Tuesday 31 August 2010

A quick chat with Ned Beauman

As promised, Ned Beauman has kindly answered some questions I sent him - I don't often do interviews here at Stuck-in-a-Book, mostly because my favourite authors are dead, but after reading Boxer, Beetle, I was keen to find out more... and since I'd already met Ned at an event put on by the lovely folk at Sceptre Press, I thought he wouldn't mind me asking. Over to you, Ned...

So, we were both born in 1985… but while I’m writing a little book blog, you’ve gone and got a rather good novel published. What am I doing wrong and what are you doing right?

My mother gives some credence to Malcolm Gladwell's theory that you have to practise something for ten thousand hours to get good at it. I've also heard somewhere that you have to write a million words before you write your first worthwhile sentence. I don't know, but I did spend most of my school holidays since I was very young trying to write novels, and I'm sure that helped a lot. At university I finished one called The Martyr Street Theatre Company which I couldn't find an agent for, but then I started on Boxer, Beetle, and Lutyens & Rubinstein took me on after reading the first half. I finished it, they sent it out, and I got an offer from Sceptre immediately. Acquaintances often say to me, “Ned, I heard you wrote a book, that's amazing,” which I think is the wrong way to consider it. The writing isn't the impressive thing. Any literate adult can (and should) write a novel if they're willing to put in the time. But finding myself (at least provisionally) in a position where I can write fiction full-time is a rare miracle for which I'm incredibly grateful.

Beetles, boxing and Nazis – on the face of it, not natural bedfellows. Did one of these come first, and the others follow, or were you always going to write about all three?

I was browsing the “Did you know...” section on Wikipedia when I came across a page about Anophthalmus hitleri (which is real) and a page about a nineteenth century Australian boxer who I won't name because many of the details of his life are spoilers for the book! It struck me that either one would make a terrific starting point for a novel, but then I realised I could save time by knocking them together. Most of the rest of the book emerged from trying to work out what those two things could possibly have in common.

How do you feel about the word ‘quirky’ being applied to the novel?

I think words like 'quirky' become useless unless you bind them to a relatively specific meaning. And so 'quirky', to me, means films like I Heart Huckabees which are so eager to be distinctive that they end up as totally anodyne. I'm sad to say there's probably a bit of that in my Claramore chapters, but it doesn't apply to the novel as a whole.

One of your central characters has trimethylaminuria, a genuine condition which causes the sufferer’s sweat, urine, and saliva to smell of rotting fish. How did you find out about trimethylaminuria, and why did you decide to use it?

Some friends of my ex-girlfriend's sister (try to keep track) had a kid who had trimethylaminuria. Novelists love physical externalisations of psychological traits because it means you can accomplish some of your early characterisation duties with nice straightforward visual description instead of a lot of abstract interior finessing which the reader can't picture. (Dickens does this better than anyone, of course, although a lot of writers might dismiss it as childish.) And trimethylaminuria is amazing because it's like a simple metaphor - 'I felt so rejected that I might as well have stunk of rotting fish' – made real. After I started the book there was a documentary about trimethylaminuria on BBC3, so I was worried it was suddenly going to be everywhere, but in fact almost nobody's heard of it and a lot of people assume I made it up.

How much research, in general, went into the novel, and how did you go about doing it?

A lot of research. I consulted about fifty or sixty books, and I was on Wikipedia every day. I'm privileged to be a member of the London Library in St. James' Square, without which writing Boxer, Beetle would have been impossible (or at least very expensive, or very time-consuming).

None of your characters are wholly likeable, and most of them are the opposite. Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach, for example, is more or less an unrepentantly selfish, cruel thug. Is ‘likeability’ something you think about when writing?

I disagree with that: Sinner's trainer, Sinner's sister, Evelyn's maid, and Evelyn's second husband (if you can remember who that is) are all good souls. But, yes, most of my protagonists are vile people, and I think this because the protagonist of any novel derives quite a lot from its author. I'm not saying Ned Beauman is necessarily a vile person, but the fact is that no one is wholly likeable to himself or herself. If she is (default use of female pronoun derived from my philosophy degree) she is either inhumanly self-satisfied or slightly mad. On the other hand, one of my models for this book was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and Chabon's protagonists are truly loveable. A novel with such sympathetic heroes should be a bit insipid, but it's not at all. I don't know how Chabon accomplished that. I would love to know.

Dull question, but needs to be asked - which authors have influenced you in your writing?

Limiting myself arbitrarily to ten: Ballard, DeLillo, Fitzgerald, Gibson, Greene, Nabokov, Pynchon, Updike, Waugh, Wodehouse. And also the criticism of James Wood, even though I disagree with the bulk of it.

Regular Stuck-in-a-Book readers will have noticed your surname, and put two-and-two together… yes, you are the son of Nicola Beauman, who runs blog-favourite Persephone Books. I’ll be shot if I don’t ask – what do you think of Persephone, and have you read many of their books?

Asking me what I think of Persephone is like asking me what I think of a brother or sister! Well: I love hanging out in the shop on Lambs Conduit Street, and of course I'm very proud of my mother for having accomplished it all, from scratch, almost single-handedly, without compromise – but if someone said to you, 'Of all the out-of-print books in the world, select the hundred that Ned would be least interested in reading', you couldn't really come up with a more accurate list than the Persephone catalogue. But my mother knows that and is perfectly happy about it; the line's not aimed at someone like me. The only ones I've read are the few that I've helped her proofread, although I do of course plan to read her Elizabeth Taylor biography.

We’re always interested about what’s on your to-be-read pile – what are you reading; what have you just finished; what’s up next?

I tend to juggle several books at a time, perhaps because the internet has destroyed my attention span. But recently I've finished Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky by Patrick Hamilton, I'm now mostly reading Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier is one of my favourite books), and I'm soon to start Exiled in Paradise by Anthony Heilbut.

