Friday 30 July 2010

Moving with the times

I did promise you a multi-coloured Weekend Miscellany, but I'm afraid packing all day and carrying everything down the stairs has rather worn me out...

So, instead, I would like to know your reading suggestions on the topic of moving house! Can you think of any?

Only one comes to my mind - Persephone book and Virago Modern Classic The New House by Lettice Cooper. That dual honour for this 1930s novel is warranted - it's a fascinating novel for many reasons, but especially in terms of contemporary class shifts, including those between masters and servants...
Rhoda came into the kitchen and stood just inside the doorway, looking shy. She always felt shy when she penetrated to that downstairs world. The life lived so near to them and so far apart from them was a dark continent, full of unexplored mystery.
And, of course, they move house! So, over to you... books about moving house, please. And I'll see you on the other side...

Thursday 29 July 2010

Holiday Snaps

Right, recipe will come soon! Hope you liked the sketch too - it's been a while, and I'm hoping to include more, as they're a fun way of making my blog a little different. We'll see...

I'm tired after bizarre sleeping patterns to and from a lovely wedding in Northern Ireland. Still got almost all my packing to do, and am moving house on Saturday... fun fun! So I'll leave you with some photos from the trip Colin and I took up to Yorkshire and Derbyshire a little while ago.

Col chose Yorkshire (not sure what prompted this, but good choice Cogs) and I decided it was too far to drive from Somerset, so we stopped in Derbyshire first. And we stayed at lots of beautiful Youth Hostels - this is the path which led out behind the first one, Ravenstor. Apparently it's where David Bellamy first developed a love of wild flowers.

We had competitions over who could take the best stairs shot... but since Col's isn't here, you can't be the judge.

Mum and Dad had bought us National Trust membership (thanks OV and OVW!) and the first we visited was Ilam Hall.

The place I was most excited about visiting was Chatsworth, recent home of Debo Mitford aka the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. The house was kind of dark and broodingly handsome (so like me, naturallement) and then the gardens were simply gorgeous. I could have stayed in them for hours and hours, but Col was waiting in the car park - owing to his irrational hatred of all things Mitford, and all things costing £9.50.

The other highlight, once we were up in Yorkshire, was of course Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage. Although I'm not an obsessive Bronte fan (and, unusually, Anne is my favourite) it still felt wonderful to be there. Even with a group of thirty schoolchildren wandering around after us, their teacher hovering outside each room we were in, saying "No, you can't go in yet, the room is not empty yet."

But Anne, Charlotte and Emily are not all that Haworth has to offer - they have a working steam train! I'm not a trainspotter, but still harbour a love for steam trains which probably dates to loving the Railway Children - which was filmed along this line. Here is Colin, enjoying the only first class carriage we're ever likely to occupy.

One day we decided to visit four National Trust properties... they included the stunning Rievaulx Terrace and Temples (first pic) and a ruin, the name of which eludes me for the moment (second and third pics).

Finally, a view of the dramatic scenery that surrounded us:

Wish me luck with moving, and hopefully I'll find some time to put together a Weekend Miscellany... then I might be quiet for a bit, depending on whether or not we get internet sorted out at the new house quickly...

Tuesday 27 July 2010


First things first... yesterday I made this:

Mmmm... Apricot Meringue Gateau. With fancy caramelised shapes on top. Let me know if you want me to blog the recipe... it's usually book-chat here, but I'm happy to diversify if you want to feast on this! I took it to a dinner party, and we demolished it... and it was rather nice, though I says it as shouldn't. (Oh, and whilst I'm on the topic of baking - I made a chocolate sponge cake the other day, but used muscovado and demerara sugar instead of caster or granulated - can I recommend it? So yummy.)

Back to bakig matters... I mentioned, in the midst of my review yesterday, that John Carey's introduction to Wish Her Safe At Home was very good. It made me realise that it is probably the first critical introduction I've ever read that actually added something to the book. I've read lots from children or spouses or similar which enhance the work for personal or sentimental reasons, and some (like E.M. Delafield's introduction to Pont's The British Character) which are deliciously funny, but I can't remember any other more learned introductions which truly succeeded.

Of course - I doubt I'm alone here - I never read introductions or prefaces until I've finished the novel. Quite why publishers think it's acceptable to call something an 'introduction' which gives away the entire plot, I can't imagine. But once I've got to that last page, and flick back to the beginning... so often I'm left unmoved by what's written.

The usual seems to be a quick history of the author's life, and then a summary of the plot, with apposite quotations. Well, I don't need a summary of the plot, I've just read the book... I'd like to unveil things I might have missed, perhaps give a new angle on something. Of course, they're damned if they do and damned if they don't - the worst introduction I've ever read was Elaine Hedges' to The Yellow Wallpaper, which was nothing if not, ahem, 'original'. I.e. totally unsupported by the brilliant book. Check through the archives if you want to see me having an uncharacteristic rant (!!)

So... what are your thoughts on introductions? Do you read them first or last or not at all? Any really great ones which stick in your mind, or do you - like me - tend to be a bit disappointed? And are there any books you really wish *had* had an introduction, and didn't? (I wish the film Inception had an introduction...!)

Monday 26 July 2010

You're So Unreliable!

One of my holiday reads (yes, still working my way through reviewing those - it'll probably coincide with my next holiday by the time I finish with it) was Wish Her Safe At Home (1982) by Stephen Benatar. I heard about it from this article, reprinted in The Week. I've only just noticed it was written by the usually rather imbecilic Cosmo Landesman (Col and I find his film reviews very useful - you can guarantee that whatever he writes, the exact opposite will be true) - had I spotted Landesman's name on it before I wouldn't have proceeded. Glad I did! And, had that article not appeared on my horizon, Aarti's enthusiasm would surely have filtered through! To get an idea of how much she loves Wish Her Safe At Home, just think about me and Miss Hargreaves...

