Wednesday 31 March 2010

How many Hectors make an acre?

I mentioned a while ago that I was dabbling in various translated novels, and when better than after a trip to Paris to finish off two novels translated from the French? Well, yes, perhaps *on* a trip to Paris would be better, but there's a 782 page reason that I didn't, which will be revealed in a week or two.

Instead, it was my train journey home where I finished a couple of novels (I think I surprised the girl I sat next to, as my bag seemed to have an inexhaustible number of books emerging from it) - and, first up, Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord, courtesy of Gallic Books (thanks!)

Apparently Hector has sold over a million copies worldwide, and Gallic have just brought his words of wisdom to the English speaking world. Having just read books translated from the French by Lelord, Kundera, and Veronique Olmi, I can only conclude that there is no 'French style' which is universally carried across - because the style of this novel is quite unlike anything else I've read. It tells of Hector, a psychiatrist, wandering around the world trying to find out what makes people happy. Or, perhaps more importantly, what makes people unhappy - especially when there seems to be no external reason for their unhappiness.

Lelord is himself a psychiatrist, and so he knows what he's talking about, but as I said - the style is very unusual. Every now and then it's in the second person - the second person, you know... oh wait, that's an example - and it's all written (how shall I put it?) quite childishly. As though it were aimed at children, I mean, rather than telling immature jokes and so forth. Here's an example, which also amused me because I live with one:
A psychologist is somebody who studies how people think or why they go a bit crazy or what makes children learn at school and why some don't, or why they hit their schoolmates. Psychologists, unlike psychiatrists, don't have the right to prescribe pills, but they can make people take tests or choose the right picture in a box or calculate things using dominoes, or tell them what an ink stain makes them think of. And after that they know something about the way your mind works (but they don't understand everything, it has to be said.)
Of course, sometimes writers use a faux-naive voice so as to subtly work on two levels, a sort of knowing wink to the reader - but I don't really get that impression with Hector. Lelord just seems to have chosen quite a guileless, ingenuous narrator - and it works quite well, so that we get a character exploring happiness without an ounce of cynicism. Which just wouldn't happen in the pen of a British writer - we do ooze cynicism with every ink drop.

As Hector travels to far flung places, getting himself into situations which are awkward, dangerous, serendipitous and fun, he compiles a list of lessons about happiness. These are the crux of the novel, so I shan't spoil them now, but to give you an example - the first two are 'Making comparisons can spoil your happiness', and 'Happiness often comes when least expected.'

These sorts of lists could be saccharine and irritating - 'happiness is like a butterfly of joy, flapping its wings of laughter', that sort of thing - but luckily Lelord never wanders into that territory. Each lesson comes from an event in the novel, not just phrased in overly abstract terms. And, since Lelord is a psychiatrist, you realise that the lessons - seemingly off the cuff - actually come together to mirror psychiatric and psychological research, in the least off-putting way imaginable.

All in all, this is an unusual and fun novel, but one which might just have something worthwhile and interesting to say as well - for something else worthwhile and interesting, check out Cornflower's review here!

Tuesday 30 March 2010

From Paris to Somerset...

What a jet-setting lifestyle. About a day after arriving back from Paris, I was off to Somerset, which is where I now am, tucked up in bed in chilly Chiselborough.

Quick entry - to say that, after years of meaning to (and none too subtle hints dropped, to no avail, when I was in Paris in 2005) I have been to Shakespeare & Company bookshop! Here I am in front of it...

(Yes, fact fans, that is the first - and probably last - time I've put a photograph of me up on here - that's how big a deal a visit to this bookshop was!) To be honest, it wasn't a huge temptation away from my Project24 resolve - because it's mostly a new-book bookshop, and the lovely floor of older books upstairs are browsing only (so I didn't look at them too carefully, lest there be anything I really wanted and couldn't have.) But the shop has a lovely feel, and I was keen to have a souvenir to take away from it, so step forward book no.8...

I love the NYRB Classics series, both for book choices and for production quality, and I love Sylvia Townsend Warner. I could have bought Summer Will Show anywhere, it is true, but it seemed appropriate to have it as my Shakespeare & Co. souvenir, since it's set in Paris. More on it when I read it... cos I'm going to bed now. Au reservoir!

Monday 29 March 2010

Croc Attack - Assaf Gavron

A name you might well recognise from the blog comments here, and across the blogosphere, is 'Dark Puss' or 'Peter the Flautist' - well, Peter took me up on a challenge a while ago to write a review of Croc Attack by Assaf Gavron. I'm always delighted to post regular readers' views on books, and since I thought there'd be people better qualified than me to comment on this novel, I was very pleased when Peter offered to review it for Stuck-in-a-Book. Without further ado...

Croc Attack by Assaf Gavron
Simon very kindly sent this book to me to review and I will try my best to write something that won’t let down too much the high standards he has set with his reviews.

The internal battles of the near Middle East, particularly between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, are so horrible, Byzantine and yet sadly so much part of our culture that I am somewhat ashamed to say that I have not read any novels that relate to them. Croc Attack changes all this. The story is straightforward, perhaps even a little cartoonish. The protagonist of the title, Eitan Enoch, narrowly misses being killed in a suicide bomb attack on one of the little buses in Tel Aviv. Further bloody bombings and their inevitable reprisals follow and Croc begins, against his wishes, to become something of a celebrity as the man who cannot be killed. Ultimately this exposure makes him the explicit target of a suicide bomber, Fahmi, who co-narrates the story while lying badly injured and in a coma in hospital. The two stories are neatly entwined with both musing on the inevitability of conflict, the lack of any possible resolution and indeed the almost familial need to go on killing and being killed.