And what’s next from Ned Beauman?

I'm about half-way through my second book, which is called The Teleportation Accident. It's (predominantly) 1930s again, and it's about an Expressionist set designer from Berlin. There is a clue to the plot in my previous answer.

Monday 30 August 2010

Box Clever

It's always exciting when you read something completely out of your comfort zone (if you should have such a thing) and you find that you absolutely love it. This happened to me months and months ago when I read Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman. Boxing, beetles, Nazis... none of these are on my hitlist of must-haves for books, and yet Beauman's novel is one of the most interesting and compelling that I've read this year. Sadly I didn't write my thoughts down at the time, and now that it's actually been published, I'm having to cast my mind far, far back to remember what I thought... with the help of Claire's review and Lynne's review! Sorry if I've missed others...

Boxer, Beetle flits back and forth between two time periods - in one, trimethylaminuria sufferer and Nazi-paraphernalia collector Kevin (also known as Fishy) is investigating the work of scientist Philip Erskine. Erskine occupies the other time period, in the 1930s, where he encounters Seth "Sinner" Roach. Sinner is a five foot tall Jewish man who, despite his stature, is incredibly good at boxing. Which catches the attention of a man interested in eugenics. Oh, and beetles. Hence the title - alongside investigating Sinner, and paying for the privilege of examining him over a period of time, Erskine is trying to develop a strain of very resilient beetles. As you do. Oh, before I go further, I have to mention the first line - which really grabbed me into the novel, as well as putting a smile on my face:

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels' forty-third birthday party.
Well, don't we all? I should add hear that Kevin isn't a Nazi sympathiser - nor, of course, is Ned. Kevin collects the memorabilia without having the slightest fascist leaning. Unlike quite a few of those roaming around 1930s London.

But East End London isn't the only place we see in the 1930s - Erskine whisks Sinner off to a country house, and the family of his fiance (I think... as I said, I read it a long time ago) Evelyn. Evelyn is a rather fab character, a composer of atonal, avant-garde music. She makes the mistake of asking Sinner whether he likes avant-garde music (remember, this is the working-class lad who likes beating people up, swearing and joining gangs):
"I'm quite sure you would," said Evelyn, "I can almost invariably tell." Evelyn was aware that she didn't compeltely convince when she made knowing remarks like this, especially to someone like Sinner with that gaze of his, but she didn't see how her repartee was supposed to gain any poise when she had absolutely nobody to practise on at home. If she tried to deliver a satirical barb at dinner her father would just stare at her until she wanted to cry. And Caroline Garlick's family were lovely but the trouble was they laughed rather too easily, rather than not at all - it wasn't quite the Algonquin Round Table. She was convinced that if she had been allowed to go to Paris she would have had lots of practice, and of course me lots of people like this boy, but as it was, if she ever met any genuine intellectuals - or any beyond their neighbour Alistair Thurlow - they would probably think she was hopelessly childish. For about a week she'd tried to take up heavy drinking, since heavy drinkers were so often reputed to be terrific conversationalists, but most of the time she just fell asleep.

This isn't, to be honest, the main tone of the novel. This humour, and this sort of almost Wodeshousian character, are drowned out by violence and antipathies and all sorts of terrifying things. Sinner is a pretty unremittingly horrible person. But Beauman's writing is so good, the pace so well judged, and the climax so dramatic that I couldn't help admiring this novel to the hilt.

It is difficult to get across my enjoyment of this, because I can't point to any of the characters or any aspects of the plot which appealed. If I were just to read a synopsis of Boxer, Beetle, I'd probably steer well clear. That's why I'm not going a 'Books to get Stuck into' feature today - I just can't think of anything along the same lines. So you'll just have to take my word for it, until you get your hands on the novel - Ned Beauman is a very talented writer, and if he can make this novel addictive for me, just imagine what he's capable of!

For more from Ned Beauman, pop back tomorrow - I'll be posting an interview he was kind enough to do with me... find out what inspired Boxer, Beetle, what Beauman's doing next, and a little about his famous mother...

Sunday 29 August 2010

Bank Holiday Baking!

Bank Holiday Monday is upon us, and I'm keen to get you all baking... especially across the Pond, because it was brought to my attention the other day that Americans don't have rock buns. Is this true? Or were my sources (one American and one Canadian) wrong? The rock bun - also known as the rock cake - is one of my favourite sweet things, and is the taste of summer for me. Our Vicar's Wife always made them in the summer holidays, you see. They look very simple - certainly couldn't be made to look fancy, however hard you tried - but have the most wonderful taste, a combination of flavours that I think is hard to beat.

I know a lot of my blog readers are much better bakers than me, so bear with me if you make these blind-folded everyday. As usual, with my recipes, I'm going to go back to basics - just so nobody is left behind.

With this recipe, you might well not have all the ingredients in the cupboard (see above) - especially if you don't bake that often - but PLEASE, I encourage you to go and get them, because rock buns are quick, really easy, and should be a staple in every kitchen, especially if you have children. And this is one where you can't miss out the different flavours - they all need to be in there. Here goes... (I should add that I've used this website to work out cup measurements - hope they're right!)

1.) Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6, and grease two baking trays. As I said last recipe, nobody EVER does this first, but... well, the option's there.

2.) Mix together 225g/8oz/1.75 cups of self-raising flour and a pinch of salt - and the Secret Ingredient. Well, it's not secret - but neither is it in the recipe book I have. Our Vicar's Wife uses this, and I think any rock bun without it would be sub-standard and barely worth eating! Ahem. Here it is:

Just pop a shake of Ground Mixed Spice in with the flour. You'll thank me later...