Benatar's novel made the press mostly because of his determination to give it a readership. That article elaborates on how he (very gently) approached people in various bookshops, suggesting they might like to read
Wish Her Safe At Home (and probably his other novels too). He also set up his own publisher to reprint his own novels. And it takes some gumption to approach Penguin Classics and suggest his own, moderately successful, novel should enter that hall of fame. They wanted an introduction from a notable name, John Carey was happy to oblige (if the name is familiar it might be because, like me, you've flicked through The Intellectuals and the Masses) - but Penguin still turned it down. The beautiful New York Review of Books Classics were, thankfully, more sensible - hence the novel's current incarnation.

So that's the story the newspapers enjoyed - man battles against odds; gritty determination rewarded. We Brits do love an underdog - but don't let any of that stand in the way of Wish Her Safe At Home being read on its own merits. It's worth remembering that it was shortlisted for the James Tait Memorial Prize (a better indication of a good book than the Man Booker Prize, I reckon). So let's get onto the story that really matters - the one within the pages of Wish Her Safe At Home.

Rachel Waring - who had once been 'almost pretty' - has inherited her great-aunt's Georgian mansion, and leaves her dull job and incompatible flatmate, having instantly fallen in love with the house when she visited it. Moving there hadn't been the plan, but its lure is such that she is immediately certain that she must:

The exterior of the house was beautiful. Terraced, tall, eighteenth-century, elegant. Oh, the stonework needed cleaning and the window frames required attention - as did the front door and half a dozen other things. But it was beautiful. I don't know why; I just hadn't been expecting this.
I always find the attraction of houses fascinating in novels. As someone who could happily spend all day staring at a beautiful home, who gazes into estate agents' windows at properties I could never possibly afford, and who regards Kirstie and Phil as something akin to surrogate parents... well, I can sympathise with Rachel thus far.

But that isn't all - the house has a plaque to Horatio Gavin, 'Philanthropist and politician', who had lived there 1781-1793. Rachel develops an interest in Gavin, and determines to find out more about him...

It's not just dead philanthropists who catch Rachel's interest. Indeed, more or less anybody she meets is considered a potential conversational partner, even if she is appraising and judging them at the same time. Benatar's skillful presentation of Rachel's voice gives her inner thoughts and outer expressions all tangled up with one another, and also fuses in the odd line here and there which show that neither are quite right... more on that later. First, here's an example of Rachel's lack of edit-button in her outbursts to anybody in close proximity...
"I think I should like to have been somebody's favourite aunt," I said. "I think it might have been fun." This, to the woman whose table at the teashop I had asked to share.

She smiled, hesitated, finally remarked: "Well, perhaps it's not too late."

"No brother no sister, no husband - somehow I get the feeling it might be!"

"Oh dear."

"Did you ever see Dear Brutus?"

"Dear Brutus? Yes! A lovely play."

"Wouldn't it be fine if we all had second chances?"

She nodded, now looking more relaxed. "Oh, I'd have gone to university and got myself an education!" I reflected that she probably needed one. "But otherwise I don't think I'd have wished things very different." She gave a meaningless laugh and started gathering up her novel and her magazine. Poor woman. What a lack of imagination. (And what a dull, appalling hat.) Yet I realised that I envied her.
It's not just strangers in cafes, though - Rachel becomes friendly with an assortment of local people, especially her youthful gardener and his wife, Roger and Celia. Their lives get increasingly tangled up, in the most cheerful and whimsical way imaginable... or so it seems.

For it quickly becomes apparent that Rachel is not a reliable narrator. Whenever this realisation dawns in a novel, I get a little shiver down my back - what to believe, what not to believe! At first she seems unhinged in a jolly way - singing to herself, accosting everyone with sunny optimism and faux-schoolma'am whimsy. She meanders along the line between being consciously eccentric and... something less healthy. She gets increasingly bizarre, and it becomes clear that she is not sane... As John Carey writes in his introduction, 'It reminds us how thin the boundaries are between the mad and the imaginative, the mad and the sensitive, the mad and the acute.' She becomes obsessed with Horatio Gavin, the philanthropist who'd once lived in her house. We can no longer trust her version of the events she narrates - but second-guessing the truth is a twisting and turning game, written with excellent subtlety by Benatar. So much cleverer, so much better than The Behaviour of Moths, which tried something similar.

And Rachel's is truly a unique voice. Witty and biting and joyous and enthusiastic and... yes, rather unhinged. Whether or not it is convincingly female is another question - I don't mean feminine, for a female's voice needn't be feminine, but somehow it seemed as though it might not be a million miles away from Benatar's own voice - though presumably his is rather tempered! That aside, Wish Her Safe At Home is quite extraordinary, and would certainly bear a careful re-reading. It's not remotely the sort of novel I was expecting from the cover, or even from the blurb. I was expecting a novel which felt much older - this novel is unmistakably modern. Not through expletives or slang or modern references, but perhaps in tone. [Edit: I think what I actually meant, having read Aarti's comments and reassessed, is that the novel felt timeless. When I said 'unmistakably modern' I meant it obviously wasn't a 1940s reprint, in the way that The Little Stranger could have been - this novel could have taken place at any time, and it takes a while to work out when it is set.] And yet it combines this with a sense of history, and a charm which is uncommon in post-war novels. It's an extraordinary read, and I am glad that Benatar's persistence and determination paid off.

It shouldn't be unusual, but John Carey writes an unusually good Introduction. Not unusual for him, I mean, just unusual in general. I've now used the word 'unusual' so often that it has lost all meaning... Aside from some lazy anti-Christianity, Carey writes insightfully and with an eye that is both analytical and appreciative. More on that topic tomorrow, methinks...

Do let me know if there are any unreliable narrators I should meet (although don't let me know if their unreliability is a huge spoiler for the book!)

