge! But I never really expected to read one a day, so I'm happy enough to postpone finishing Lettice Delmer until tomorrow, and then probably lingering a few days over a rather longer Persephone title. Or maybe even call it a week, and leave the other one for a couple of weeks' time...

So! You'll just have to wait and see what my response is to my first novel-in-verse. (No, I shan't say - in my best German accent - vell, it could have been verse)

And tomorrow I am going home to Somerset for a week and a bit - which will be lovely, and although my plan was to not take any books, and rely on the ones I've got at home, it doesn't seem to have quite worked that way when I packed...

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Persephone Week 3: The Runaway

I don't know about you, but I'm really enjoying Persephone Reading Week. Do keep popping over to Paperback Reader and The B Files to catch up on what's going on across the interweb, and I do hope you've felt encouraged to pick up your own Persephone book. Our Vicar's Wife has promised to cook something from her copy of Good Things in England by Florence White, to celebrate the week, so hopefully I'll be able to treat you to a picture of whatever it is, later in the week.

I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep up to one Persephone a day, since I was out at the theatre tonight (seeing Spike Milligan's Hitler: My Part in His Downfall - for free, because I'm under 26 - hurrah!) But I was speedy, and the book was quick, so I can add Elizabeth Ann Hart's The Runaway to my list for the week. A children's novel originally published in 1872, and reprinted in 1936 with over sixty wood-cuts specially made by the sublime Gwen Raverat, The Runaway has become one of my very favourite Persephones.

Both text and illustrations are quite, quite wonderful. It's impossible to imagine them separated, and I pity the children between 1872 and 1936 who had to make do without - but more do I pity myself and all other children who didn't get this read aloud to them in their infancy. The protagonist is Clarice, an imaginative fifteen year old (who acts more like a modern day ten year old - whether that is a sign of the times, or simply Clarice alone, I'm not sure) who regrets that her father is not the army, and in the opening line, redolent of Emma, is described: 'Clarice Clavering - young, ardent, and happy -'. Longing for adventure, she finds it in the form of Olga, hidden amongst the thicket. The eponymous Runaway, she persuades Clarice to allow her to hide in the house. The plot is about whether or not Olga will be discovered; whether or not she is telling the truth about her origins; what the consequences of her running away will be for all.

But, for me, the plot is less significant than the lively characters. Clarice is a fairly typical good, obedient Victorian child, but without the slightly sickening edge that certain members of the March family have for me(...) Her spirited eagerness for adventure set her apart from her less attractive compatriots. And then there is Olga! What a delight - airy, impetuous, irrepressible, and vibrant, she reminded of nothing so much as Clarissa from Edith Olivier's The Love Child. And anybody au fait with my 50 Books You Must Read will realise what a compliment that is.

Had the text been printed alone, this would be a lovely book - but Gwen Raverat's wood-cuts take it to the next level. I didn't really know what wood-cuts were before I started reading Persephone Books six years ago, but now I love them. Often featured in the early Persephone Quarterlies, an article by Pat Jaffe in PQ 4 speaks of the 'bookish, talented, visual twentieth-century women [who] have taken such delight in the intimate, intricate craft they were at last allowed to learn.' Each of Raverat's must have taken so long, and they are enchanting. Not twee (though personally I never find a touch of twee goes amiss) but as spirited as Olga herself.

Any parents or grandparents out there, I do encourage you to get a copy of this for your child. If you catch them at the right age, I suspect The Runaway will become a favourite for years to come. And, like all the very best children's books, it's one which you'll have to buy a copy of for yourself too.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Persephone Week 2: Minnie's Room

Still on track so far... today I read the second collection of Mollie Panter-Downes' short stories published by Persephone Books - Minnie's Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. It's infernally difficult to write about a collection of short stories, for so many themes are explored, so many characters introduced, that summaries would rival the collection itself for length. Instead you must try and find some sort of cohesion, in vision or style... which is equally difficult. I'll set the tone for my thoughts on Minnie's Room, though - Panter-Downes is very, very good.

I was equally blessed and cursed that the first short stories I read were by Katherine Mansfield. Starting with the best does mean that all subsequent short story perusals have felt slightly sub-standard. Mansfield makes the art look so effortless - and every other short story writer doesn't quite make the grade. Panter-Downes is no different, but she comes perhaps closer than anyone else yet.

The stories in Minnie's Room appeared in the New Yorker and publication ranges from 1947 to 1965. I haven't read her wartime stories, published by Persephone in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, so I can't comment on whether peacetime changed Panter-Downes' tone, but it is fairly consistent across these two decades. Like the best short story writers, she is concerned with the minutiae of life, examining ostensibly insignificant events and the interplay of human relationships. With these she is never heavy-handed; there is a much-needed lightness of touch in the revelations falling upon her characters. My favourite story of the collection is 'What are the Wild Waves Saying?' which is framed through a woman's recollections of a childhood holiday, seeing a young married couple being nothing like she expected. The denouement, in other hands, wouldn't have worked - but Panter-Downes' pen is gentle enough to make it memorable rather than mawkish.