So far so bleak but, despite the gravity of its subject matter, this book isn’t. Indeed it has several moments of, admittedly dark, humour. It also fails to take any obvious sides, empathy and sympathy being shown for all who are caught up in this ghastly conflict. The alternating story telling mostly works, though Fahmi’s is the weaker and there are some implausible coincidences at work in the plot but overall I think the structure works pretty well. There is some interesting commentary on high-tech commerce, Croc works for a company dedicated to the reduction of time wasting in call centres, directory enquiries etc., and on the bear baiting of low grade chat shows. Perhaps the female characters are a little weaker but the thing that did strike me as well described is the strange feeling you get when travelling on public transport in the aftermath of an attack. I live in Central London and travel daily by tube. I can remember vividly the feeling in my mind the day after the 7th of July attacks, the suspicious looks of fellow passengers, and the alarm at sitting next to someone with a rucksack and the complete futility of those concerns since I really had no sane alternatives. Gavron captures this very well and the long term after effect is of course the terrorists’ primary weapon in destabilising society. I haven’t, thankfully, been on the other end of a military reprisal but I am sure that living with the threat that you and your family might be wiped out with no warning by a laser-guided missile must be a very similar experience.

It’s not all death and despair, there are some episodes in which characters are allowed, for a few hours, to escape from their daily fear and profess love and/or lust. Simon usually puts at least one quotation into his reviews and I’ll end with one too.

‘What was the message you wanted to give me?’

A second passed before I realised what she was talking about.

‘I don’t know’ I said. ‘He didn’t get to say it. He was thinking. But I’m pretty sure that he wanted to let you know that he loved you. Something like that.’

She looked at me.

‘His look had that kind of meaning. It wasn’t a “tell her to feed the cats” kind of look.’ I said, staring at the gearstick. ‘And I can understand him.’

‘He didn’t have any cats. He couldn’t stand them.’

‘I can understand him on that one too.’

She smiled. So I wiped her smile with a kiss. Her lips were soft as feathers, as deep and salty as the sea.

I found it a great read, essentially it is a thriller with some genuine political and human insights into the Middle East conflict, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Sunday 28 March 2010


Project 24 - #7

The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that Project24 is up to #7 already, which takes me to halfway through April (apparently the cruellest month... well, we'll see). But the seventh book is one I've wanted for about eight years and, though I bought it online rather than finding it serendipitously, I think you'll excuse the purchase when you know what it is:

Yes, two of my favourite authors, combined in one beautiful book: Miss Elizabeth Bennet by AA Milne. I have actually seen the play performed - by an am-dram society in a village with the wonderful name of Blewbury, back in 2004 - and read it in 2008 or thereabouts. But this was one I needed to own...

And it got me thinking. I'm going to make you be very interactive this week, as I want more ideas. AA Milne dramatising Jane Austen is more or less a dream come true for me - but what other author combinations would delight and amuse you?

I've had a little think. I'd love to read Jane Austen's novelisation of Much Ado About Nothing. And I think Tove Jansson could turn 'Kubla Khan' into an atmospheric novella. Do any of you know the beautiful Nancy Griffith song 'Love at the Five and Dime'? I'd love EM Delafield to turn that into a novel.

As you can see, whimsy is the name of the game - let me know your suggestions of authors adapting things, as crazy or as plausible as you like. Let time, geography, language be no object... I'm looking forward to hearing what you come up with.

Friday 26 March 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm not feeling very weekendy, since I'm actually writing this on Tuesday (sshhh, don't tell anyone) ready to be posted on Friday. By the time you read it, if all goes to plan, I'll be in Paris - if all doesn't go to plan, I'll probably have accidentally got to Madrid or Moscow or something.

So, you'll have to forgive me, because I haven't read much of this week's internet activity yet, since (for me) it hasn't yet happened... I'm sure, despite that, that I can find a wonderful blog post, link, and book to tell you about...

1.) the blog post - is Kate aka makedoandread's lovely post about how she first 'met' Virginia Woolf - and includes a great link to possible my favourite mural ever. You'll love it, promise.

2.) the link - in fact, I have two. Thanks offmotorway for posting this great link on my post about favourite book titles - it's about how not to choose a title for your novel. I don't agree with everything the journalist says, but it makes for
fun reading. The other link is courtesy of abebooks - Top 10 Books By Librarians. As a part-time librarian myself, I couldn't help loving the idea.

3.) the book - is one I've had for a while, and has been available for a while, but I've been meaning to mention it. The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills - looks really fun, don't know why I haven't read it yet, a nice short book about being a bus driver. His other books have been described as hilarious, surreal, even 'a demented, deadpan comic wonder' - and PG Wodehouse is mentioned on the cover of this one.

Why oh why haven't I read it yet? An interesting review can be found here... but I think I'm going to have to find out for myself.

Thursday 25 March 2010

In the Garden...

I've been taking part in a Faith and Fiction Round Table discussion of Tobias Wolff's In The Garden of the North American Martyrs - to be honest, the 'Faith' bit didn't seem to come into the discussion that much, but it was still fun to compare notes. Quite a few of us have sections of the discussion on our blogs - check out the links at the bottom. It's my first dabble in this sort of thing, hope you find it of some interest... let me know if you've read any Tobias Wolff.

I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of the short story form. Unless a story is particularly well written with strong momentum and a sort of "punch to the gut" feeling, I often wonder why I even read it. There were a few stories in this collection that I thought were excellent, but for the most part, I simply appreciated the perceptive writing. I am curious as to how all of you feel about short stories and additionally how often you read them.

Hannah: I'm not a big fan of the short story form, either, Amy. However, this may be my favorite short story collection I've ever finished — at least since college. (That's not exactly saying much, though, because I don't read many.)

Pete: I have a sort of love/hate relationship with short stories and this book is a great example of why. There's no doubt that the author is an incredibly perceptive writer and I was engaged throughout the book on that strength alone. But there are quite a few of the shorts that left me feeling like I hadn't 'gone' anywhere. To my way of thinking, that's the point of a story, to take the reader with you somewhere. At times, I felt like these shorts just sort of ran out of gas before any destination was reached.