Books to get Stuck into:

To be honest, this most reminded me of the book I read immediately beforehand -
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters - because of the influence of a house, etc. etc. Instead, I'll pick a couple novels with unreliable narrators, which is always an interesting angle...
Prince Rupert's Teardrop by Lisa Glass
- ok, being honest, this book was far too gruesome for me to enjoy - but it's also the best and most unnerving unreliable narrator I've encountered.

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth - and this is the next most unnerving! The tale of a scarily obsessive neighbour... but told from the perspective of that self-deluded neighbour. Very clever, and decidedly gripping.

Sunday 25 July 2010

That Book

A couple of friends and I went and saw Private Lives by Noel Coward this evening, in the open air at Wadham College. Very good, and very funny. Perhaps not quite as good as the student version I saw six years ago, which us
ed physical comedy better than I've ever seen it done before or since, but you can't fault Coward's acerbic lines. All good fun, if you're in the Oxford area I recommend you try and see it. And a plot that is very like A.A. Milne's play The Dover Road. Which, I might add, came first by nine years.

And then I've spent the rest of the evening packing up boxes of books, in preparation for moving across Oxford at the end of the week. Only a few minutes away, but that doesn't make much odds when it comes to getting all the books off every surface, and filling boxes... my bookcases are looking very bare, but the floor and my bedside table still hold more books than the average family owns, I should imagine.

A few have been kept out deliberately, of course. To read in between packing and moving, more especially to accompany me to and from Northern Ireland this week. One of which is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. My book group is reading it this month, and I wasn't remotely interested in reading it, because of all the hype - but a few people said it was good, so I decided to overcome my prejudices and give it a go.

Anybody read it? And do you have the same instinct I have to avoid things that have been hugely hyped? Then again, I know a few people who have avoided Harry Potter for that reason, and they're missing something of a treat.

Sorry for a short post - I have kept out a few other books to review, but not sure how much energy I'm going to have to do it in between packaging up my belongings... and here's hoping the internet behaves at our new residence!

Let me know your thoughts on the Steig Larsson, and hyped books generally. And are there any uber-popular books I've been missing out on because of my prejudice? (I've been scarred for life by giving The Da Vinci Code a try.... eurgh, makes me feel dirty).

Saturday 24 July 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

All those book reviews I promised you... well, we've had one or two, still more to come next week - during which I'll be off to Northern Ireland, and at the end of which I'll be moving house. But I'll try and prepare some posts to appear during the week... But, without further ado, let's have a book, a blog post, and a link.

No, wait, we will have further ado. I thought you'd like to know that Jane Austen Poll seems to be working now, and has accrued 125 votes so far (wow!) with Pride and Prejudice an unsurprising winner. Next up is Persuasion, then Emma, then 'Don't make me choose! It isn't fair!' My own favourite, Sense and Sensibility, is limping in at fifth...

AND - I promised you a winner for the Tove Jansson book! It's a bit buried in this colourful Miscellany, I'll put the winner in capitals... Using a randomiserthingummy (because it's too hot for Patch to do anything but lie down and flop his ears) the winner of Travelling Light by Tove Jansson is....


So Tove will be travelling off to Sri Lanka. Email me your address, Mystica, and I'll get it in the post to you.

1.) The blog post - I don't think I've ever had such an easy choice for blog post as this week. True, I did link to a few days ago, but whoever said you could have too much of a good thing? (Oh. Oh, right.) Here's a link to Rachel aka Book Snob's lovely musings on she and Jane Austen - basically it says everything you've been thinking about JA if you're a Janeite - and, for good measure, here's a rather funny post about falling off the book-abstinence wagon. Snarf.

2.) The book - I'm cheating on all counts this weekend. Not only was my blog post really blog posts, my book is going to be books. Many books. Because for some reason I've only just discovered (or at least only just remembered, if I'd forgotten) that Dodo Press have reprinted oodles of A.A. Milne's books. Mostly the early whimsical sketches and things - including, pictured, Once A Week which I've just re-read - but also some plays. I don't own any Dodo books, can anyone else comment on their quality? They also, quite bizarrely, don't have a website - here is a link to their Milne reprints on Book Depository. That includes a James Milne, by the way...

3.) The link - I thought I'd draw your attention to a new link I've added to my Places of B
eauty section, down in the left-hand column. It's Photo Books from a company called Bags of Love. Usually I turn down advertising offers, but this one really appealed to me - and I included it on its own merits. Yes, they have sent me a lovely photo canvas to say thank you, but this is the first company's offer I've accepted - I think their photo books and other photo-ideas would make lovely gifts... and my birthday's in November. Just saying ;-)

Thursday 22 July 2010

More Saki

After all the kerfuffle with comments earlier (and in the wake of my failure!) I have resorted to another taste of Saki:

The Story-Teller

IT was a hot afternoon, and the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry, and the next stop was at Templecombe, nearly an hour ahead. The occupants of the carriage were a small girl, and a smaller girl, and a small boy. An aunt belonging to the children occupied one corner seat, and the further corner seat on the opposite side was occupied by a bachelor who was a stranger to their party, but the small girls and the small boy emphatically occupied the compartment. Both the aunt and the children were conversational in a limited, persistent way, reminding one of the attentions of a housefly that refuses to be discouraged. Most of the aunt's remarks seemed to begin with "Don't," and nearly all of the children's remarks began with "Why?" The bachelor said nothing out loud. "Don't, Cyril, don't," exclaimed the aunt, as the small boy began smacking the cushions of the seat, producing a cloud of dust at each blow.

"Come and look out of the window," she added.

The child moved reluctantly to the window. "Why are those sheep being driven out of that field?" he asked.

"I expect they are being driven to another field where there is more grass," said the aunt weakly.

"But there is lots of grass in that field," protested the boy; "there's nothing else but grass there. Aunt, there's lots of grass in that field."