Another story, 'The Willoughbys', relates well to yesterday's Persephone, Princes in the Land: here the situation is reversed, with upper-class girl falling in love with lower-class man (and not remotely like Lady Chatterley, of course). Only a writer of Panter-Downes' subtlety could reveal how little both families appreciate the union, and the complicated feelings of indignant surprise and confliction which the four parents have on discussing the match.

Nicola Beauman has often held Mollie Panter-Downes up as an example of great writing, both in her Persephone volumes and in the classic post-war novel One Fine Day (which is published by Virago). It is easy to see why Panter-Downes is held in such esteem. I especially liked her use of observant details or revealing similes:

Norah, who had determined to keep the house going at any cost, visited employment agencies and explained the Sotherns' need to unimpressed women presiding over dog-eared ledgers that had a disconcerting look of being theatrical props, full of false names.
('Minnie's Room')

London seemed wrapped from end to end in fog. The city was as mottled and dun-coloured as the board covers of some dirty old volume that opened here and there to disclose a thrilling illustration
('Intimations of Morality')

In terms of themes, the publishers' introduction notes that many of the stories have middle-class characters striving to live their pre-war life. Another strand I noticed was the idea of faces revealing truth:
The woman murmured something, and her head rolled over on the pillow so that her eyes stared into mine, and deep in the sockets I saw a flicker of something resembling a smile, like the dim light of a house one had thought was empty. I was too awed to smile back.
('Intimations of Mortality')
Time and time again faces and eyes suddenly disclose traits or truths previously hidden - and that is, perhaps, as apt a metaphor as any for what Panter-Downes does with the short story. In amongst narratives of ordinary people, often conducting ordinary lives, we suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with a character and, cleverly, subtly, Panter-Downes unveils a previously unsuspected angle to the story - and, often, to the world.

Monday 24 August 2009

Persephone Week 1: Princes in the Land

Right - Day One of the Persephone Week is finished, and so far I'm on track. I've read one book: Princes in the Land (1936) by Joanna Cannan. I think I'm supposed to link back to a central page, but I wasn't sure which, so instead I'll link back to two Persephone-related quizzes (with prizes!) on Claire's and Verity's respective blogs.

Since I'm hoping to read about six books this week, which requires a lot of reading, the reviews of them will be quite short. Hopefully enough for you to decide whether or not you want to investigate further the Persephone Books I'm reviewing...

I've been looking forward to reading Princes in the Land for quite a while, not least because it is often compared to one of my favourite Persephone Books, Elizabeth Cambridge's Hostages to Fortune. Both are set in Oxfordshire; both concern the role of a mother, realising that her children and husband are not exactly what she expected. But where Cambridge's heroine is pragmatic, wise, and selfless, Cannan's is rather different. Having read Danielle's recent review, and the blurb on the Persephone website, I wonder whether others have had different responses to the book... my views will become clear.

The novel opens with Patricia and Angela travelling with their mother, to live with the grandfather in their ancestral mansion. Patricia is travel-sick and miserable - no glamorous introduction to a 'angular, freckled' girl; a disappointment to their mother. Their mother 'had been brought up to ring bells and now had no bells to ring' (an example of Cannan's concise, accurate summations of character) - as a poor relative, she must return to her father-in-law's house, after the death of her husband. We speed through Patricia's childhood here, and enter stage left a husband: Hugh. They meet in a train carriage, and have soon (after one or two incidents of note) married and set up house.

And the bulk of the novel follows this nuclear family of Patricia and Hugh, and their three children - August, Giles, and Nicola. For the most part, it chronicles Patricia's illusions about them; the way her children form characters which are anathema to her. They don't become murderers or drunks, but in her eyes a rejection of horses, an embracing of evangelical Christianity, a lower-middle-class villa, are all akin to her children beating orphans to death. It was here that Princes in the Land differed from Hostages to Fortune - where Catherine selflessly allows her children to follow their own paths, and sees them as acceptable, Patricia views any lifestyle other than her own ideal as dreadful. She has made sacrifices to her marriage, and initially seems an admirable character through and through - but by the end she appears increasingly selfish and unkind. This is mostly exemplified through her dissatisfaction with daughter-in-law Gwen. Her crimes are of the variety of saying 'Pardon?'; using doilies; wanting to call her daughter Daphne. Patricia says at one point, without any evidence of irony, 'Goodness knows I'm not snobbish.' Does Cannan, somehow, agree with her? Can she be that blind? Patricia makes Nancy Mitford seem positively egalitarian. And, unlike Nancy Mitford, this horsey-huntin'-say-glass-not-mirror persona is presented without a shred of self-aware humour.

Which is odd, because Cannan writes quite wittily at times. For example, in describing Angela's husband Victor - he is:

'a pink young man with china-blue eyes and hair as golden as Angela's, who could and did express all life was to him and all his reactions to it in the two simple sentences, "Hellish, eh?" and "Ripping, what?"'