3.) Rub in 100g/4oz/half a cup of margarine - which does mean getting your hands messy, I'm afraid. You can try doing this with a wooden spoon, but it really won't work quite the same. Keep going until it's this sort of texture:

4.) Add in 50g/2oz/a quarter of a cup of demerara sugar, mixed peel, and currants. Wikipedia tells me that in the US demerara sugar is known as 'turbinado sugar', which I think is a hilarious name... The recipe can be done with regular caster sugar (which Wikipedia - isn't it useful? - tells me is 'superfine sugar' in the US) but demerara makes it *that* much yummier. Basically, use a brown sugar, crunchy if possible, but anything else you can lay your hands on will do.

I haven't given quantities for mixed peel and currants (you can use mixed fruit, if you can find bags of it, but sometimes these bags include cherries, and they wouldn't work at all) - it's very much to taste. Maybe a tablespoon of mixed peel, and two or three of currants? But it's definitely better to have too much of these than two little. Don't skimp on them! Oh, and I do hope tubs of mixed peel are available outside the UK...?

5.) Mix it to a stiff dough with an egg. You'll need to use your hands again - doing it with a spoon won't get the mixture to come together. You can add milk, if it won't make a dough with just an egg, but you shouldn't have to. It should look a bit like this...

6.) Put it in rough heaps on the baking tray, and put it in the oven for 10-15 minutes. This mixture should make about 16 rock buns. They'll go into the oven looking like this....

...and come out looking like this...

Unlike a lot of biscuits, they won't really change consistency when they come out of the oven. And they should be brown on top - better slightly overdone than underdone, as the crunch is nice.

Please give this a go, you (and your kids) will love them!

Friday 27 August 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hello there, hope you're all set to enjoy a Bank Holiday Weekend if you're in Britain - and hasn't the weather really made an effort? Ahem. Great answers on yesterday's post, keep 'em coming. And so many reviews and things to come next week - so many great books waiting for me to squeak about them! And Tara Books - I absolutely must talk about them this week. Watch this space...

) The blog post - is my very favouritest brother's. He's been reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf (as part of a deal - I have to read one of the Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan. Each one in the series is the size of a hill.) We both set off enthusiastically in March. I read 550 pages (HOW can that not be the whole of a book?) but have 200+ left - Col is staggering towards the end of Orlando, and I thought I'd share his review of it - which is here (entry for August 25th). I wholeheartedly disagree with it - but it serves as nice proof that twins do not have the same tastes. Oh, and I should say that Colin's blog is nearly seven years old, so twice as old as mine...

2.) The book - I like Gallic Books - because they're so friendly, because they link to Big Green Bookshop on their website, and (of course) because of their range of books. So I was pleased to see further innovation on their part - their book The Baker Str
eet Phantom by Fabrice Bourland (translated by Morag Young) is being offered as a complimentary copy to anyone who books into the Park Plaza Sherlock Holmes Hotel, on Baker Street in London, during September. The novel is set in 1930s London, and I love the ingenuity of the whole thing.

3.) The link - is staying with Gallic Press, and throwing another Stuck-in-a-Book favourite into the mix - Peirene Press. I do so love it when publishers cooperate with each other, and realise that the world should be a friendly, book-fuelled place... and Gallic Press have got on board with that idea, as exemplified by their series of posts called 'Publisher Spotlight'. This one interviews Meike, the doyenne of Peirene Press.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Third Time Lucky

My recent experiences - as documented this week - with Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh have led me to wonder about Third Time Lucky Syndrome. This is, of course, a syndrome I have entirely fabricated... Back in June 2007 (gosh, that makes me feel old) I made up Second Book Syndrome. Not the 'tricky second novel' for the author - but the tricky second novel for the reader. I.e., you've loved a novel by an author - and then the next one you read doesn't live up to your expectations. Not necessarily an I-hate-this-book situation, just something of a disappointment. I had it with Frank Baker, which has discouraged me from reading the backlog of Baker novels waiting for me, after Before I Go Hence was so much worse than Miss Hargreaves. I had the same experience with Edith Olivier, and probably other people... let me know if you've experienced Second Book Syndrome, with examples please.

But onto the topic for today - which is basically Second Book Syndrome in reverse. The first book you read by the author doesn't blow you away... but the second does. This was my experience with Penelope Fitzgerald (Human Voices = no; The Bookshop = genius) and Susan Hill (The Battle for Gullywith = did nothing for me; Howards End is on the Landing, The Beacon, In the Springtime of the Year = Hill becomes one of my favourite post-war writers). But - you perspicacious folk will have noticed - it's Third Time Lucky Syndrome we're talking about today. How likely is it that we'll - that you'll - read one unimpressive book, another unimpressive book, and then persevere onto the third? (By 'unimpressive', I of course mean that it failed to impress that individual reader - these things are subjective, of course).

Which gets me thinking. If an author is renowned, then I will probably give them a second chance (unless I really hate the first book I try - I'm looking at you, Lionel Shriver) but I doubt I'd often give them a third, nor would I even bother with a second if the author's name meant nothing to me. Of course, Spark and Waugh are a bit different because I quite liked the first two I tried - it just wasn't til the third that I was bowled over.

I'd love to know your thoughts. How many chances are you willing to give an author? Have you found that you loved the third (say) book you read by a previously uninspiring author? Not necessarily their third published novel, of course, but the third one you encounter. Will you persevere with an author you feel a bit ho-hum about, or are the tbr piles so tottering that it's one-strike-and-you're-out?

Let me know!

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Piece of Waugh

And now for the second novella choice recommended by Simon S... (and various other people, I think, but I can't remember who) - The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. I don't remember buying this, but I've had it on my shelves for years, back from the days when I routinely mixed up E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh (though two 20th century writers with more variant styles would be hard to imagine) and before I'd read either of 'em.