"Perhaps the grass in the other field is better," suggested the aunt fatuously.

"Why is it better?" came the swift, inevitable question.

"Oh, look at those cows!" exclaimed the aunt. Nearly every field along the line had contained cows or bullocks, but she spoke as though she were drawing attention to a rarity.

"Why is the grass in the other field better?" persisted Cyril.

The frown on the bachelor's face was deepening to a scowl. He was a hard, unsympathetic man, the aunt decided in her mind. She was utterly unable to come to any satisfactory decision about the grass in the other field.

The smaller girl created a diversion by beginning to recite "On the Road to Mandalay." She only knew the first line, but she put her limited knowledge to the fullest possible use. She repeated the line over and over again in a dreamy but resolute and very audible voice; it seemed to the bachelor as though some one had had a bet with her that she could not repeat the line aloud two thousand times without stopping. Whoever it was who had made the wager was likely to lose his bet.

"Come over here and listen to a story," said the aunt, when the bachelor had looked twice at her and once at the communication cord.

The children moved listlessly towards the aunt's end of the carriage. Evidently her reputation as a story- teller did not rank high in their estimation.

In a low, confidential voice, interrupted at frequent intervals by loud, petulant questionings from her listeners, she began an unenterprising and deplorably uninteresting story about a little girl who was good, and made friends with every one on account of her goodness, and was finally saved from a mad bull by a number of rescuers who admired her moral character.

"Wouldn't they have saved her if she hadn't been good?" demanded the bigger of the small girls. It was exactly the question that the bachelor had wanted to ask.

"Well, yes," admitted the aunt lamely, "but I don't think they would have run quite so fast to her help if they had not liked her so much."

"It's the stupidest story I've ever heard," said the bigger of the small girls, with immense conviction.

"I didn't listen after the first bit, it was so stupid," said Cyril.

The smaller girl made no actual comment on the story, but she had long ago recommenced a murmured repetition of her favourite line.

"You don't seem to be a success as a story-teller," said the bachelor suddenly from his corner.

The aunt bristled in instant defence at this unexpected attack.

"It's a very difficult thing to tell stories that children can both understand and appreciate," she said stiffly.

"I don't agree with you," said the bachelor.

"Perhaps you would like to tell them a story," was the aunt's retort.

"Tell us a story," demanded the bigger of the small girls.

"Once upon a time," began the bachelor, "there was a little girl called Bertha, who was extra-ordinarily good."

The children's momentarily-aroused interest began at once to flicker; all stories seemed dreadfully alike, no matter who told them.

"She did all that she was told, she was always truthful, she kept her clothes clean, ate milk puddings as though they were jam tarts, learned her lessons perfectly, and was polite in her manners."

"Was she pretty?" asked the bigger of the small girls.

"Not as pretty as any of you," said the bachelor, "but she was horribly good."

There was a wave of reaction in favour of the story; the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt's tales of infant life.

"She was so good," continued the bachelor, "that she won several medals for goodness, which she always wore, pinned on to her dress. There was a medal for obedience, another medal for punctuality, and a third for good behaviour. They were large metal medals and they clicked against one another as she walked. No other child in the town where she lived had as many as three medals, so everybody knew that she must be an extra good child."

"Horribly good," quoted Cyril.

"Everybody talked about her goodness, and the Prince of the country got to hear about it, and he said that as she was so very good she might be allowed once a week to walk in his park, which was just outside the town. It was a beautiful park, and no children were ever allowed in it, so it was a great honour for Bertha to be allowed to go there."

"Were there any sheep in the park?" demanded Cyril.

"No;" said the bachelor, "there were no sheep."

"Why weren't there any sheep?" came the inevitable question arising out of that answer.

The aunt permitted herself a smile, which might almost have been described as a grin.

"There were no sheep in the park," said the bachelor, "because the Prince's mother had once had a dream that her son would either be killed by a sheep or else by a clock falling on him. For that reason the Prince never kept a sheep in his park or a clock in his palace."

The aunt suppressed a gasp of admiration.

"Was the Prince killed by a sheep or by a clock?" asked Cyril.

"He is still alive, so we can't tell whether the dream will come true," said the bachelor unconcernedly; "anyway, there were no sheep in the park, but there were lots of little pigs running all over the place."

"What colour were they?"

"Black with white faces, white with black spots, black all over, grey with white patches, and some were white all over."

The storyteller paused to let a full idea of the park's treasures sink into the children's imaginations; then he resumed:

"Bertha was rather sorry to find that there were no flowers in the park. She had promised her aunts, with tears in her eyes, that she would not pick any of the kind Prince's flowers, and she had meant to keep her promise, so of course it made her feel silly to find that there were no flowers to pick."

"Why weren't there any flowers?"

"Because the pigs had eaten them all," said the bachelor promptly. "The gardeners had told the Prince that you couldn't have pigs and flowers, so he decided to have pigs and no flowers."

There was a murmur of approval at the excellence of the Prince's decision; so many people would have decided the other way.

"There were lots of other delightful things in the park. There were ponds with gold and blue and green fish in them, and trees with beautiful parrots that said clever things at a moment's notice, and humming birds that hummed all the popular tunes of the day. Bertha walked up and down and enjoyed herself immensely, and thought to herself: 'If I were not so extraordinarily good I should not have been allowed to come into this beautiful park and enjoy all that there is to be seen in it,' and her three medals clinked against one another as she walked and helped to remind her how very good she really was. Just then an enormous wolf came prowling into the park to see if it could catch a fat little pig for its supper."

"What colour was it?" asked the children, amid an immediate quickening of interest.