I suppose, in the end, I didn't know where I stood with Princes in the Land. I don't believe in judging a novel by the likeability of its characters, and Cannan can certainly write engagingly, sometimes amusingly, and in a domestic vein so familiar and welcome to Persephone fans. But I cannot sympathise with the character - her themes of a mother's sacrifice, watching children grow, are ones I usually love, but the stance we seem encouraged to agree with is so prejudiced and, dare I add, proud. Though this only becomes concrete towards the end of the novel - before this, Cannan does show the family's interlocking relationships from various, more generous angles... as I say, I'm not sure where I stand with the novel. It is certainly well written, and I'm glad I've read it, but... my overriding response is a desire to re-read Hostages to Fortune.

Sunday 23 August 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

It's a bit late this weekend, mostly because I spent so much time thinking about the review of The Other Elizabeth Taylor (thanks for kind comments on it!) that I didn't want to get it swept away in the Friday lull. My stats counter tells me that things drop off on Friday, and quite significantly at the weekend, which suggests that quite a lot of you are reading blogs at work. Tsk! As if *I* would dream of doing such a thing. The very thought.

Ahem. So - a link, a blog post, a book.

1.) Verity's recent review of Barbara Comyns' wonderful
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead reminded me that it has one of my very favourite opening lines: 'The ducks swam through the drawing-room window.' If you don't immediately want to read on, then check to see if you have a pulse. It didn't make this week's link, though - the 100 Best Opening Lines of Novels. This was decided by the editors of American Book Review, and thus has rather a leaning towards American titles. Don't you find that these lists often choose opening lines from the best novels, rather than the best opening lines? A subtle but significant difference. I'm sure some of the best opening lines come from novels which are otherwise pretty poor. Anyway, pop over there to see who comes top (though any list which includes James Joyce's Finnegans Wake at no.7 isn't going to be in total agreement with me: 'riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.')

Fun for a browse - let me know what you think, and which you'd place at number one.

2.) The book. It's Miss Hargreaves again, I'm afraid, since none others sprung to mind... I like to choose ones which I've had emails about, or received through the post, but might not review for a little while - and most of the ones I've had this week I'm *desperate* to read as quickly as possible. So instead I'm going to show you the part of Bloomsbury's reprint of Miss Hargreaves which excites me the post:

3.) For my blog post of the week, I'm linking to Lisa at A Bloomsbury Life. I know I keep going back to the same blogs for this, and I will try to expand, but darn it - if Lisa must make her blog so appealing and wonderful, what am I supposed to do? Specifically, I'm linking to her post on Beverley Nichols, which quotes a hilarious section of his book Laughter on the Stairs, all about decorating his house and hearing that Woman's Own want to look at it. How to get the house looking presentable when he has so little furniture... Rarely have I read a blog post which made me so desperate to read the author - Beverley Nichols is one of those writers I've seen a heckuva lot in secondhand bookshops, but never read. The Thatched Roof is the only one I have on my shelves. So, yes, wonderful excerpt - but the post is made even lovelier by Lisa's characteristic style and great choice of accompanying photographs. Which doesn't include the one I've picked for this post - so you'll just have to go and read her post for more!

Thursday 20 August 2009

The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books, very kindly sent me a copy of her book The Other Elizabeth Taylor months and months ago, and I've been reading it gradually for most of that time. I finished it quite a while ago now, and have been meaning to write about it for a long time - but I wanted to ponder it, and give the book a proper response. As Persephone Reading Week kicks off on Monday, it seemed a good way to whet appetites. I shouldn't think there will be much confusion on this site, but I'll make clear from the start: we're talking about Elizabeth Taylor the novelist (who wrote books I've chatted about such as Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont) rather than Elizabeth Taylor the actress, who has - as far as I'm aware - warranted no mention yet at Stuck-in-a-Book.
The Other Elizabeth Taylor is the first (and maybe last?) Persephone Life, a biography which Beauman wrote over the course of fifteen years. As one might expect of a biography, it runs from 3rd July 1912 when Betty Coles was born, to 19th November 1975 when Elizabeth Taylor died - but the focus of the biography is largely twofold. Her writing and her relationships. If, like me, you find an author's writing life of paramount significance, there is plenty in this biography to satisfy. Though writing from 1940s - 1970s, there is a sense in which Elizabeth Taylor's novels fit with the spirit of the 1920s and '30s. To quote Jocelyn Brooke, cited in The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Taylor is

in the best sense old-fashioned; that is to say, she writes an elegant, witty prose, has a decent respect for the Queen's English, and is not obsessed by crime, violence, madness or homosexuality.

As well as looking at the situations and inspirations for Elizabeth Taylor's novels, the biography has a great deal of information about her short stories - both the ones published and those which weren't. This does lead to quite a lot of little plot summaries, but I appreciate the effort of a biography to be comprehensive - and the practical process of writing is always the most fascinating part of an author's biography, to me. These sections also furthered my interest in William Maxwell, the novelist Cornflower introduced me to, in his capacity of New Yorker editor. Their relationship is fascinating - Maxwell was capable of being both friend and professional. He recognised her talent, spoke of 'the excitement, the bliss, of reading' one of her stories, but continued to turn down some of her stories throughout the rest of her writing career. How strong their bond must have been to survive that - especially to a woman who took criticism so much to heart.