As with The Driver's Seat, this is the third novel I've read by the author, and easily my favourite of those three. (That gives me an idea for a blog post... come back tomorrow, friends). You can see my thoughts on Put Out More Flags here, and apparently I never got around to writing about Decline and Fall. Whilst I thought both of those novels were very good, and often very funny too, there was a cruel and selfish streak running through them that affected my wee sensitive soul. I couldn't laugh when I was that appalled and upset for the innocent bystanders being tricked or left devastated. In The Loved One (subtitled An Anglo-American Tragedy) the humour is rather gentler - perhaps because Waugh is laughing at an institution rather than individuals. The lack of cruelty may not satisfy the ardent Waughite, I'd be intrigued to know, but it left me able to love the novella without any reservations.

Which probably isn't immediately apparent from the novella's setting - an undertakers/funeral home/cemetery in Los Angeles. Called 'Whispering Glades'. Oh, and next door (where our English hero Dennis works) is the 'Happier Hunting Ground', providing similar services for pets. Now, I haven't read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, exposing the American funeral system with all its (at that time, in 1963) over-the-topness, abuses and exploitation - but I can only imagine it makes a great companion read to Waugh's 1947 novella. (According to LibraryThing, I don't even own the Mitford book... can this be true?? On my Amazon wishlist it goes...)

So - where Jessica Mitford went, Waugh had gone before. Through the eyes of Dennis, who aspires to raise the standards - and the prices - of the Happier Hunting Ground, we are taken around an overblown and ridiculous funeral home and invited to laugh at all its ludicrousness. You can be buried according to temperament - and pay more for proximity to, say, a statue of Goethe. You can give description of how you want your loved one (for they would never be called 'the deceased' or anything like that) to look:
"Have you brought any photographs of your Loved One? They are the greatest help in re-creating personality. Was he a very cheerful old gentleman?"

"No, rather the reverse."

"Shall I put him down as serene and philosophical or judicial and determined?"

"I think the former."

"It is the hardest of all expressions to fix, but Mr. Joyboy makes it his speciality - that and the joyful smile for children. Did the Loved One wear his own hair? And the normal complexion? We usually classify them as rural, athletic, and scholarly - that is to say red, brown, or white."

If that line didn't make you crack at least a smile, then perhaps you need to book yourself into Whispering Glades. For you can book ahead, as it were, as exemplified by this lovely line (the words Simon S quoted which made me determined to read The Loved One):
"Can I help you in any way?"

"I came to arrange about a funeral."

"Is it for yourself?"
In amongst all this there is, of course, romance. Dennis catches the eye of a corpse beautician - and has competition from the aforementioned Mr. Joyboy. That all adds a fun subplot - it's fairly astonishing, the amount Waugh manages to pack into a slim book. Nothing is wasted, there is no extraneous matter - and it's rather a lesson to those novels which ramble on for chapters and chapters unnecessarily. Oh, just one more line I wanted to share, which demonstrates Waugh's delicious humour:
"Here is the strangulated Loved One for the Orchid Room."
Of course, beneath the layers of humour there is a far more serious heart to the novel - the concerns Jessica Mitford raised, which Waugh leaves the reader to recognise unaided. Which is sensible - his is a work of fiction; Mitford's was non-fiction. I have no problem with a bit of didacticism in literature - it is a very modern bewailing, and seems to me to betray some insecurity - but Waugh lets comedy do the job, and thus gets through to an audience which might never pick up a copy of The American Way of Death. Not, of course, that this was an option when The Loved One was published.

Do go and see Simon S's review of The Loved One, which persuaded me to (eventually!) pick up my own copy.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

The Driver's Seat

I'll kick off with the first novella I read at the weekend... although, first, a detour via the word 'novella'. Peter questioned the criteria for a novella - and he has a point. In the research I did once about short stories, the general consensus seemed to be that there was no strict definition for the novella. It's basically just a short novel, without necessarily any structural differences from a novel proper - and who can determine what qualifies as 'short'? Rather arbitrarily, I said 200 pages - but font and margin sizes can mean that 150 pages of one book would be 300 pages of another, and I didn't have time or energy to make word count estimates... so 200 pages was the number I chose to signify novella! As it turned out, of the seven I read The Driver's Seat (1970) by Muriel Spark was the thickest, at 160 or so pages - although I suspect it had fewer words than some of the others.

The Driver's Seat came with recommendation from Simon S, as did one of the other titles this week - so thanks Simon! It was also, apparently, recently in contention for the 'lost Booker' of 1970. I have read some Muriel Spark before (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) and, while I certainly enjoyed them, they didn't quite click. The Driver's Seat definitely did.

It tells the story of Lise, a woman who leaves work to fly south on holiday... but Lise is an oddball of the oddest variety. She is looking for her 'type' and isn't afraid to accost strangers to tell them so - but, when pressed, isn't sure what her 'type' is - just that she'll know when she finds him. We first meet Lise whilst she is buying clothes for her holiday - settling on a dress: 'a lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright Vs of orange, mauve and blue' along with a red/white striped coat. "Of course, the two don't go well together" says the salesgirl - but Lise thinks otherwise, and welcomes the attention such a brash outfit gives her.

About thirty pages in, the reader gets a bit of a shock. Although it comes quite early on, I won't mention it here - suffice to say, it throws the rest of the novel into some sort of waiting game, the reader never being quite sure where they stand. Spark's prose is deliberately - and deliciously - disorientating. We move in and out of Lise's thoughts, never quite grasping hold of her perspective, nor yet letting it slip entirely out of reach.
Eventually Lise takes a ball-point pen from her bag and marks a spot in a large patch of green, the main parkland of the city. She puts a little cross beside one of the small pictures which is described on the map as 'The Pavilion'. She then folds up the map and replaces it in the pamphlet which she then edges in her hand-bag. The pen lies, apparently forgotten, on the bed. She looks at herself in the glass, touches her hair, then locks her suitcase. She finds the car-keys that she had failed to leave behind this morning and attaches them once more to her key-ring. She puts the bunch of keys in her hand-bag, picks up her paperback book and goes out, locking the door behind her. Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?
The ending didn't come as a huge surprise to me - Spark leaves an enormous clue - but, as with Lise's travel throughout the mysterious city, the journey is easily as important as the destination. I finally see what is so special about Muriel Spark, and will definitely be on the hunt for more of her work now. Suggestions welcome...