"Mud-colour all over, with a black tongue and pale grey eyes that gleamed with unspeakable ferocity. The first thing that it saw in the park was Bertha; her pinafore was so spotlessly white and clean that it could be seen from a great distance. Bertha saw the wolf and saw that it was stealing towards her, and she began to wish that she had never been allowed to come into the park. She ran as hard as she could, and the wolf came after her with huge leaps and bounds. She managed to reach a shrubbery of myrtle bushes and she hid herself in one of the thickest of the bushes. The wolf came sniffing among the branches, its black tongue lolling out of its mouth and its pale grey eyes glaring with rage. Bertha was terribly frightened, and thought to herself: 'If I had not been so extraordinarily good I should have been safe in the town at this moment.' However, the scent of the myrtle was so strong that the wolf could not sniff out where Bertha was hiding, and the bushes were so thick that he might have hunted about in them for a long time without catching sight of her, so he thought he might as well go off and catch a little pig instead. Bertha was trembling very much at having the wolf prowling and sniffing so near her, and as she trembled the medal for obedience clinked against the medals for good conduct and punctuality. The wolf was just moving away when he heard the sound of the medals clinking and stopped to listen; they clinked again in a bush quite near him. He dashed into the bush, his pale grey eyes gleaming with ferocity and triumph, and dragged Bertha out and devoured her to the last morsel. All that was left of her were her shoes, bits of clothing, and the three medals for goodness."

"Were any of the little pigs killed?"

"No, they all escaped."

"The story began badly," said the smaller of the small girls, "but it had a beautiful ending."

"It is the most beautiful story that I ever heard," said the bigger of the small girls, with immense decision.

"It is the ONLY beautiful story I have ever heard," said Cyril.

A dissentient opinion came from the aunt.

"A most improper story to tell to young children! You have undermined the effect of years of careful teaching."

"At any rate," said the bachelor, collecting his belongings preparatory to leaving the carriage, "I kept them quiet for ten minutes, which was more than you were able to do."

"Unhappy woman!" he observed to himself as he walked down the platform of Templecombe station; "for the next six months or so those children will assail her in public with demands for an improper story!"

Comments Redux

Well, I've tried all sorts of things with comments today and none of them worked properly, so we're back to the status quo! Apologies if you've tried to read my blog today and it's all been misbehaving. If anyone could point me in the direction of HTML which allows you to reply to individual comments (i.e. have threads in the comments) which isn't intensedebate, Disqus, or JS-Kit (none of which worked properly for me) then let me know!

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Bloomsbury is Back!

Thanks for your votes on the impromptu Jane Austen poll, still not sure if the poll is itself working, so do pop your favourite JA novel in the comments too. And still a bit of time to get your hands on a copy of Travelling Light by Tove Jansson here - I (or Patch) will do the draw for the Weekend Miscellany.

Today - and I can't believe it's taken me this long, given how very excited I am about this - we'll be turning our attention to the latest Bloomsbury Group titles! If you've been living under a rock for a year, then perhaps you aren't familiar with this group of early-20th century reprints, including the oh-so-wonderful Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker.

Well, there are now a further four books in the series, with a rather exciting and bright aesthetic that I love. And the return of Penelope Beech's brilliant cover illustrations - that gal is jus too darn talented. Here are those four....

Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys
Everyone raved about Henrietta's War, myself included, and so we're delighted to see Bloomsbury reprint the second volume. I'd love to see them do more and more Joyce Dennys...

Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris by Paul Gallico
I've had this on my shelves for ages - but a lovely Bloomsbury Group reprint is just the catalyst I need to move it up the pile. A charlady saves up to travel to Paris, and a Cinderella story begins... (Also has one of the sequels included)

Mrs. Ames by E.F. Benson
You know how much I love Mr. Benson, and this one comes with the seal of approval from Elaine at Random Jottings. The blurb starts 'Reigning over a social merry-go-round of dinners and parties...' and I just know the pen which crafted Mapp and Lucia has provided another gem.

Let's Kill Uncle by Rohan O'Grady
What a great title! An orphan goes to stay with his uncle, and is sure that his uncle intends to kill him... and wants to get in first. Dastardly!

I'm so excited about this continuing publishing venture - and I hope you are too. Which of these are you most looking forward to? And what would you like to see in the future?

I amuse myself sometimes by thinking what I'd include in my own reprint publishing company in thirty or forty years' time... I suppose my 50 Books You Must Read! (Dad pointed out that none have been added since last October.. oops! I'll have to wrack my brains...)

Tuesday 20 July 2010

An Austen poll...

Time for a little poll, methinks - and what better question to ask?
(sorry, for some reason it cut off the beginning of Sense and Sensibility and I can't change it now!)

EDIT: for some reason the poll doesn't seem to work, votes keep appearing and disappearing, so make sure you've put your answer in the comments instead!

Which Jane Austen novel is your favourite?

Monday 19 July 2010

Speaking of Jane

The book I'm talking about tonight is one of those lovely books which just doesn't seem to be written anymore. I bought it in Colchester as one of my first books under Project 24, and it's as lovely as it looks and sounds: More Talk of Jane Austen (1950) by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern.

Now, of course, I've done things in slightly the wrong order, because I've not read Speaking of Jane Austen, the volume preceding this one. Nor, in fact, have I read anything by Kaye-Smith or Stern, though Stern's A Name to Conjure With has been on my bookshelf for about a decade. But no matter - for anyone who has read Austen's novels (and it is important that you've read all six before opening this book) More Talk of Jane Austen is delicious, self-indulgent fun.