Now, let me say also that I'm often wrong about such things. My first reaction to something like No Country for Old Men is similar. Sometimes endings have to work on me a bit before they sink in and satisfy (and sometimes dissatisfaction is the point, right?). But in the case of a short story, I feel like there's not enough journey in the first place to necessarily earn that open ending.

I have several shorts myself that I've never published anywhere for this very reason. I feel like they contain a lot of solid writing and solid characterization, adequate conflict, etc. but they just don't really 'go' anywhere. So in the drawer they sit.

RC: I actually really appreciate the short story form for the fact that the goal isn't necessarily to go somewhere, but use a few characters, a simple setting, and a short period of time (usually) to say something, and it's often in the going nowhere that fosters the discussion because if you walk away saying "nothing happened" that that probably means you have to look deeper at what the author is saying. (Whether you like it or not).

Simon: Like a few of us, I have a love/hate relationship with short stories. One of my favourite writers is Katherine Mansfield, and I think the short story can create some of the best writing - but also some of the worst. For the most part I found that Wolff's stories veered towards the former, but some of them didn't do anything for me.

Kate: I pick up a short story collection every once in a while, but it isn’t my typical type of book. I know what I like to read and tend to stick to it. I decided to participate in this discussion to force me out of my comfort zone. I’m glad I did, but I didn’t like the book.

Stephen: Amy, I don't read many short stories either, but I really liked these because it felt like there was something to talk about with every one of them, a lot going on beneath the surface. I think you make a good point, RC, that these stories require you to look deeper at what the author is saying when at first it seems nothing much is happening.

For the rest of this discussion, check out these blogs:

The Quirky Redhead, My Friend Amy, Strange Culture, The Fiddler's Gun, Rebelling Against Indifference, Wordlily

Wednesday 24 March 2010

More titles...

I'm getting quite carried away by this title malarkey - whilst I was picking my favourites, I realised that I also have a weakness for titles which are quotations from other books.

The Comyns and Delafield titles from yesterday both are, but there are loads of others... and I want your suggestions! Here are the ones I thought of...

Told By An Idiot - Rose Macaulay
Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

The Sound and The Fury - William Faulkner
There's Rosemary... There's Rue - Lady Fortescue
Hostages to Fortune - Elizabeth Cambridge
All Passion Spent - Vita Sackville-West

Well, that'll do for now - obviously there are lots more, but I don't want to steal the ones you're thinking of! Come on, do me proud...

Tuesday 23 March 2010

And my favourite title is...

What a wonderful selection of favourite titles you all came up with! I'm almost reluctant to put my review up, as I loved hearing them all - do keep letting me know your favourite title, on the previous post, and perhaps I'll do a post on my favourites from them, sometime next week.

A few of my favourites, before I tell you my *absolute* favourite, and then tell you that the novel was pretty good too...

I love:

Tea Is So Intoxicating - Mary Essex
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes - Anita Loos
The Brontes Went To Woolworths - Rachel Ferguson
Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead - Barbara Comyns
No One Now Will Know - EM Delafield

But the one that comes out on top, because it works on at least two levels, and is intrinsically funny, is... Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse.

Ok, wonderful title aside, this is also a great little novel. To be honest with you, I haven't met a PG Wodehouse novel I haven't devoured happily. According to my little drop-down author menu, the only Wodehouse I've written about on here was Indiscretions of Archie, another fab title, and enjoyable, but probably the worst of the Wodehouses I've read. Aunts Aren't Gentlemen is back on form - and the first Jeeves and Wooster novel I've read.

Wooster is sent off to the countryside by a doctor because of his 'young man about town' lifestyle has had a disastrous effect on his general health. He plumps for an Aunt in Worcestershire (land of my upbringing!)

"Is the air pure there?"

"Excursion trains are run for people to breathe it."

"Your life would be quiet?"

"Practically unconscious."

Sadly, said Aunt Dahlia is herself off to Maiden Eggesford, Somerset (she's following me around the country!) and so Wooster decides to follow her there, Jeeves in tow, naturally.

It is one of those villages where there isn't much to do except walk down the main street and look at the Jubilee watering-trough and then walk up the main street and look at the Jubilee watering-trough from the other side.
This bit amused me, because whenever Mel and I visit a little village, we look out for their Millennium Project. Every village has one, usually fairly humble, and generally unveiled in mid 2003. I've seen Millennium benches, signposts, woods, stones... all sorts.

This being Wodehouse, all sorts of coincidences have come together to make more or less everyone Wooster knows turn up in Maiden Eggesford. There's a woman he once asked to marry him, as well as her more recent beau; there's a man he once cheated and gave a fake identity to; there is even Jeeves' own aunt. It all gets a little complicated as two rival households are going in for a horse race, only one of the horses is closely attached to a cat, and is inconsolable without it... and Aunt Dahlia (betting on the other horse) decides to have the cat kidnapped. Or catnapped, if you will. Hence the title - it's not cricket, she is not acting like a gentleman. And so it all begins.

I love Wodehouse's writing, with its mixture of hyperbole and litotes - I love the unbreakable calm of Jeeves, against Wooster's exaggerations and whimsical turn of phrase (I love that he always cheerfully calls Aunt Dahlia either 'aged relative' or 'old ancestor' - but don't think I'll be trying this out on my own aunts. Who are not, for that matter, particularly old):

"Have you ever seen a garrison besieged by howling savages, with their ammunition down to the last box of cartridges, the water supply giving out and the United States Marines nowhere in sight?"

"Not to my recollection, sir."