Sunday 22 August 2010

Weekend over!

A quick note, to say that my weekend of novella reading has been great fun, although my eyes are aching quite a lot at the moment... I managed to read seven novellas, which isn't bad going since I didn't read in the mornings on either day (church today; accidental lie-in on Saturday) and didn't speed read any of them, or anything horrible like that. Lots of variety, and I loved most of them - except the most famous. But more on that throughout the next week or so, as I have plenty of fodder for reviews!

Whilst I'm making quick notes, I will mention that I've retrospectively added a couple of books to my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About list - it's been nearly a year since any were added, and the two non-fiction titles which have joined the ranks have been bubbling away in my mind since I read them - definitely worthy additions.

Friday 20 August 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Why, hello there. I'm all geared up for my weekend of novellas - in fact, I've snuck another one in by Violet Trefusis, just in case my whim takes me in that direction - but I thought I wouldn't leave you adrift... before I tuck myself up in my room with the world of short novels, here's a link, a book, and a blog post.

1.) The blog post - Peter mentioned Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson when I was asking for suggestions for books about moving house, and my curiosity was definitely sparked - now Jodie's blog post has sealed the deal. Rarely has a review made me so very keen to read a book, and it's absurd that I haven't any Moomin books, given how much I love Jansson's novels and short stories for adults. Is it going to be next on Project 24? Maybe maybe maybe...

2.) The link - thanks to all those people who spotted
The Great British Bake Off and told me it would be right up my street. Of course it was! If you're familiar with Masterchef, basically it's that format but with baking. The first episode (which was on last Tuesday, but which I've only just seen) specialised in cakes - the contestants had to make their own speciality cake, then a basic Victoria sponge, and finally a chocolate celebration cake. The judges then sent two bakers home... I was surprised that I found the programme quite genuinely moving! I started off laughing a bit at the idea of competitive cake baking, and the serious tones everyone had, but I felt all anxious and sad when people had to go home... But anything presented by the fab Mel and Sue can't be *too* serious...

Oh, and thrown into the mix is a bit of cake history - including some quite astonishing pictures of the wedding cakes Queen Victoria ordered for her children's weddings! Of course, this is all leading up to a link - until the 14th September you'll be able to watch the first episode here. Episodes continue on Tuesdays... as usual, I don't know whether or not it's available outside of the UK. Hope so!

Appropriately enough, I watched The Great British Bake Off whilst baking a cake. It's a coconut and lime sponge - a combination I haven't tried before, so the proof is in the, er, pudding. Chocolate/lime sponge and coconut sponge with raspberry jam are my favourite types, so I thought combining bits of both might work... it's out the oven and cooling, so I can't show you a pic yet.

BUT (gosh, this is getting more loquacious than most Weekend Miscellanies) this is a good opportunity to show you a piccie or two of a 1950s cakestand I bought last weekend... so I have. I would have loved a three-tier cakestand, but the one I got is pretty darn beautiful...

3.) The book - is getting a bit ahead of myself, but Lyn (of I Prefer Reading) mentioned in our online book group that Capuchin Classics are reprinting Stephen Benatar's When I Was Otherwise next March. His novel Wish Her Safe at Home rather charmed me recently, and with great titles including A.A. Milne's Two People on their backlist, Capuchin may well have scored another triumph..

Thursday 19 August 2010

To be Frank(enstein)

As promised, today I'll be talking about Frankenstein - and bonus marks to those of you know knew that the narrator is in fact Walton, a sailor who takes Frankenstein on board at the beginning of the novel. He relates the story Frankenstein tells him, who in turn breaks off to relay the Monster's tale in the middle - so layers upon layers, wheels within wheels, and whatnot.

This was my first reading of Frankenstein, and was for a book group - which new Oxfordian Naomi (of Bloomsbury Bell) attended, by the by, and it was lovely to have her there. I was a bit worried, before I started the novel, that we wouldn't have much to say about it. How very wrong I was - it was one of the best and most animated discussions that we've had, as we fiercely and (in my case) almost hysterically took sides. But more on that later...

Obviously, like more or less everyone, I was familiar with the image of Frankenstein's Monster which has entered popular consciousness. I was even canny enough to know it was Frankenstein's Monster, rather than Frankenstein, who was the... er, monster. (I'm going to refer to him as Monster throughout, which raises all kinds of issues I'm sure... but I'm going to do it anyway). Probably everyone here knows that much, regardless of whether or not they've read the book. And so I thought I knew what to expect when I got it out of the library. To an extent I was right... but for the most part I was not.

Firstly, who's this Walton bloke? Like so many eighteenth century books - striving after 'authenticity' for their narrative, even when obviously fictitious? - there are layers surrounding the narrative, and to be honest I could have done without them. Walton is writing to his sister about his voyage to the Arctic, and in the third letter or so becomes embroiled with a mysterious man they've taken on board, one Frankenstein, who has a strange tale to relate... which Walton then writes out wholesale. I like to imagine Walton's sister getting this letter, utterly nonplussed: "Er, Wally, I just wanted to know how you were getting on... not the ramblings of a madman." I'd have been more than happy had all this been dispensed with, including the section documenting Frankenstein's childhood, and instead we'd have started at the words which Mary Shelley claims came to her in a dream at a houseparty held by Byron. That's how all my best anecdotes have started.
It was on a dreary night of November
The creation of Frankenstein was much what I expected, and of course it came as no surprise when the Monster came to life - but, even with foreknowledge, I still found this quite chilling:
It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! - Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips.


Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.
As you see, Frankenstein himself was similarly disconcerted, and off he went in a fever for a while. It's extraordinary the number of times this man swoons or has a fever - spending quite alarming quantities of time in bed. (Yes, Dad, I know). Off the Monster runs, and Frankenstein tries to think about other things... until he founds out his brother has died. Which is very sad, although perhaps would have been sadder had Frankenstein been much in touch with said brother for the past few years.

But what of the Monster? He eventually re-encounters his creator, and has his own tale to tell. Luckily Frankenstein and Walton both have extraordinarily good memories, and are able to quote the Monster verbatim... we hear how, confused and infantile, the Monster had taken to watching a family who lived in a cottage, all bursting at the seams with virtue and valour despite their poverty (and, what luck!, they're actually exiled noblemen and noblewomen, so their poverty comes with none of that nasty taint of the lower classes.) The Monster learns French more or less by eavesdropping - he learns the words "son" and "daughter" and then, more or less instantaneously, the entire French language. In fact, this was what most surprised me about Frankenstein - how eloquent the Monster is. In my mind, he just bumbled around with his arms stretched out and knocked over shelves of potion bottles. Turns out, he's quite the rhetorician. And I do love to read early nineteenth century novels for that beautiful rhythm they always seem to have - a perfect balance to each sentence. Jane Austen, of course, is the past-mistress of this, but Mary does a great job too.

Much of our discussion centred around the sympathies (or otherwise) we had for the characters... and I had very few for the Monster. Lots of interesting parallels drawn in the novel with Paradise Lost - one of the texts the Monster reads. And all sorts of God/creation ideas... how much responsibility does the Creator have for his Creation, and so forth. Nobody would have Frankenstein as their role model, and certainly wouldn't choose him as their God, but I think the position he finds himself in is insurmountable, and thus I feel sorry for him... Naomi will doubtless come by and fight the other corner! Of course, I'd love to know anyone's thoughts if they've read Frankenstein...

One final point - despite being penned by a woman, the women in this novel are ghastly! There's only really two - Frankenstein's cousin/betrothed, and the woman in the cottage which the Monster spies on. Both are hideously virtuous, with nary another characteristic. Par for the course, I suppose, but one might have hoped for a little more from the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft...

Still - I'm very glad that I've finally read the novel, and haven't just got hearsay to go on. I recommend it to anyone who likes to see these things first hand, and if you can wade through the first thirty or forty pages, the rest brings up all sorts of fascinating questions and arguments. Not bad, considering it was dreamt up by a 19 year old...

Books to get Stuck into:

I think these have turned up on the Stuck into selection before, but I don't think you can do better for two 20th century novels about creating a human, and the intricate struggles between creator and created:

Miss Hargreaves - Frank Baker

The Love Child - Edith Olivier

Wednesday 18 August 2010

The day before the day after

Tomorrow I will write about Frankenstein... but today I will leave you with just a (trick?!) question... who is the narrator of Frankenstein?

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Probably on his landing too

I've been rereading Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill, and thought it was amusing that the author of Howards End himself had this to say about his personal library (from Two Cheers For Democracy by E.M. Forster):

I have never been a collector, and as for the first edition craze, I place it next door to stamp collecting - I can say no less. It is non-adult and exposes the book-lover to all sorts of nonsense at the hands of the book-dealer. One should never tempt book-dealers. I am myself a lover of the interiors of books, of the words in them - an uncut book is about as inspiriting as a corked up bottle of wine - and much as I enjoy good print and good binding and old volumes they remain subsidiary to the words: words, the wine of life. This view of mine is, I am convinced, the correct one, but even correctness has had its disadvantages and I am bound to admit that my library, so far as I have created it, is rather a muddle. Here's one sort of book, there's another, and there is not enough of any sort of book to strike a dominant note. Books about India and by Indians, modern poetry, ancient history, American novels, travel books, books on the state of the world, and on the world-state, books on individual liberty, art-albums, Dante and book about him - they tend to swamp each other, not to mention the usual pond of pamphlets which has to be drained off periodically. The absence of the collector's instinct in me, the absence of deliberate choice, have combined with a commendable variety of interests to evolve a library which will not make any definite impression upon visitors. (1949)

Monday 16 August 2010

I've got an idea...

...but, thankfully for three men called Mike, Steve, and Dan, it is not the same idea as the title of Rohan O'Grady's novel republished in the latest batch from the unutterably wonderful Bloomsbury Group. I can't believe how little I've been heralding the return of this series, and I promise to Do Better. First stop, Let's Kill Uncle.

On the face of it, this is an unusual choice for inclusion. The rest of the books have been in the first half of the twentieth century, more or less, and funny in an insouciant and harmless way. Let's Kill Uncle was published in 1963, and is rather more sinister than anything else Bloomsbury have published in this series. There are large dollops of humour too, but you're unlikely to find the following sentence in Miss Hargreaves or Henrietta's War:
"Maudie and I never had a family," said Uncle sadly, "although we wanted one. So you see, Barnaby is doubly precious to me. I adore children."

He did indeed. Several little girls to whom he had taken a fancy had vanished into thin air.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. O'Grady's novel is about an orphan called Barnaby Gaunt (wouldn't Dickens be proud of that name?) who is sent for a holiday to a beautiful Canadian island. He's renowned as a bit of a trouble-maker, and the gentle couple who take him in don't quite know how to respond. They lost their son in the war, and Barnaby is a supposed substitute - but doesn't live up to this image. He is disobedient and mischievous, although not a mean-spirited child... there are reasons for his behaviour, which will become apparent.