The first chapter is called 'What is it about Jane Austen?' I don't know if the scenario is real or imagined, but the question is posed by Barbara (age 17 and a half) to G.B. Stern, as Barbara's beloved is mad on Austen: '"It's his thing." And Barbara added, being a tolerant girl: "Nobody can help their thing."' Of course, the same misconceptions Barbara has are those which fly about nowadays - that she's for 'maiden aunts in drawing-rooms' and so forth. And naturally Stern disabuses her - excuse the lengthy passage, but it's too lovely not to quote in full.
"She's neither bitty nor boisterous about her people; instead, she has irony, tenderness, clear vision, and most of all a gorgeous sense of their absurdity which is never really exaggerated into more than life-size. You're absurd, I'm absurd, and so in some way or other are most of the people we meet. She does not have to distort or magnify what they're like; she just recognises them, delights in them herself, and then re-creates them for our benefit without illusion or grandiloquence, and without any array of special circumstance, of drama, for instance, or horror, or even topical events of the day; luckily for her and for us, to leave them out was natural and not forced for her period, unless you were a gentleman actively involved in war and politics and religion and the struggle for existence; at her period you could be one of an isolated group living in the same country neighbourhood in England, without in any way meriting the reproach of escapism. Escape need have no 'ism' when we escape into Jane Austen; and when we have to return there's no wrench, no jolt, no descent from the aeroplane, no bump back to life with a shock, no subsequent daze and resentment; it's escape from our reality into her reality, and we can fuse our world with hers which is curiously and essentially 'unrubbishy'. So there they are, her characters, concentrated for our benefit into a small circle of time and space, deliciously giving themselves away not only in action but by the smallest working of their motives and pre-occupations; absolutely unaware, of course, that anyone is catching them out at it. It's no crime to be a lover of Jane Austen; but if you aren't, you can't understand why we find her so restful, because you're much too inclined to translate 'restful' into 'soporific'; if we just wanted an author who would send us nicely to sleep, we should not go to Jane Austen; she's restful from exactly the opposite reason: we're alert all the time when we're reading and re-reading and re-re-reading Jane, otherwise we might miss something, some tiny exquisite detail, an almost imperceptible movement in the mind of her characters. Her poise is unassailable; you can trust it, and that's restful in itself. The same with her judgments; you can trust them, and relax; mind you, to be able to relax wit an author isn't the same thing again as to say she's relaxing; the air of Bath is relaxing, but the air of Jane Austen isn't; she's pungent, she's bracing; you're breathing good air while you read Jane, and so you feel well. Apart from her gorgeous sense of humour, her vision is so fairly and evenly adjusted that you don't have to get distracted all the time by the author's own prejudices and neuroses subconsciously creeping in to distort the whole thing, and having to make allowances for environment ---"

"Darling, do you think you could stop talking like a handbook on psycho-analysis? Because if it's just to please me ---"

"Dear little girl, I'd forgotten for the moment that you were there."

That should be required reading for any Jane doubters. In truth, the rest of the book doesn't really have this tone - it's not done 'in conversation with' anyone. Stern and Kaye-Smith take alternate chapters, and address topics like letters, beauty, servants etc. etc. It is well-researched but not unduly scholarly - More Talk of Jane Austen can only be described as an appreciation. There isn't a hint of objectivity, nor would I have there be: this is the unashamed indulgence of Janeites keen to delve into every detail of Austen's novels. Not with the mad (and maddening) conspiracy theories or secret-subtext theories so beloved of Edward Said and his chums, but a simple gleaning of all the details Jane Austen actually put in the novels.

The book never feels over-zealous or superfluous - perhaps it would, were they examining any lesser writer than Austen. Or perhaps, as a Janeite, I cannot see clearly - for I revelled in this delight of a book, and only wonder why such things seem to be so out of fashion. Or, perhaps, they've just transferred to the blogosphere?

ETA: after posting this, I saw Rachel's abundantly lovely Janeite post here - transferred to the blogosphere indeed!

Things to get Stuck into:

Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill: unquestionably my favourite book-about-books, even if Jane Austen gets short shrift within these pages (everyone has their faults).

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma - Diana Birchall: one must tread carefully when it comes to Austen sequels - but Diana Birchall's witty and loving sequel is very respectful and an entire delight.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Stranger and stranger...

One of the fun side-effects of Project 24 (although not as frequent as I'd hoped it would be) has been reading books which have lain neglected on my bookshelves for quite a while. And one of those was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, lent to me by lovely Curzon a long, long time ago... (and which has now become #14 on Project 24, because I accidentally tore some pages, and bought Curzon a replacement copy, keeping the original... oops! Not my usual style, promise.) It seemed the perfect sort of thing to take away with me on holiday, staying in rambling old houses converted into Youth Hostels. I read most of it in Grinton Lodge Youth Hostel, which looks like this:

So - atmosphere: check.

Everyone in the blogosphere seemed to be reading The Little Stranger around the time I was on holiday last year. I, on the other hand, was reading things by Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Janni Visman... well, better late than never. Still, there must be one or two people who are later than me in reading The Little Stranger, so I won't assume universal knowledge...

Waters, who made her name with Victorian novels (including the only I'd previously read: Affinity) has been moving steadily nearer the present, and The Little Stranger is set just after World War Two. All except the first scene, which is much earlier - the protagonist is a little boy being snuck into Hundreds Hall by his mother, who is a servant there. He loves the house, and wants to take a souvenir - hacking a plaster acorn from a corridor. From little acorns...

Next we see, the little boy has become Dr. Faraday and is heading out to Hundreds Hall because the (now sole) servant Betty is complaining of illness. Turns out she just wants to get away from the house for a bit - because she senses things are wrong. Quite how they're wrong, she doesn't specify; but something is wrong. But this incident leads Faraday to an increasingly close intimacy with the family - plain, unmarried Caroline; her brother Roderick who is recovering from a nasty war injury, and their dignified mother, simply Mrs. Ayres. Faraday is excited about being able to visit a house he has admired since childhood, and Hundreds Hall is certainly a powerful presence in the novel. Its former glory, and its current decay, are realised wonderfully by Waters. It's something of a truism to say that 'the house is itself a character', but you have to take your hat off to Waters' ability to invest Hundreds Hall with this power without it becoming a caricature of Gothic literature. The house remains comfort and terror; mystery and simplicity; homely and unhomely.