I just find Wodehouse endlessly funny. But I must confess - I thought Aunts Aren't Gentlemen would be my favourite ever Wodehouse, centring (as it does) around a cat - but, for some reason, the cat is given very little personality. I love reading about cats, and I'd have thought Wodehouse would be on top form writing about one... but perhaps he is not a cat person. Shame.

But, even though this doesn't reach the dizzying heights of its feline potential, it is great fun and very good - sometimes a Wodehouse just hits the spot in a way that no other book can. If you've never read one before - well, firstly, I'm a little horrified - secondly, why not start with this one?

Monday 22 March 2010

Favourite title?

Never let it be said that this blog is too *deep* - enough of my posts have talked about how nice the covers of books are, to do away with that idea. And we're sticking to surfaces here - because I want to know what your favourite book title is. Not your favourite book, nor necessarily one where the title accurately represents the book, but which is - purely and simply - your favourite title.

I ask because I'm going to be reviewing mine tomorrow... I have mentioned it recently, but I'm going to keep you guessing...

(Oh, and it's not one of the ones above, I just wanted to put up a picture of books... for more on those titles, look back here.)

Sunday 21 March 2010

Jane's Teas

Two of my housemates (Mel and Liz) and I decided to go for a Road Trip this Sunday. Unusually, we actually went in a car - Mel's and my road trips have usually been by bus or train, with the added adventure of not knowing timetables or that we'll ever see home again. To lend this frisson of danger, we entrusted our route to a coin. Several, in fact - heads for left; tails for right. Our first destination turned out to be the back of Iceland in Kidlington (which did reveal a fabric shop, about which Liz was quite excited). Though interesting, it couldn't be called a fun filled outing for all the family, and so we took once more to the highways and byways of Oxfordshire.

And, somehow, half by the coin and half by picking roads at random, we ended up... well, next to a sewage works. But we decided to park and go for a walk, and spotted a sign saying 'Jane's Teas, Sunday, 12.00-5.30'. Who could resist? Certainly not us. We meandered on down a muddy pathway, past some cows and a tree-house, over a river, and eventually found...

Jane's Teas! Unbeknown to us, we were in Kirtlington (never heard of it, but it does have its own Wikipedia page.) In amongst its 872 residents is Jane Fanner, who lives on a narrow boat, and runs a tea garden on Sundays. I think I've been waiting all my life to find this wonderful, wonderful place. It's the sort of place I thought only existed in my mind. Not only were the tea and homemade cake delicious...

...the venue are a series of old-fashioned tables and chairs (and swing-seat) along the side of the river - all the crockery is vintage (we did break a cup, but Jane was very nice about it), there are silver teapots, bunting, and poems in trees, and ornamental birdcages, and....

...a piano, a gramophone, decorative milk pails, rocking horses, model railway, chandeliers, chickens... everything thrown together in the most delightful way imaginable. I felt that I'd stepped back into the 1930s, and never wanted to leave. These photos don't even do justice to what a special place it is.

If you're ever in striking distance of Oxfordshire on a Sunday, do try and find Jane's Teas. She's in the middle of nowhere (unless you happen to pass on a canal boat) and it seems that her success is all due to word-of-mouth - which is exactly the way you would expect it to be. I can't imagine anybody going and not telling everyone who wonderful it is.

In an attempt to drag this post somewhere in the sphere of books, I will say that it reminded me of Mary Essex's Tea Is So Intoxicating. Anybody come across this author? I read the book a fair few years ago, immediately after Moby Dick. Perhaps that is why I remember it so fondly - I will return to it and find out if it *is* as charming as I thought it back then. All about someone setting up a tea shop in a little village, hence the association... and a wonderful title, too. The only Mary Essex novel I have is called The Amorous Bicycle (not yet read) so she obviously had quite a talent for titles!

So, a fun day out, and a great discovery. I assure you it won't be the last time I visit Jane's Teas... though, without the use of coins, will I ever be able to find it again?

[credit: three of these photos were taken by Mel - thanks Mel!]

Friday 19 March 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Will you look at that, somehow it's the weekend again. Hope you all had a lovely week - mine has not been quite as busy as perhaps it should have been, but was very nicely interrupted today as Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife paid a fleeting visit on their way through to a wedding in London. Oh, and the photo above isn't particularly relevant - I took it last summer in Cornwall - but I don't think I've shared it here before, and it is rather brilliant.

Right - as per usual, the link, the book, the blog post. It's like the good, the bad, and the ugly - except it's the good, the good, and the good.

1.) The link - is this rather fun and interesting article about joining a book group. I may or may not have stolen this link from someone else, I made a note of it last Saturday, and can't remember - so apologies if I'm not crediting you! I look forward to my various book groups as highlights of my month, and love reading about other people's experiences in them...

2.) The book - came through the post yesterday, and has the rather irresistible title Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones and is by Bobbie Darbyshire. I'm hoping to read this before too long, but thought I'd alert you to it now, in case it takes a back seat while I wade through the enormous fantasy book I've promised my brother I'll read... Anyway, the novel is about (I quote the blurb) 'an innocent meeting of a reading group which sparks a series of bizarre events. Three troubled people, driven by loneliness, vanity and revenge, hurl themselves on Inverness public library to find that nothing is as they expect.' Sounds fun, doesn't it?

3.) The blog post - is a little unusual for a book blog, but I was struck by Spitalfields Life's post on Postman's Park - which commemorates those who died in 'Heroic Self-Sacrifice'. To give an example: 'Soloman Galaman, Aged 11, Died of Injuries, Sept. 6 1901, After Saving His Little Brother From Being Run Over in Commercial Street.' For lots of photos of the unique commemorative tiles there (they are Victorian and the turn of the century), and a bit of the history behind it, click here. I've never been in person, but will try and seek it out next time I'm in London. Have you ever been there?