And there is Christie. She is the only other child on the island, and equally wild in spirits, though rather more inclined to obedience in front of adults. Their escapades together could have been the stuff of Enid Blyton (with perhaps a little edge) - except the fable-esque anxieties about smugglers become a much more real, and thus more chilling, threat from a murderous uncle. For Barnaby is due to inherit ten million dollars, and Uncle doesn't want that happen. Uncle is a seriously twisted character - very psychologically manipulative (he beats Barnaby for being good, for instance, or tells him he may go to bed, but continually calls him back with idle comments) and with a history of many murders - but the exterior of a placid, harmless man. So, when Uncle turns up on the island, Barnaby and Christie resolve to take the only logical path: kill Uncle first.

The plan goes into action - whether they succeed or not I won't tell you, but suffice to say there are all manner of adventures along the way. This is such a difficult novel to categorise. It's not really like the other Bloomsbury Group novels I've read - it's not cosy, it's not really a novel to be loved and cherished; it's too chilling for that. Uncle is simply too evil. But neither is it a 'scary book' - there are flashes of humour ('The children loved the little church; it was such a pleasant, peaceful spot in which to plan a murder') and a light-heartedness to the children's activities which was at odds with their murderous plans. When I read in the blurb that Donna Tartt had called Let's Kill Uncle a 'dark, whimsical, startling book', I was a little confused. Surely those words clash a bit when placed together? And I'm still not sure that there is much whimsy in the novel, unless you describe any scene without blood as whimsical - but it's certainly the lightest dark book I've ever read. Or possibly the darkest light book.

So, there you go! Perhaps not what I expected from the Bloomsbury Group series, but certainly a good read - both dark and light, a strange and clever mixture. And not a little unnerving...

I haven't seen the 1966 film, but found the trailer on YouTube - it seems to be quite a loose adaptation. For those who share my fear of s***ers, don't watch the last ten seconds of the clip:

Books to get Stuck into:

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns
- I chose this one because it's got another depiction of an evil parent-figure. Alice's dad is like Uncle, in that they are all the more chilling for not being exaggerated. The portrait in The Vet's Daughter is far more unsettling and brilliantly drawn, but the similarities are there...

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd - not really much of a link, but I struggling to find similar books - the link here is an island!!

Sunday 15 August 2010

A Weekend of Novellas

The novella is probably my favourite literary form - you know how I love short books, and I really admire an author who can pack a lot into not many pages. Favourites from recent years of reading include The Heir by Vita Sackville-West and The Beacon by Susan Hill. Of course, 'novella' is a pretty imprecise term, but I would include more or less anything under 200pp.

Inspired by my love of all things short (including my housemate Mel :p ) and by Simon S's recent discussions of the novella over at Savidge Reads, I've decided to have a little readathon at the weekend, and blitz my way through as many novellas as I can manage. It's been ages since I had a whole day to myself, without other activities going on, so I shall enjoy a whole weekend with nothing (except church on Sunday) interrupting my reading...

And what have I got lined up? I don't imagine I'll manage all of these by any means, but waiting to be devoured are...

The Driver's Seat - Muriel Spark (160 pages, but ENORMOUS font)
The Turn of the Screw - Henry James (118pp.)
A Kid For Two Farthings - Wolf Mankowitz (128pp.)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman - FC Delius (125pp.)
Stevenson under the Palm Trees - Alberto Manguel
The Hours (screenplay) - David Hare (122pp.)
The Loved One - Evelyn Waugh (127pp.)

And, why not, let's throw in Quilt - Nicholas Royle, mentioned yesterday (159pp.)

Give me a moment to do some quick mental arithmetic... ok, some pretty slow arithmetic... If I manage all eight books, that's 1052 pages, I think. Hmm. Ok, I might not manage all of them, but I certainly intend to read as many as I can manage!

I can't wait, I think it's going to be a fun weekend. And, of course, it's open to anyone who fancies joining me. I doubt many of you have the luxury of a weekend to indulge in just reading - but why not grab something under 200 pages that you've been meaning to read, and call next weekend your Novella Weekend?

Saturday 14 August 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Oh dear... well, it is still the weekend. But I've been busy planning a murder mystery party, so that's my excuse for not blogging earlier! And great fun it was too - we played it out this evening, set in a cake shop called For Goodness Cake! (aka our lounge) and gave me an excuse to splurge on a beautiful tiered cake stand, which I'm show off soon. And I already had a beautiful non-tiered cake stand... I may be developing an obsession.

Anyway, I wrote a murder with nine parts, all unisex so they could be distributed randomly, and I think it worked quite well. Lots of fantastic acting going on all round! Great fun - and all to celebrate my housemate Debs' birthday. The present I
gave her was, of course, books... some gems I found in Malvern. I thought I'd give her books I'd loved, and hope for the best - so she got rather lovely old copies of The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, Mrs. Miniver by Jan Stuther, and the Collected Short Stories of Saki.

Anyway, enough of my news - let's leap towards the book, blog post, and link. Not much colour this weekend, as that's the bit which takes the most time, and I need to sleep...

1.) The link - comes courtesy of Nancy, thanks Nancy - fancy living in the house in Rye which has housed E.F. Benson, Henry James, and Rumer Godden? (Not all at the same time, you understand...) Well, you can rent it! I can't believe this is true, and wish I had the money and the desired ability to garden... I'd love it if a SiaB reader got the gig. Have a look here.

2.) The blog post - is Simon S's very interesting post on blog commenting. Some people find blogging-about-blogging (meta-blogging, if you will) tiresome, some find it fascinating - I am one of those who finds it fascinating, and could read about it all day. The ways people go about it, the decisions they make, etc. etc.... so interesting. And so I've enjoyed everyone's thoughts on commenting on blogs. And apologise once again for my laxness in replying to comments - Must Do Better.