For soon Betty's claims that something's wrong seem to be true. A party is held (Mrs. Ayres' is trying to set up Caroline with a neighbouring bachelor) where a young girl is savaged by Caroline's usually docile dog. At the same time, Roderick is experiencing ghostly goings-on in his bedroom...

I'm not going to spoil the ensuing events, but suffice it to say there appears to be a 'little stranger' creating all sort of havoc for the Ayres family. Since The Little Stranger is narrated by Faraday, we often aren't 'present' for the events, but Waters does a simply brilliant job of relaying them later (usually a big no-no for writers) without losing the tension. And this is quite a scary book. I've not read many scary books since my Point Horror phase, and perhaps a slightly creepy old Youth Hostel wasn't the best place to read this novel... I was a little scared to close my eyes.

Waters has suggested that The Little Stranger is primarily about class issues - as Faraday rises from the servant's son to a family friend, and can't get over some of his lingering resentment; similarly, the grounds of Hundreds Hall are being sold off to modern estates. Waters has even said that the ghost story element was a later addition. I'm glad she did, because novels which centre around class issues can be very tiresome if not done well, especially if they're retrospective. I prefer contemporary novels ('contemporary' is such a frustrating phrase... I mean contemporary-to-the-period-described, rather than contemporary-meaning-modern) which don't feel the need to hammer home how awful middle-class pretensions were, or throw their hands up in horror at the idea of servants. Waters doesn't fall into this trap, but I fear she'd have been nearer to it had the ghost-story element not crossed her mind.

For the most part, The Little Stranger was brilliant. You know me and long books, but I read this in two or three days; got up early to finish it, etc. etc. Waters' writing is pacy and compelling without sacrificing style, and I am really keen to read more by her. True, there was a little bit of a drag between p.100 and p.200, but only a little - and the second half of the novel flew by.

And then... the ending. Which I obviously don't want to discuss in detail. Close your eyes and sing la-la-la if you don't want even the remotest spoilers, but... I was disappointed and confused in about equal measure. And I shan't say more than that. I just wish Waters had given the novel a different sort of ending - if she had, then A Little Stranger could have been one of my favourite novels of the year, possibly the favourite. As it is, it might make top ten, but only just. Possibly very clever and cunning, but... disappointing.

More or less everyone seems to have reviewed this, so I suggest you do what I did and search for it in Fyrefly's incredibly useful Blog Search Engine. But I will point you to this excellent discussion on Shelf Love: be warned, it is spoilerific.

Books to get Stuck into:

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier: Curzon reminded me how appropriate this would be as a companion read, and it's the book I *always* recommend to people when they ask for reading ideas. And it's Simon S's favourite novel! No review on Siab yet... but see Simon S's enthusiasm here.

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson: my favourite American writer is definitely the Gothic side of horror, and rarely has the power of the house been drawn so chillingly or convincingly.

Friday 16 July 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hello there, hope all is well with you. Doesn't the Weekend Miscellany tone get all jovial? How will you be spending your weekend? I'm off to Kent for a wedding on Saturday, and on Sunday will be trying to cook cottage pie for fifty (with two able assistants) despite never having made cottage pie before. I panic a little bit when having to cook meat, but mince being quite similar to veggie mince, I thought I could probably manage it...

There are all sorts of book reviews to come next week, should I get the wakefulness to write them (and not just watch all the episodes of Neighbours I missed last week) including the bulk of my holiday reading. Quite a few gems to chat about, so look forward to that... and do keep on entering the draw for Tove Jansson's Travelling Light - I'll pick a winner sometime next week. Now, if you're sitting comfortably, we'll have a book, a blog post, and a link.

1.) The blog post - isn't it exciting and lovely when you come across a blogger whose voice and taste you really appreciate? Well, I followed a comment from Nick C to his blog a pile of leaves, and hit that sort of goldmine. I haven't felt this pleased about a new-to-me blog since I discovered Claire at Captive Reader! *And* it's a boy writing a blog who doesn't share one of my names... Simon and Thomas being my two favourite male bloggers. All a big preamble to this blog post. In a sense, it could have been any - but this represents the nice rambly nature of the blog, and ties in with yesterday's post on S-i-a-b.

2.) The link - just call me Cheaty Cheaterson (but wait - our family motto was 'Thomases don't cheat'. Did your family have a motto?) but my link is from Nick's blog too. Get your coveting hat on, because you're going to need it when you see this link and, behind the scenes, this one. They're about something called The Ark which is essentially a five-storey bookcase you can live in. Dribble...

3.) The book - is winging its way to me from Rosy Thornton, but I thought I'd give it a mention this weekend. She wrote a female version of the campus novel, Hearts and Minds, which I blogged about back here, as did lots of other bloggers. The Tapestry of Love is her newest book, is about a 40-something English woman who sells up and moves to France to be a seamstress! And it has a rather lovely cover, which never goes amiss.

Thursday 15 July 2010

A new Tove Jansson!

Right on the heels of Project 24's #12 comes, in orthodox numerical ordering, #13. But this certainly isn't unlucky for me - I'm very excited about it. Someone send Silvester Mazzarella a box of chocolates and a hundred red roses for translating Travelling Light (and also a balloon shaped like a kitten for having such a brilliant name).

I think I've mentioned before that Tove Jansson is the only author (until Edward Carey picks up his pen again... c'mon, Eddie boy!) whose books I eagerly await. Or rather, since she is dead, I await the translations. Since all my favourite authors have completed their output, by virtue of completing their lives, this is quite an unfamiliar feeling for me...

So, yes, I did get rather over-excited. And I bought two copies - one for me; one for you. Pop your name in the comments for a chance to win my second copy. And, because it's always fun to have more than just a name, tell me which author's books you most eagerly wait to be published.