It is these sections of the biography which Beauman really brings to life: Elizabeth Taylor's relationship with other authors. Though the biography often remarks with surprise that Taylor chose a middle-class, almost provincial life, instead of the hustle and bustle of London (whereas I can never understand why anybody would choose London over the countryside - the former seems so much more isolated than the latter!) she had several significant literary friendships. The most influential seems to have been with Elizabeth Bowen, who was not shy of offering praise: 'This is a case of the genius which I do know you have'. The most interesting to me is Ivy Compton-Burnett, and I have already gone and bought Robert Liddell's Elizabeth and Ivy based on Beauman's mentions of it.

I said the biography had dual focuses; the big discovery in Beauman's research, and the main reason the book was delayed until after Taylor's husband's dea
th, was the relationship between Taylor and Ray Russell. Hundreds of his letters have emerged, and Beauman interviewed Russell. Though Taylor's marriage seems more or less undisrupted by this ongoing relationship, which lost any mutual romance quite early on, it remains something to shake the image of Elizabeth Taylor as a model middle-class wife. Though perhaps the biographer's biggest claim to breaking new territory, it was this section of the book which interested me least. It might alter her reputation and character - but I didn't know anything about her extant reputation or character before I started reading the biography. It was enough to earn Beauman the antagonism of Taylor's children, though. I would be unable to write this review without mentioning the striking footnote which every review has mentioned: 'Elizabeth Taylor's daughter has commented [concerning a section on David Blakeley]: "Most of what Nicola has written is untrue and the rest hurtful to many people"'. The Acknowledgements add that they are 'alas "very angry and distressed" about the book and have asked to be disassociated from it.' I don't know how to respond to either their fierce rejection of the book (one can only imagine how hurtful that has been to its author) nor the very honest publication of their opinion - the ethics of biography is a whole other topic, one which Elaine touches on interestingly in her review of The Other Elizabeth Taylor.

I think the key to appreciating The Other Elizabeth Taylor and Nicola Beauman's writing is to recognise that she approaches biography predominantly as a reader, rather than a writer. That is not to say that her research is not impeccable - the heart Beauman brings to the project means the research is likely to be all the more scrupulous. But the book is not scholarly in the way that, say Hermione Lee's biographies are scholarly - opinion is permitted, informalities allowed. Discussions of books will lead into a more personal point - indeed, the writing is almost always personal. In discussing a situation in Taylor's life which is reflected in her novel Blaming, Beauman writes:

Whether she was as much to blame as she believed no one can say; we have all written letters saying 'I am sorry', failed our friends when they needed us. If she was to blame for her small lapse - then we are to blame, everyday, for similar failures.

It is an approach I like, it is one which fits in with the ethos of Persephone. In the pen of another biographer there might have been fewer evaluative comments; fewer emotive responses, but perhaps that is not the brand of biographer appropriate for Elizabeth Taylor. This is an appreciation as much as a biography. Like any reader, Beauman isn't always sure how to esteem the writer. Alongside Elizabeth Bowen, Beauman uses the word 'genius', but elsewhere debates why Taylor is not a 'great' writer. The Other Elizabeth Taylor is, subtly, probably unintentionally, also an exploration of Nicola Beauman's decades-long relationship with the writer through her books. Accepted on this level, Beauman has pushed the boundaries of biography, and written a book which should be recognised as - in its own way - experimental rather than simply informal. I do not believe Beauman set out to challenge the perimeters of biography - but I do think there is a case for suggesting that she has done so.

Perhaps one can see why Taylor's children complained. I dare say any book about one's own parents must cause offence somehow - especially about someone so ardently private as Elizabeth Taylor. The vitriol of Taylors Junior can't really have poured oil on troubled waters, though, and they have done Beauman a huge disservice in their assessment of the biography. The Other Elizabeth Taylor is a warm, original, caring portrait of the middle-class literary highflier; the wealthy socialist; the domestic career woman; the determinedly private woman whose life is so very interesting, despite her contest protestations that it was not.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Always confusing (to me at least) when I post twice in one day - don't miss the wonderful excerpts from EM Delafield's As Others Hear Us in the post below.

This is just a quick update, partly squeaking with joy, partly wondering who else is squeaking with joy... This morning I got a couple emails from the people at Book Blogger Appreciation Week (which is taking place between September 14th-18th) saying that I'd been nominated in four categories. Nominated, not shortlisted (the shortlists are released in early September) but I'm excited nonetheless(!)