3.) The book - I spent much of today reading The Uncanny by Nicholas Royle. When a publisher told me they were issuing his novel Quilt, and would I like a copy, I thought - gosh, how uncanny (ahem). And said yes. And it sounds right up my street - here's the blurb:
Facing the disarray and disorientation around his father's death, a man contends with the strange and haunting power of the house his parents once lived in.

He sets about the mundane yet exhausting process of sorting through the remnants of his father's life - clearing away years of accumulated objects, unearthing forgotten memories and the haunted realms of everyday life. At the same time, he embarks on an eccentric side-project. And as he grows increasingly obsessed with this new project, his grip on reality seems to slip.
It sounds like a combination of things I've loved in novels by Edward Carey and Stephen Benatar, as well as reminding me of 'Daughters of the Late Colonel' by Katherine Mansfield... and utterly irresistible. I think it may form part of a little project I'm intending to undertake next weekend, which I'll tell you about soon...

Thursday 12 August 2010

Malvern is a town of plenty

First things first - this afternoon I spent ages going back and replying to comments from the last month's worth of blog posts (give or take a few of the most recent) - I do mean to do this much more frequently, but somehow get behind... so if you asked a question and are awaiting the answer, or just fancied some sort of feedback, then it should be there now! Right... onto tonight's post.

Confession time... Last weekend was a fun-packed reunion of some folk from my Masters course, and we had a high old time. All sorts took place, but today we're talking about Malvern. Long-term readers of SiaB might just about remember a trip I took there two years ago (from which I have unceremoniously nabbed photos, since I didn't take my camera at the weekend). It's one of my favourite places - a spa town in Worcestershire, close(ish) to where I grew up, with pretty parks and - most importantly - a fantastic secondhand bookshop. Very reasonable prices, and an excellent selection, The Malvern Bookshop is definitely worth seeking out.

This might be sounding alarm bells... and rightly so, because... I bought a book. Sorry, no, make that two books. Ok! Stop interrogating me! I bought three books!

Ahem. That's six weeks of my allowance. Which takes me up to halfway through September. *Sigh* It's going to be a lean, lean August... leeeean, lean, lean.

But enough self-pity. You're only really interested in which books I've bought, aren't you?

Jane Austen by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I know very little about the 'Writers and Their Work' series (although this website is fairly informative) but this is its second appearance on Project 24 - earlier I bought Pamela Hansford Johnson's Ivy Compton-Burnett. This was another irresistible combination of authors...

Are They The Same At Home? by Beverley Nichols
I still haven't read anything by Mr. Nichols, despite accruing quite a few, but this collection of portraits of notables, originally published in Sketch in 1926. To be honest, I haven't heard of most people featured, but mentions of E.F. Benson, Margaret Kennedy... it all looked too fun to ignore.

The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield
Look away now, Colin... Yes, I do have a copy of this... but not one with A.P. Watt's illustrations! Plus this is my favourite of the series, and it will be nice to have it separate from the others... oh, I have no excuses, but I couldn't bring myself to leave it there...

Oh, and we went to The Theatre of Small Convenience - and enjoyed an 8 minute puppet show in rhyme about a turtle evading being baked in a pie. Possibly aimed at children... but we loved it, and it's charmingly done. Plus, four out of the five of us were vegetarian, so we cheered on our cause!

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Those shelves, redux

Sorry posting has been so haphazard of late... and thank you for your lovely messages about Lylah. The funeral was a perfect send-off, and she'd have been very pleased. But - as a lady who listed, in an interview she once did for the local paper, her greatest extravagance as 'books' - she'd be very happy for us to move onto that most excellent of extravagances...

You might remember what my shelves looked like the other day... Well, now everything is in place and there's even a little bit of room for more. Don't try and compare photos too closely, because I madly decided to change everything around again - so the books didn't have chance to settle down before they were up and moving again.

I know book-organisation is something most of us are interested in (which is a mystery to many of my friends, who just cram their books onto shelves without any sense of order. Not that the arbitrary method is necessarily bad - viz. Howards End is on the Landing, which I've just started rereading - but it only really counts if it's a conscious decision... the sort of decision non-bibliophiles wouldn't even consider. Mine are done thematically, and then alphabetically within that... sort of. Some are just in height order...

Bookshelves (1.)

Need you ask about the first one and a half shelves? All my lovely Persephone Books. And it made sense to follow them up with Virago books... and the rest of these shelves are taken up with what I call 'doveish' books - i.e. they correspond to the undefinable but unmistakable tastes of the dovegreybooks online reading group (not to be confused with dovegreyreader - we came first!) Oh, except for the bottom shelf, which is, er, books which would fit onto a small shelf... and books I've read which I'm waiting to blog about. And Jane Austen, and Mapp and Lucia.

Oh, and the bottom shelf is for books I'm currently reading (supposedly).

Bookshelves (2.)

Top shelf: diaries and notebooks; SPACE FOR MORE BOOKS!
2nd shelf: Christian books; Those which I'm calling 'other' - mostly post-1960 novels, and those which didn't fit in anywhere else
3rd shelf: Books relating to my research; library books (some crossover here!)
And then CDs, which aren't of interest here...

Bookshelves (3.)

Top shelf: Virginia Woolf (primary)
2nd shelf: Virginia Woolf (secondary); Bloomsbury and other similar books (Katherine Mansfield, Roger Fry, etc.)
3rd shelf: Books to Read Soon. This incorporates my Must Read Soon, Must Read Very Soon, and Must Read Immediately shelves from the previous house... These should be in some sort of order, but currently they're not.
4th & 5th shelves: books waiting to be reviewed. And some which should be on the 6th shelf...
6th shelf: Non-fiction, literary theory, diaries, letters, that sort of thing...

So, there we are! They'll probably all be rearranged at some point, but I'm quite happy with it for now... and, of course, at the moment books aren't scattered across every remaining surface. This will, naturally, change.