Thursday 18 March 2010


Sorry not to give much warning that I was bringing the signed Solar competition to an end, but it's been a few days and I think everyone's entered who is going to be entered - and I am pleased to say (using a random number generator, since Patch is asleep) that a signed copy of Ian McEwan's latest novel will be on its way to...

Claire from Paperback Reader!

Well done Claire - could you email me your address, and I'll forward it to the company?

And the runners-up who win Solar T-shirts are...

AmbireBooks and A Bookish Space!

I will have to check that it's ok to send T-shirts internationally, so fingers crossed I haven't got your hopes up... please email me your address, and let me know whether you want size 'small' or 'large' (not Aristoleans obviously, no happy mean!)

In McEwan news, I got an email today telling me about this event, for those oop North:

Ian McEwan in conversation with Sam Leith

Monday 22nd March at 6.30pm

Royal Northern College of Music , 124 Oxford Road , Manchester M13 9RD

Tickets £7 available from the Box Office 0161 907 5555

supported by Waterstone's, 91 Deansgate

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Travels With My Aunt

As far as I'm aware, until this month I had never read a book with the word 'Aunt' in the title - and now I find myself reading two of them. Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, and Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse - both very funny. Perhaps Aunts are a source of untapped hilarity (also languishing on my shelf is Cordial Relations: The Maiden Aunt in Fact and Fiction by Katharine Moore, so more to discover there, too...)

My lovely book group has themed months, where the shortlist for voting must be suggested within a theme or idea. Next month, for example, is books set in Oxford (I'm holding out for Jill by Philip Larkin). Last month was books about geographical journeys - and I suggested Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene, which was eventually victorious. I hadn't read it - indeed, I knew almost nothing about it - but has been told by one or two people that I should read some Greene. And I'm very glad that I did.

Henry has never met his Aunt Augusta before she turns up at his mother's funeral: "It's odd how we seem to meet only at religious ceremonies. The last time I saw you was at your baptism." His quiet life working in a bank, tending his dahlias, and generally not doing very much - it's all about to be wildly disrupted. His is not a spirit of adventure - 'The bank had taught me to be wary of whims. Whims so often end in bankruptcy." But Augusta is no-nonsense, fairly eccentric, and determined to change him. But I'll let Henry do the describing:

I wish I could reproduce more clearly the tones of her voice. She enjoyed talking, she enjoyed telling a story. She formed her sentences carefully like a slow writer who foresees ahead of him the next sentence and guides his pen towards it. Not for her the broken phrase, the lapse of continuity. There was something classically precise, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, old-world in her diction. The bizarre phrase, and occasionally, it must be agreed, a shocking one, gleamed all the more brightly from the odd setting. As I grew to know her better, I began to regard her as bronze rather than brazen, a bronze which has been smoothed and polished by touch, like the horse's knee in the lounge of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, which she once described to me, caressed by generations of gamblers.

For Aunt A is well-travelled. When she suggests a trip, Henry thinks Brighton would be a good destination, and it does offer an interesting excursion - little does he know that their travels will later include Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay... Truth be told, the destinations aren't hugely important in themselves (which rather relieved me, as I'm not usually a fan of travel literature, and was glad that the novel didn't turn into it) but rather act as settings for the illicit and extraordinary activities with which Augusta is involved. I don't want to spoil them for you, but safe to say the police get involved along the way.

Having written that, you might be surprised to learn that the character I was reminded of most, from the earliest chapters onwards, was Miss Hargreaves. In the unlikely event that you've missed me talking about Miss Hargreaves, probably by favourite novel, you can read my eulogies here. Miss H was written in 1939; Travels With My Aunt came out in 1969 - and Aunt Augusta is more or less what I'd expect Miss Hargreaves to be if she'd lived thirty years later, and been rather less respectable. I can't imagine Miss Hargreaves saying, for instance, "A brothel is after all a kind of school." But the characters have the same indomitable spirit, eccentric manner, and amusingly unpredictable speech. The success of Greene's novel, for me,
is through character - through Augusta and Henry's conversations, where two wholly different characters meet and travel together. The first half of the novel focuses upon character (broadly speaking) and the second half more on plot - which I found perhaps less interesting, though apparently it is more akin to Greene's literary thrillers.

I haven't read anything else by Greene, and I've been told that Travels With My Aunt is the unGreenelike Greene novel, but I was so charmed and amused by this spirited novel that I'll definitely be trying some others. Anybody got anything to suggest? I'm also keen to see Maggie Smith in the film, but (of course) it hasn't been released on DVD... (Oh, and for the thoughts of another member of the book group - I've just spotted Harriet's review!)

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Project 24: The Agony and... no, just the agony, really...

Project 24 is starting to get difficult... I'm already halfway through April on my allowance (if you count the book which is winging its way to me at the moment, to be revealed when it arrives) and, though there aren't many specific titles I've had to avoid, I just miss book shopping...

But today was the first time that I stood in front of a book, something of a battle of wits, forcing myself not to buy it. The book in question is The Spy in the Bookshop: Letters Between Heywood Hill and John Saumarez Smith 1966-1974. It was in the £2 bookshop in Oxford which I walk past everyday. I really enjoyed the letters of Heywood Hill and Nancy Mitford, The Bookshop at 10, Curzon Street, and would love to have the follow-up... but I'm not excited enough about it to make it one of 24. But it's only £2. But... but... but... this is so difficult!

I need to start planning what I'm going to do in January 2011... I'm thinking trip to Hay-on-Wye, trip to the Bookbarn, rather large splurge on my Amazon basket...

Tell me - if you're joining in, which books have made Project 24 (or whatever number you've chosen) especially difficult?

Monday 15 March 2010

Can Any Mother Help Me?