If you've missed out on Tove Jansson's earlier output, you can see my thoughts on four of her other books here. Travelling Light is a collection of short stories, and although (confusingly) there is a section in A Winter Book called 'Travelling Light', only one story appears in both collection (to add to the confusion, that story is called 'Travelling Light'). Jansson's prose is always beautiful and evocative without being remotely sentimental. She's up there amongst my favourite writers, and I can't wait to start this collection...

So, have a go and try to win this copy! I'm feeling generous, so the competition is open to anyone, wherever you are in the world.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Haworth provides

Project 24 - #12

Thank you, little lovely bookshop in Haworth, the name of which entirely escapes me - you have provided no.12 in Project 24! Susan cunningly spotted the number in the sidebar had gone up - and in fact it's gone up again. More to follow soon... and my impressive self control diminished.

The book in question is one Our Vicar's Wife won't be asking to borrow: A Compton-Burnett Compendium by Violet Powell, the same lady behind a biography of E.M. Delafield. And the second ICB-related book in Project 24, fact fans.

It sounds a bit like an omnibus or a compendium, doesn't it, but actually it seems to be one of those nearly-scholarly-mostly-appreciative books which are difficult to categorise but a delight to read. (In fact, watch out for a review of another one soon.) It has sections with admirably ICB-esque titles: 'Tyranny Breeds Contempt'; 'Parents and Possessors'; 'Resurrections has its Difficulties'. I presume they're quotations or something - there's a lot of ICB I haven't read. But I'll definitely enjoy dipping in and out of this, and it can also be a nice souvenir of Bronte-land - although what Charlotte and co would have made of Ivy, I can't begin to imagine.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Bloggers' Meet-Up Number Two!


Sorry if you're not able to get to the UK for September 25th, it must be annoying to hear about it across the Pond or wherever else you are in the world, but this is to announce that there will be another Book Bloggers' Meet-Up on Saturday September 25th in Oxford. Venue and time are tbc, but that should be enough info for now to let you know whether or not you can make it.

We'd love to see as many bloggers as can make it, whether you've been blogging for years or weeks! If you're interested, and haven't already received emails about it (everyone who emailed about the one in May *should* have been contacted) then let me know on - doesn't commit you to anything, of course.

And do pop all this info up on your own blogs, if you'd like to.


Monday 12 July 2010

There is Nothing Like A Dame

Hello there, I'm back from my trips! I'll have a rummage through my photographs at some point, and put some up for you to enjoy. Colin did *quite* well at preventing me from reading all the time, but I still managed to read quite a few books, including a mammoth one. And, being the contrary type, the first two I read weren't even on the list I made. The first was The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier, which I finished on the train down to Somerset, but the second was a definite read-it-on-a-whim book - usually the most fun. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie somehow leaped to the top of the tbr pile, despite not being anywhere in sight beforehand.

Although my reading is quite diverse now - well, quite diverse - it used to go in very focused swathes. Enid Blyton - Goosebumps - Point Horror - Sweet Valley High (ahem) - Agatha Christie - AA Milne - everything else. When I was on the trail of an author or series, I read very little else for a long time. And, as you can see, Agatha Christie was one of them - and back in about 1999-2001 I read lots and lots by the Mistress of Mystery, the Empress of Enigmas, the Doyenne of Detectives... feel free to come up with your own.

Somehow it had been five and a half years since I last read a Christie novel (that one being At Bertram's Hotel) and I had a sudden hankering for another. And it
seemed quite ridiculous that, having grown up in a vicarage, that I hadn't read The Murder in the Vicarage. So that was the one I pulled off the shelf and took on holiday.

I must add, before I go further, that I was spurred on by recent enthusiasm in Agatha's direction from Harriet and Simon S - so thank you both for helping me revisit the Dame!

The Murder at the Vicarage is the first novel featuring Miss Marple (although she had previously popped up in a short story, my resident Christie-expert [Colin] tells me) and is narrated by the vicar whose home is unfortunately the scene of said murder. I won't go through all the various characters and connections, because they're much the same as any Christie novel. I don't mean they're stereotypes, but rather that they have complex relationships; secrets and lies; affinities and enmities - all the usual, delicious ingredients for a proper murder mystery.

All of that I was expecting. What I wasn't expecting, what I had somehow either forgotten or never noticed, was how funny Christie is. The problems the vicar and his wife have with their servant are written so amusingly, I laughed out loud a few times. She also has the drifting 'oh gosh how we simply shrieked' type down pat too. Annoyingly I've left the book at home, so I can't quote sections to you... so you'll have to take my word for it.

I only had two problems with The Murder at the Vicarage. Firstly, I wasn't bowled over by the solution - Dame A can sometimes write such brilliant denouements, that this one didn't quite live up to her genius for plot. Secondly, although Miss Marple's first novel, she didn't feature very much, and I mourned her absence because I love Jane Marple. Her character hadn't quite settled down to the Miss M we know and love, but her interest in 'human nature', and her catalogue of seemingly unrelated anecdotes to help her deduce - they were present and correct. I just wanted more of her in the novel.

But I imagine there are quite a few of us in the same boat - we watch Christie adaptations on TV, and have read a fair few of her novels over the years, but maybe not for a while - and don't quite rate her as a good prose stylist or delineater of character, etc. I think it's worth looking again, and reinvestigating the Dame. I'm definitely glad I did.

Books to get Stuck into

To be honest, I've been pretty underwhelmed by some of the other Golden Age and pre-Golden Age detective fiction writers. In comparison to Christie's plots, they just seem a bit poor - Christie never springs surprises on you at the last minute; the clues are always there if you look closely enough. So I've picked a couple of my favourite Christies:

And Then There Were None
- my favourite, and Colin's favourite, even without Poirot or Marple or any detective at all - it's probably her cleverest story. Ten people are mysteriously invited to an island, and are even more mysteriously killed off one by one...

The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side
- a Miss Marple, with a simply brilliant plot, and a good one to get a feel for AC if - goodness me - you've not read one before.