So, I'm nominated for:
Best Literary Fiction Blog
Most Eclectic Taste (this is the one I really want to be shortlisted for!)
Best Writing
Best Reviews

UPDATE: also now -
Best Blog Name
Most Prolific Blogger

Thank you so much anyone who voted for me, I'll let you know when the shortlists are up, especially if I've made it through to that round... but mostly I wanted to find out if anybody else has been contacted about nominations? I know I voted for nearly everyone in my blog list, so hopefully...

I've had to send off links to five posts for each of those nominations, trying to choose suitable ones for the category, but which are representative of Stuck-in-a-Book... tricky! In the end it was a bit arbitrary...

So, please, tell me if you've been nominated! Or what you're intending to do for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. I have a few plans up my sleeve...

Wednesday 19 August 2009

To Hear Ourselves...

I'm off to the cinema tonight to see The Time Travel[l]er's Wife, the novel by Audrey Niffenegger which I wrote about in a scattergun fashion last October. Since I'm otherwise engaged, I'll save an in-depth book review for another night, and instead introduce you to one of my favourite books, EM Delafield's As Others Hear Us.

A common experience for those who've loved The Diary
of a Provincial Lady but have exhausted the four wonderful volumes of that series, is to read some of her works, and realise how different they are from Provincial Lady land. Consequences (published by Persephone Books), The Way Things Are and Thank Heaven Fasting (Virago Modern Classics) and the most easily available. All great books; none remotely like the Provincial Lady. Her witty, light, self-deprecating take on life is shifted for social issues, real torment, and a rather sombre tone. In my experience of EM Delafield's works (and I've read, ooo let me see, eighteen of her books) only two have the same light, amusing feel of DoPL: and As Others Hear Us and General Impressions. I'm struggling to engage with a few books, as I mentioned, so I turned to the old reliable: As Others Hear Us.

The title plays on the old saw, from a Burns poem, 'O would some power the giftie gie us / To see ourselves as others see us.' It was a quotation of which EMD was fond, since she also named a play To See Ourselves (the play from which her novel The Way Things Are was more or less adapted.) EMD transfers this 'see' into 'hear', and thus plays with dialogue. There are four sections to this book, involving longer-running characters etc., but the bulk of it are these little scenes. They are entirely dialogue, little excerpts from people's lives. They show what a brilliant way EMD has at exposing the nuances of people's characters and relationships, all through their own words. Difficult to describe, so I've included a couple in their entirety, which I typed up years ago for a wonderful EMD site. I think you'll either read them and be baffled at why I find them hilarious - or, like me, you'll be desperate to read more.

Before I share them, I must be honest and say... As Others Hear Us is ruinously expensive. I didn't pay much for it five years ago, but a quick check on the usual secondhand book sites suggests that you'll be lucky to find an affordable copy - this is more a title to track down in your library or their inter-library loan facility. On the plus side, General Impressions is fairly affordable, and is a similar thing. The scenes in that one aren't entirely dialogue, if I recall, but they are still incredibly funny. Do go and find either book. I'd love to see them reprinted, but I suppose this sketch-orientated kind of book isn't very fashionable anymore... who knows, maybe the tide will turn. Here goes - 'The Reconciliation', and 'At the Writing-Table'.

The Reconciliation

'I came around because I really think the whole thing is too absurd.'

'So do I. I always did.'

'You can't have half as much as I did. I mean really, when one comes to think of it. After all these years.'

'Oh, I know. And I dare say if you hadn't, I should have myself. I'm sure the last thing I want is to go on like this. Because really, it's too absurd.'

'That's what I think. It is all right, then?'

'Absolutely, as far as I'm concerned. What I mean is, I never have believed in keeping things up. I'm not that kind of person.'

'Neither am I, for that matter.'

'Oh no, dear, I know. But I must say, you took the whole thing up exactly in the way I didn't mean it, in a way. Not that it matters now.'

'Well, it's all over now, but, to be absolutely honest, I must say I can't quite see how anybody could possibly have taken it any other way. Not really, I mean.'

'Well, you said that I said every one said you were spoiling the child, and of course, what I really said wasn't that at all.'

'Well, dear, you say that now, I know, but what you said at the time was exactly what I said you said. Or so it seemed to me.'

'Well, there's not much object in going over the whole thing all over again now it's over, is there? But if you'd come straight to me at the time, I must say I think it would all have been simpler. It doesn't matter, of course, now it's all over and done with, but I just think it would have been simpler, that's all.'

'Still, dear, it's perfectly simple as it is, isn't it? If you think I spoil the child, you're quite entitled to your own opinion, naturally. All I said was, that it seemed a pity to tell everybody that everybody thought so, when really it was just simply what you thought. And I must say, I can't help being rather amused, but we all know that lookers-on see most of the game - it just amuses me, that's all.'

'Very well, dear, if you choose to be offended you must be offended, that's all. As I said at the time, and still say, no one is fonder of children than I am, but to let any child go to rack and ruin for want of one single word seems to me a pity, that's all. Just a pity.'

'Have it your own way, dear. I shouldn't dream of contradicting you. Actually, it was only the other day that someone was saying how extraordinarily well brought up the child seemed to be, but I dare say that's got nothing to do with it whatever.'