I don't remember where I first heard of Jenna Bailey's book Can Any Mother Help Me? but it has been across the blogosphere like wildfire over the past year or so. Ironically, a few people bought it because of a mention or two here at Stuck-in-a-Book in the past - because I got my copy in mid 2008. It was one of those titles I just *needed* to own immediately, had to read immediately... and then, of course, it somehow languished on my bookshelves for the best part of two years. But no longer!

Can Any Mother Help Me? tells the story of the Cooperative Correspondence Club - known to its members as CCC - which began in 1935 when a young woman wrote to Nursery World:

Can any mother help me? I live a very lonely life as I have no near neighbours. I cannot afford to buy a wireless. I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books. I dislike needlework, though I have a lot to do! I get so down and depressed after the children are in bed and I'm alone in the house. I sew, read and write stories galore, but in spite of good resolutions, and the engaging company of cat and dog, I do brood, and "dig the dead." I have had a rotten time, and been cruelly hurt, both physically and mentally, but I know it is bad to brood and breed hard thoughts and resentment. Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude "thinking" and cost nothing!

The solution was to set up a collective magazine (of which there were apparently over two hundred that are known about) to which women would contribute, under pseudonyms ranging from 'Sirod' (Doris backwards) to 'Cotton Goods' (for the proudly working-class) to 'Elektra' and 'A Priori'. The members came and went, but over half a century these women sent around their contributions on all manner of topics, but mostly simply about their own lives. Ad Astra organised it all, and sent them out in the beautiful homemade covers shown in a picture below.

The book is essentially a selection of articles from different magazines, with editorial material provided by Bailey. She has grouped the articles thematically: issues of raising children (members had to be mothers - the issue was raised of allowing non-mothers to join, but it was decided against); the war; everyday life; marriage; working; hard times; growing old. There are quite a few 'voices' in the book, and only a few become really familiar, but it's certainly an interesting sample and cross-section of a fascinating project.

I loved the idea of the CCC, and did enjoy reading the book, but somehow it didn't *quite* match up to what I was expecting. Or rather, what I was hoping - because I didn't know how I expected Bailey to arrange the material. She could only really pick and choose certain pieces, it would be impossible to give the feeling of belonging to the group - instead, I felt a little like an eavesdropper. Also, once all the articles were typed up, with marginalia noted in neat little font, the feel of the magazine was lost. I'd have loved a facsimile edition of one or two copies of the magazine - so that all the original handwriting and margin notes and crossings-out would have been reproduced. But perhaps that wouldn't be possible, or too expensive, or even illegible.
When Claire reviewed the book, she pondered over blogging as a modern equivalent of the CCC. In a way it is, but much closer (in my experience) is the Yahoo Group I'm in. Are other people in these sorts of email groups, where people send out emails to a whole group, and correspond that way? They're not as popular as they once were, but the one I've been in since January 2004 (a quarter of my life!) is incredibly dear to me. The experiences of the CCC sounded very familiar - the cautious and slightly nervous initial face-to-face meetings, which become regular and joyous occasions; the feeling that you can share close, personal events with people you've never had the opportunity to meet; the joy of kindred spirits. Who knows whether we'll still be going in fifty years' time (with some record-breaking-aged people, if we do) but I know that it has been, and will continue to be, a very special part of my life.

If Bailey's book couldn't quite convey this sense of intimacy and special-ness, that's only to be expected, because the reader must remain an intrigued outsider to the group. At the same time, it is the only way that we can now remember such wonderful groups and I applaud Bailey (and the Mass Observation project which held the material, and also gave rise to significant books like Nella Last's War) for immortalising the CCC and making their venture accessible to many.

Oh, and for anybody reading this in Oxford... the £2 bookshop has a number of copies...

Sunday 14 March 2010

Signed Solar!

It's an embarrassment of riches around the blogosphere at the moment, with at least one other blog I've spotted running this competition - for a signed copy of Ian McEwan's latest offering, Solar. Thank you, Random House, for offering this!

Also, there are Solar T-shirts to be won - so mention in the comments if you'd fancy one of these, otherwise I'll assume you're just in the draw for the book.

And, because just saying 'me please!' isn't all that entertaining for you, I'd like to know which Ian McEwan novel is your favourite, or (if you've not read any or many) which you fancy reading. Other than Solar, that is...

For me - it's a toss up between Atonement and Black Dogs. I'm going to go with Black Dogs. And the one I want to read next? The Child in Time, I think.

Saturday 13 March 2010


Project 24 - #6

Drastically scaling back the number of books I'm allowed to buy in 2010 has meant that the ones I choose are likely to come (and have come so far) in three categories:

  1. They're out of print books which rarely become available, and the opportunity is too good to miss
  2. I've physically been to a great secondhand bookshop and don't want to come away empty-handed...
  3. They're books I've been wanting to buy for years, but couldn't really afford.

My sixth book of 2010 falls in category 3 - The Heirs of Jane Austen: Twentieth-Century Writers of the Comedy of Manners by Rachel R. Mather. This book could have been written with me in mind - it looks at EF Benson, EM Delafield, and Angela Thirkell as (unsurprisingly) the heirs of Jane Austen - two of my absolute favourite authors (EMD and JA), and two I like a lot (EFB and AT) all in the same book together? Wonderful. I have actually read this already, a few years ago - lent by a kind Thirkellite - but knew at some point I'd have to have a copy myself. So, there you are - no.6 has been chosen. (Sorry that I could only find a tiny picture of the book - the cover is too shiny to take a good one with my camera, under electric light.)

Which would take me to the end of March. Except, ahem, another is on its way... and I'm going to Paris at the end of March, and will be visiting the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. Let's hope April is a lean month...

Friday 12 March 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm so pleased that a lot of you enjoyed the review the other day - I'll keep my eye out for similar things in the future, so watch this space...

And it's the weekend again, so time for a book, a blog post, and a link.