'Well, all I've got to say is that it's a pity.'

'And if there's one thing I'm not, it's ready to take offense. I never have been, and I never shall be.'

'Besides, while we're on the subject, I don't understand about the blue wool, and never shall understand.'

'We've gone over the whole of the blue wool at least twenty times already.'

'I dare say, and I'm not saying anything at all. In fact, I'd rather not.'

'And if it comes to that, I may not have said very much about it - it's not my way - but it would be an absolute lie if I said that I didn't remember all that fuss about the library books.'

'I said at the time, and I still say, that the library books were a storm in a tea-cup.'

'Very well, dear. Nobody wants to quarrel less than I do.'

'As I always say, it takes two to make a quarrel. Besides, it's so absurd.'

'That's what I say. Why be so absurd as to quarrel, is what I say. Let bygones be bygones. The library books are over now, and that's all about it.'

'It's like the blue wool. When a thing is over, let it be over, is what I always say. I don't want to say anything more about anything at all. The only thing I must say is that when you say I said that everybody said that about your spoiling that child, it simply isn't what I said. That's all. And I don't want to say another word about it.'

'Well, certainly I don't. There's only one thing I simply can't help saying . . .'

At the Writing-Table

'Are you any good at whether a thing is EI or IE?'

'Not much, but I might.'

'Well, is it receive or recieve? I've written them both a hundred and forty-eight times on the blotting-paper, and they look completely wrong which ever I do.'

'"I after E except after C."'

'That's muddled me worse than ever. Besides, I think you've got it wrong.'

'I dare say. Look here, the only thing to do is to leave it and not look at it and then go back with a fresh eye and you get it at once. I often do that.'

'Very well then, this is what I've said: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to receive - or recieve - your letter about the sweet-stall at the Fete yesterday. As a matter of fact I was perfectly furious.'

'Oh, I wouldn't put that, would you? Of course it's quite true but isn't it kind of undignified? Or isn't it?'

'Oh, I haven't said that. I was only saying it.'

'Oh, I see.'

'Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised - or isn't that strong enough?'

'Personally, I should put Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I was completely astonished and underline astonished. Because after all you were.'

'Oh, I was foaming, of course. I still am, if it comes to that.'

'Who wouldn't be? And the trouble we took over those accounts!'

'That reminds me. What do you make six sevens come to?'

'Well - wait a minute. Give me a pencil and paper. I can do it if I add them.'

'How frightfully clever you are. I should never have thought of that.' Seven and seven and seven and seven and seven and seven and seven.'

'Isn't that one too many?'

'I thought it was. Very well, seven and seven, and seven and seven, and seven and seven. That's forty-two.'

'Good, how marvellous. I'm afraid it's pence.'

'Like Alice through the Looking-Glass.'

'Why did she have pence? I don't remember any.'

'I mean one and one and one and one and one and one and one.'

'Oh, the Red Queen. Yes.'

'I always love the kitchen picture.'

'I know. So do I. Well, Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was a good deal surprised, how would that do?'

'Isn't that the same as before?'

'I said Rather before.'

'So you did. Personally I should put Absolutely staggered.'

'I easily might. What was I asking you about these sevens?'

'You said they were pence.'

'So they are, I'm afraid. How many did you say they made?'

'Forty-two or something.'

'Thirty-six would be three shillings, and six over. How very neat. Three and sixpence exactly. Isn't it?'

'Wait a minute. I've lost the pencil. I make it three and sixpence, definitely.'

'I should think it's bound to be right, if we both make it come to the same, shouldn't you?'

'I should think so. Why don't you get one of those marvellous little books that tell you how much everything comes to? People use them for wages.'

'I always mean to. I'll make a note of it on the blotting-paper. There's receive and recieve again, and they both look exactly the same as they did before. No fresh eye or anything.'

'How awful. I don't suppose Mrs. Cartwright would know the difference, actually. She didn't seem to me in the least intelligent.'

'Oh, she isn't. But she just might, one never knows. I wouldn't mind spelling it wrong, if she hadn't behaved so badly about the sweet- stall.'

'I know exactly. I've got a frightfully good idea: what exactly have you said.'

'I've said: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to receive - recieve - your letter about the sweet-stall at the Fete yesterday.'

'Very well, just put instead: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to get your letter about the sweet-stall, and so on.'

'That's marvellous! I must just re-write it, but I think it's worth it, don't you?'

'Absolutely. I do loathe writing letters.'

'So do I. I always think it takes such ages when one ought to be doing other things. Now, can you listen a minute? This is what I've put: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say ...'

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Bits and Pieces

Claire from Paperback Reader has reminded me that Persephone Reading Week kicks off on Monday 24th. Hosted by Claire and Verity, the week is a chance to read any number of Persephone Books - anything from one to all 83 if you have superhuman reading abilities. Oh, and there will be giveaways on their sites, I believe. My plan (which will probably come to nothing) is to read six of the shorter Persephones which have languished unread on my shelves. The ones I've picked, in no particular order, are:

Minnie's Room - Mollie Panter-Downes
The Runaway - Elizabeth Anna Hart
The Casino - Margaret Bonham

Lettice Delmer - Susan Miles
Princes in the Land - Joanna Cannan
Julian Grenfell - Nicholas Mosley (not short, but my online reading group are discussing this in September)

That's just 1351 pages in a week. Divided by 7... that's under 200 pages a day! Easy! (Oh dear... well, I'll go with the flow and see what I manage).

Are you getting involved? Reading just one is absolutely fine, of course, and it should be good fun. If you are thinking of joining in, what will you be reading? I'm excited about it now.

But not quite as excited as I am about this:

Yes, my copy of Miss Hargreaves has arrived! One of my very favourite books, reprinted by Bloomsbury, complete with my own words quoted on the back, available in early September. And what a lovely colour they've chosen for it. I shan't rest until everybody who visits this site has got and read a copy... well, maybe I'll leave it up to you, but I encourage you to preorder now! More about this book soon, but if you can't wait til then, you can read about it at one of my earliest posts here. I'm like a giggly child on Christmas Day about this reprint, and will be reading it for the fifth time soooon. Especially since one of my book groups in Oxford is readi
ng it in October, and another one is currently voting on whether or not to read it... fingers crossed!

Finally... after posting about colourful bookshelves last weekend, I decided to have a go at putting my books in colour order. Except for the Persephones, which stayed on their shelf. You can only see half of my Persephones in this picture... The books have been rearranged a little bit since this photo was taken, but it still looks quite pleasing in the picture, don't you think? As Harriet said, it *is* surprisingly easy to find books... but only if I know that they're there. My problem is remembering which are in Oxford and which are in Somerset (most of 'em) - and a little more browsing is required than usual. But that is no bad thing, is it?

Monday 17 August 2009


I did enjoy all your thoughts about Ishiguro, thank you for sharing them - nice to see a wide sprectrum of opinion, too. It would be very dull (and there would have been no point in the book group meeting) if we all agreed!

A much briefer post today, about a book I've only flicked through, but which looks rather wonderful. I bought it at the National Portrait Gallery a while ago, it's called, as you can see above, Insights: The Bloomsbury Group by Frances Spalding.

Basically, it's the Bloomsbury Group in paintings, with biographical details, especially those relating to artistry. Not to be confused with The Bloomsbury Group reprints by Bloomsbury, this is Virginia Woolf et al. In fact, this resource is so wonderful that I'm going to list the 'et al.' - Desmond MacCarthy; Leonard Woolf; Vanessa and Clive Bell; Duncan Grant; Roger Fry; Lytton Strachy; Dora Carrington; Lady Ottoline Morrell; John Maynard Keynes; E.M. Forster; Frances Partridge; Gerald Brenan; David Garnett; Philippa and Marjorie Strachey; Margery Fry; Bertrand Russell.

For each there are two or three pages - one being a painting, then the others a mixture of paintings/photographs and biographical detail. As a biography of the Bloomsbury Group it is not exhaustive, but it is certainly unique as a resource. And something really interesting, beautiful, and quick to browse through - giving a real feel for the group and their interaction with art.

A great 'coffee table book', or gift - which is said a lot, especially around Christmas, but I do think this is a brilliant little book for anyone interested in these people or the period. Fear not, you don't have to go to the National Portrait Gallery to pick up a copy - it's available here on and, not to mention The Book Depository, which is cheapest of the lot.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Never Let Me Go... Or Do, If You Feel Like It

Quite a few book reviews coming this week, so long as I can motivate myself to do it... I try and be that little bit more lucid when talking about a book. Which doesn't always go that well... Speaking of not going well, I've had a few recent reads which haven't quite been up to scratch. Not, ahem, below scratch, but nothing getting me too excited at the moment. Thought I'd share my thoughts on one or two of them nonetheless, mixed in this week with some books I've really liked, but somehow not managed to get around to writing about yet. Look out for reviews of two non-fiction titles (gasp!)

First off is a book group choice: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I hadn't read anything by Ishiguro before, though of course was aware of him, and always had him down as someone I'd investigate at some point. When I mentioned that I was reading Never Let Me Go to people, the response was always extreme. But not always to the same side. People assured me that I'd either love the book to the extent that I'd have the cover tattooed across my chest; others told me I'd loathe it so much that I'd send Ishiguro lengthy hate letters, and firebomb his kitchen.

So I was rather surprised when the main effect was... apathy. I was just completely underwhelmed.

For those who don't know the premise of the book, we open with Kathy H telling us about her life as a carer. She looks after other people in the process of making 'donations' - they make up to four of these, then they 'complete'. It's never specified what the donations are, but it's obvious pretty early on that it's parts of their bodies. After setting the scene there, Kathy reminisces about her school life at Hailsham; the various friends and exploits she had; the school's emphasis on art creation; the Sales where they bought much-prized tat. And so forth.