1.) The book - is one for those with deep pockets. It's no secret that I love EF Benson's Mapp and Lucia series, and have quite a few of his books which I've yet to read - but what enhances my love for these wonderful six books is (as you'll see if you follow that link back there) the beautiful Folio edition I have of them. My friend Barbara-in-Ludlow originally lent me her set, and I hankered after them for years... eventually finding the set for only £25 in Blackwell's Second Hand Department - possibly the only recorded instance of there being a good value book there. It was indeed a frabjous day, and I'm pleased to report that the Folio Society have reprinted this boxset - which you can see here. The colours have changed a bit, but it still looks wonderful. Thanks so much Helen for bringing this to my attention. Here's the downside... it will set you back £120. Less if you're a Folio Society member, perhaps, but... well, I was lucky enough to find them at a reasonable price, but they're scarce enough and give me more pleasure than almost any other books I have. (I should be working on commission!)

2.) The blog post - is a review by Elaine at Random Jottings. This fits in nicely with the previous post, since Elaine has just read The War Workers by E M Delafield. This was one of my favourite books read in 2008, but I didn't write about it on my blog because it was so difficult to find copies. Now that a POD company is issuing it, it seems fair to point you in its direction! First stop, Elaine's wonderful review.

3.) The link - is not remotely reverent. But is very funny. Anybody familiar with Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart (or, indeed, anybody who isn't) will love this literal interpretation of her music video...

Wednesday 10 March 2010

E M Delafield

I was thinking - it only seems fair that I should share with you some of the fruits of my research, which means that you get the fun bits without having to write huge swathes and have your supervisor ask you to re-write them. Basically, you're getting the fun bit of my doctoral work, without even having to pay university fees.

Don't worry, I shan't quote reams of literary criticism or anything like that, but part of my recent work has been looking through old periodicals for reviews of the Provincial Lady books. And I thought you might quite enjoy the review Time and Tide gave to my favourite of the series, The Provincial Lady Goes Further. A bit nepotistic, since
PLGF was serialised in Time and Tide, but never mind...

Alongside this review is a picture I came across by accident in another issue of Time and Tide - not sure how flattered EMD would have been by this likeness, but thought I'd share it with you nonetheless.

Let me know if this sort of thing interests you, and I'll pop some more contemporary reviews in as and when I find them.

Time and Tide, November 12th 1932
Review by Francis Iles

‘Miss Delafield’s last book about her Provincial Lady was the Book Society’s first choice for December, 1930; the present one, though obviously a better book, is not even on their recommended list. As so often before in connection with the Book Society, one wonders and one wonders. Oh, ruddier than the Ike… [Simon's note: this is a reference to Red Ike, one of the Book Society choices]

Miss Delafield has always seemed to me a writer who has not received quite her due. I have seen it written, and by a responsible critic, that when one has read one of her books one has read them all. The only explanation of such a remark is that the responsible critic himself has not read them all; for, with the exception of the impishly experimental Mr. C. S. Forrester, I know of no other author who has ever produced four consecutive books more different in every respect than A Reversion to Type, Messalina of the Suburbs, Mrs. Harter, and The Chip and the Block.

For the sly humour that arises out of a maliciously penetrating observation of character, with never a word of superfluous explanation or a jog of the reader’s elbow, and still more for economical, mordant delineation of feminine character through dialogue (her men are not always so successful) Miss Delafield has no equal. Her technique is as brilliant as it is self-effacing. She can pack more self-revelation into a couple of ordinary spoken sentences, than any other novelist. I always remember a certain Vicar’s Wife in one of her books, who appears only once and who speaks only five words, but from those five words we at once know everything there is to be known about her; we know what her husband thought about her and what her cook, we know exactly how she would have decorated the parish hall for a Penny Reading, and why she could never cook an omelette. She is watching a set of very inferior country tennis, and one of the players has just muffed a shot; the Vicar’s Wife turns to her neighbour and says brightly: “Just like Wimbledon , isn’t it?” Miss Delafield, in fact, lacks only a rather stronger sense of construction and plot to be one of the most important novelists writing today; for her more serious work, though less intensely individual, will stand comparison with any other writer’s, while in her own particular line of satirical humour she is unsurpassed.

The Provincial Lady Goes Further is, of course, Miss Delafield at her very lightest, and it is one of the wittiest books that has appeared for years. I read it at a sitting; and, though perhaps it would have been better taken in 100-page doses, the book stood it, which its predecessor did not. It is a better book than The Diary of a Provincial Lady because the interest is more diversified. The scene shifts more rapidly, between the country and London and even to a Literary Congress in Belgium , with the result that we meet a better-contrasted set of people. Moreover the Provincial Lady herself is shown as less of a figure of fun than in the earlier book, so that we really can believe that she has written the important novel which has opened the doors of Bloomsbury to her, with such admirable results for the reader. The whole thing is a little masterpiece of sly fun, which one will want to buy and keep because it will bear endless re-reading.'

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Alice (1903)


So, tonight I went to see Alice in Wonderland. I've just about come to terms with calling it that when I'm talking about the film, as I suppose it's the proper title, but when we're discussing the book, make sure you say Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, ok? Right. Glad we've cleared that up.

Tim Burton - who is the only director who could possibly do Alice - sets his version of the book when Alice is 19, paying a return visit to Wonderland. So all the same characters are there (from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There as well) but he can throw in a Hollywoody Quest Plot where Alice has to slay the Jabberwocky. In a nice touch, they refer to this foretold event as The Frabjous Day.

Burton never seems to quite decide whether he's adapting the book or creating a sequel - everything is new to Alice, who has forgotten most of what happened (Tweedledee - or is it Tweedledum? - voiced my thoughts at one point when he said "Surely she should remember all this from the first time?) but that's a small matter when it comes to his realisation of Wonderland, which is rather wonderful. Very Tim Burton. Even better than the setting are the characters - Helena Bonham Carter is, visually and character-wise, perfect as the Red Queen; Johnny Depp is delightfully mad as the Mad Hatter; Stephen Fry was born to be a Chesire Cat. And so it goes on - some great decisions with make-up and special effects make the characters dazzling. The only dubious member of the cast was Mia Wasikowska as Alice, who wasn't brilliant... but once she got to Wonderland she didn't have much to do but look surprised and/or determined, and she managed that with aplomb.

My real problems with the film were mostly about the plot - I know that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland doesn't have a very linear plot, but it does have a brilliant rhythm and warped internal logic, which could perhaps have been carried across to the film. Instead, the plot led to the inevitable battle scene... why do all big budget films have to have a battle scene now? I blame Lord of the Rings... they're always so long and dull and nothing happens except we see just how much money they had to throw at CGI axes.

Also - perhaps I should have expected this with Tim Burton - the film was rather more sinister than the book. I'm mostly thinking about the hedgehogs... (what a sentence to write!) who enjoyed being croquet balls in the book, but were terrified in the film. Everyone seems contentedly mad in the book, and rather more scared in the film - but I don't think Burton will ever make a cheery film.

Still, worth seeing - doesn't match up to the book, but it is one of my favourites so that comes as no surprise - and I got all excited about it being in 3D (you just know in five years time that our 3D film technology is going to look wildly dated). Let me know if you're going to see it, and what you think... (and make sure you read the books)

My previous experience with getting videos across from YouTube haven't always been successful, but hopefully above this post is the 1903 version of Alice which I've seen linked to in a few places... look out for some wonderful 'surprise-acting' and quite impressive effects for over a hundred years ago.

Monday 8 March 2010

David Golder

As I mentioned yesterday, amongst the hmphing, the trip to London gave me the opportunity to read Irene Nemirovsky's David Golder (1930), her second novel and the one which propelled her to fame in France. More importantly, given that I had about two hours of travel in which to read it, it's fairly short. Which is always a plus here at Stuck-in-a-Book. I read Suite Francaise (along with most of the country, it seems) about 18 months ago for my book group, and wrote about it here. About the only things that David Golder has in common with that novel are a) the influence of Nemirovsky's Jewish heritage, and b) her great writing.

As Patrick Marnham points out in his introduction, David Golder is actually vulnerable to accusations of anti-Semitism - at least it would be if it were published now, in its use of something of a stereotypical central figure. David Golder is 'an enormous man in his late sixties', obsessed with accruing money. His ruthless lust for money - which drives a former business partner to suicide in the opening pages of the novel - make uncomfortable reading when one bears in mind the sort of anti-Semitic propaganda was shortly to be used. Since Nemirovsky was herself Jewish, it is less awkward - although (again, as the introduction points out), she was keenly pro-assimilation and considered herself French at least as much as she considered herself Jewish.

But Nemirovsky is cleverer than any initial conclusions about David Golder suggest, of course. We soon learn that Golder is in fact the least mercenary of his family once his wife Gloria and grown-up daughter Joyce are introduced. In one of Nemirovsky's brilliant little passages, Golder 'pictured his own wife quickly hiding her chequebook whenever he came into the room, as if it were a packet of love letters.' Both Gloria and Joyce are forever asking Golder for money, buying expensive jewellery, and all the while declaring that he does nothing for them. And, it appears, even believing it. Gloria happily spends 800,000 francs on a necklace, but begrudges the money he gives his daughter; who, in turn, throws a tantrum when he won't buy her a car.

David Golder sees the protagonist facing several crises. His businesses aren't doing well; he realises the disrespect and lack of love his wife and daughter show him; he has a heart attack. All of these are devastating to him, and come to a head when he discovers that he has not much time to live - the novel then follows his final months (as he sees them). Will he forgive his family and try and build a life with them? Will he exact revenge upon them and leave them penniless? Will other avenues open up, other priorities?

Nemirovsky's portrait is - belying the opening feeling I had - subtle and even wise. She has no heavy-handed point to make, but rather a fascinating individual to delineate. Golder and his family feel real, and his actions feel like real actions, motivated by his realisations and emotions rather than plot direction or authorial intervention. In short, David Golder is a very good piece of writing, and encouragement to me to read more widely in Nemirovsky's work. Perhaps Suite Francaise did so well because of the true story attached to it - Nemirvosky's death in Auschwitz and the subsequent discovery of the manuscript over fifty years later. But as Nemirovsky's daughter Denise, and translator Sandra Smith, stressed at the talk I (almost) attended - we can decide to view Irene Nemirovsky either as a victim or a writer. They - quite rightly, and strongly - believe she should be seen as a writer.

Sunday 7 March 2010


I am very annoyed with myself. Today I should have been reporting back on Jewish Book Week for the second time, and specifically a talk entitled Celebrating Irene Nemirovsky. Except... for some reason, I was certain that the talk started at 7.30pm. Just managed to get onto the Tube at about 7.10pm, gave the ticket a quick check... and discovered that it started at 6.30pm. Amusingly, I'd written 7pm in my diary. I've probably scribbled down 2.15pm somewhere else, and midnight-under-a-full-moon somewhere else again.

So. Four hour round trip for ten minutes of a talk - which was probably brilliant, I'm afraid I have no idea. It was nice to hear Irene Nemirovsky's daughter Denise speak (albeit briefly, and in French, ably translated by Sandra Smith who also translates Nemirovsky's work) and the journey there gave me the opportunity to read Nemirovsky's David Golder, so I'll blog about that before too long.

Very frustrated with myself - but, even though I didn't hear him talk about it, Oliver Phillipponnat was there in his capacity as Nemirovsky's biographer (with Patrick Lienhart) and I think The Life of Irene Nemirovsky is another to go onto the list...

As well, of course, as a better organisational mind. Tsk.