In terms of plotting, Ishiguro can be quite subtle. (I don't want to give away everything in Never Let Me Go, so I'll try to write about it without revealing central things...) But, once he unveils the 'secret' of the book (about two-thirds of the way through) I was left thinking 'so what?' So much mystery had been built up, so much supposed suspense, that the answer deflated the book. Like the school children, who discover the secret when we do in the narrative, we have been 'told and not told'. The information is always there, but in such a way as it doesn't sink home.

The inclusion of subtle little details can be quite clever - I liked the early emphatic anti-smoking teaching to the kids, and how that later makes sense - but there must be a better way to build up tension than to end paragraphs with 'But that was nothing compared to what happened at the lake', or 'And that was the day that Ruth did what she did', before going onto something different. I was reminded, I'm sorry to say, of the Goosebumps books. Did anybody read them? A cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, which likely as not would turn out to be nothing.

My biggest disappointment, however, was the writing style. Though I've never read Ishiguro before, I always had the idea that he was a great prose stylist. The writing in Never Let Me Go is just so bland. Yes, it's in the form of a first person narrative from a youngish, not-overly-bright woman, so perhaps it's appropriate, but it was just so... bland. I know I should support that with quotation, but that's the problem: it's all This Happened then That Happened, I Was Happy, I Was Sad. Nothing significant to quote. I don't know how he's got this reputation as a great prose writer... I wondered if his other books were better in that respect, but someone told me that they were all quite similarly written.

One other small quibble... I thought the title was rubbish. It refers to a song which Kathy likes to listen to, yes, but it doesn't evoke the book at all. Gives compl
etely the wrong impression.

Much of the discussion at book group was over the fact that none of the children resist their fate, nor try to escape it. And any criticism of the book was
considered to be a nod towards this argument... well, that part didn't bother me at all. I thought making them passive was a good idea. My problems were with style - and the fact that I finished the book without it really seeming to have begun.

This has been a pretty negative review, but that's mostly through disappointment. I was hoping to love Ishiguro, and I couldn't. The idea was interesting, it could have been developed into a great book. Never Let Me Go isn't dreadful, but it was just so pointless and average. An evening of book group couldn't persuade me otherwise, but if anyone *does* want to be counsel for the defence?

One final point... doesn't the cover remind you of one of the covers for Helen Garner's The Spare Room?

Friday 14 August 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

It's that time again - c'est le weekend! And so, of course, I have a book, a blog post, and a link for your delectation. Come in, sit down, have a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I even made a cake yesterday - coconut and orange sponge (like the chocolate and orange, but with a sizeable amount of coconut instead of cocoa powder.) I haven't tried any yet, but I'm looking forward to having some tonight... mmm. Anybody got any baking photos to share? I'd love to post a link to them.

1) Let's start off with the book. Beautiful Books published Angela Young's Speaking of Love, which I loved, and then they did me the kindness of putting my name on the back of the paperback - so I consider them little less than heroes. And respect their judgement, of course - so I'm looking forward to starting Lanterns on their Horns by Radhika Jha. A very striking cover, I think you'll agree. Read more about it here. Apparently it involves the artificial insemination of cows to end poverty in an Indian village, and is compared (admittedly by the publishers) to Charles Dickens (great) and Naguib Mahfouz (who? I'm sure he/she is famous, but my knowledge of non-British writers is shamefully low. Unless Mahfouz is British, of course, in which case I don't even have that excuse.) There's a review on (the aptly named) Farm Lane Books here.

2.) The link - my e-friend Sherry, from the dovegreybooks reading group, sent me a link to an article from the Telegraph which is likely to strike a chord with Stuck-in-a-Book
readers. Click here to read it. It's called 'There's no smell on the shelves of cyberspace' by Simon Heffer, and is about the pleasure of browsing real life bookshelves, as opposed to clicking a link and getting the book delivered. The internet has done wonderful things for book-lovers - and dire things for their bank accounts - but there will always be room for the surprises and serendipities of bookshops. Call it the thrill of the chase for those who prefer a more leisurely pace. To whet you appetite, and show that Simon Heffer is One Of Us, here's a quotation:
"I realised at an early age that hours passed in shops full of old books constituted one of the greatest joys of civilised existence."
Yes, Mr. Heffer, we can but agree.

3) And the blog post - it's Paperback Reader again. Over the past fortnight or so she has been sporadically putting up photos of colour
-themed bookshelves. Some are kept like that all the time, some were done for the photo-op. Here's the link, which cleverly shows you all three relevant posts (white, orange, and silver) because she knows what she's doing with tagging. (Something I manifestly failed with the only time I tried to do it.) Harriet did the same thing with her shelves a while ago - but I don't know if she's kept them like that. Harriet? I've toyed, occasionally, with putting all my books in colour order... but while I love to look at other people's photographs, I know I'd never be able to find anything. Plus all my bookcases are double-stacked (and now books are in piles on the floor) so it might not have the same effect. The picture above isn't from Paperback Reader, but one which did the rounds on the blogosphere a couple of years ago.