Saturday 30 April 2011

Wedding and Saki

What a wonderful Royal Wedding! I especially admire those of you across the globe who woke up at crazy o'clock to watch the royal nuptials - it was a beautiful ceremony, and Kate's dress was wonderful. All in all, as I sat waving my mini union jack, I loved it. And then we had a street party! Not quite in the street - it was in the park at the end of our road, but loads of people came, and it was a really, really fun time. I do feel like I've been baking non-stop for the past day, and this was one of the creations we offered (sugar decor by Mel):

But I haven't managed to put together a Weekend Miscellany - instead, I'll just unveil the winner of The Unbearable Bassington and selected short stories by Saki. Special royal congratulations to...

Rosie H!

Have a good Bank Holiday weekend, if you've got one!

Friday 29 April 2011


Whilst at home (I am now back in Oxford) I had a day heading off to the Bookbarn, and then onto Bristol to see my brother. It left me with a deep distrust of Bristol's road systems, especially those lanes which lead exclusively into multi-storey car parks. But the Bookbarn part, and the brother part, were great fun.

For those not in the know, the Bookbarn is a huge warehouse of books out in the middle of nowhere in Somerset. It used to be all open to the public - now they are increasingly shutting off stock for internet buying, which is a shame. You used to have to choose to only look at authors beginning with C, for example, because that would take the best part of an hour. Now they have a relatively small fiction section - but I say relatively, because the amount on view is still about five times the size of most bookshops. AND, for a bonus, the books are only £1 each. And there's a huge unsorted section, which made for fun scouring...

I met up with two members of my online book group, Carol and Diney, who also live in the West Country, and they did not disappoint. Between us we bought 76 books. These are my kind of people.... anyway, 31 of those purchases were mine, and I'm not the sorta guy who buys books and keeps quiet about them. So... here goes with all the books I added to my shelves (and yes, the rearrange left plenty of room for them):

These aren't going to be in the order of the photograph, I'm afraid, since I took the photo a day or so ago, and I am now at some distance from all the books! My eyes are hurting now, after typing everything out, and everytime I count the books in the list and in the picture they come to different totals. But I know I bought 31...

- Confessions of a Story-Teller: short stories by Paul Gallico
- The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico
- Ludmilla, and The Lonely by Paul Gallico
- The Adventures of Hirm Holliday by Paul Gallico
Paul Gallico certainly seems to have been prolific! I left some behind, but these were the ones which most appealed. Since he seems to have covered the spectrum from fey to very dark, I'm going to have to tread carefully, I think...

- A Village in a Valley by Beverley Nichols
I keep stockpiling Nichols books, and have still read none...

- Four Years at the Old Vic 1929-1933 by Harcourt Williams
- The Theatre Since 1900 by J.C. Trewin
One of my interests is theatrical history, especially in the first half of the 20th century. I was a bit overwhelmed by the three bookcases labelled 'Theatre', and plucked these more or less at random... but they do look fascinating.

- Nonsense Novels by Stephen Leacock
I haven't mentioned Leacock much on my blog, but I adored his writings in 2002 (when I read eight or so) and must revisit. I picked this up intending to give it to someone, but delightfully (for me!) it seems to be one of the few Leacock books I didn't already have.

- Countries of the Mind: Essays in Literary Criticism by J. Middleton Murry
Aka Mr. Katherine Mansfield. I loved his collection Pencillings a few years ago.

- Dreams in War Time: A Faithful Record by E.M. Martin
This pretty, deckled-edge little book was too peculiar to leave behind. It is what it says - someone has written down their dreams during WW2. I love bizarre little finds, and this could be really interesting.

- Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
I don't know why I know about this novel, but I do... or, rather, I know about its existence. Anyone?

- Letters to a Sister by Rose Macaulay
You probably know my fondness for Macaulay, and I've previously enjoyed her letters to a priest who was a friend of hers - I hadn't realised this collection existed, and it was definitely a bargain.

- After the Stroke: a journal by May Sarton
As it sounds, it's an autobiographical book about life after a stroke.

- Summer in February by Jonathan Smith
Carol told me this was great, and I believe her :)

- The Dud Avacado by Elaine Dundy
Excellent condition Virago Modern Classic for £1? Yes please.

- The Love Child by Edith Olivier
This lovely first edition I bought to give to someone else

- Star Quality by Noel Coward
Coward short stories: why not?

- The New Immortality by J.W. Dunne

This one is for my research - Dunne wrote some strange metaphysical books which are quoted by one or two of my authors...

- Conversations in Ebury Street by George Moore
Back in 2004 I read a quotation from this about Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, with which I completely concurred (i.e. that it's brilliantly formed) and I've been hoping to stumble across an affordable copy ever since. Looks to be one long conversational ramble - lovely!

- My American by Stella Gibbons
Still only read the delectable Cold Comfort Farm (and I'm excited about the Vintage reprints of her novels coming out soon!) but always worth having more in store...

- Her Book by Daisy Ashford

Basically everything she wrote except The Young Visiters [sic] - should be fun.

- The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson
In my head, The Unbearable Bassington and The Unspeakable Skipton have always gone hand-in-hand. Somehow loving the former has made me want to try the latter - I have previously loved one PHJ novel and disliked another, so who knows with this one?

- The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield
- Mrs. Parkington by Louis Bromfield

Rachel (Book Snob) and her enthusiasm for this author has made me intrigued...

- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
I adored this novel last year, but had read a library copy - this was definitely one I wanted to have for myself.

- The Ginger Griffin by Ann Bridge
Just read Illyrian Spring (that Rachel again...) and loved it, will review soon, have more ready to read!

- Leave it to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
You can never have too much Wodehouse: FACT.

- Wonderful Clouds by Francoise Sagan
After enjoying Bonjour Tristesse, I wanted to try more. So pleased to have found another author I enjoy who writes exclusively short books!

- A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble
Another author I'm stockpiling, despite having read nothing by her...

- The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark
Since I seem to have bought something by Spark everytime I post about recent purchases (she was apparently indefatiguable) it seems an appropriate book to finish with.

Phew! Quite a haul, and came in at only £31. As always, comments on books you've read, want to read, or have never heard of...

(p.s. HAPPY ROYAL WEDDING DAY! So exciting...)

Thursday 28 April 2011

Life Among the Savages - Shirley Jackson

I already knew that I loved Shirley Jackson - I did from the time I was about a chapter into We Have Always Lived in the Castle back in 2006, courtesy of Lisa - but now I love her for a whole new reason. Whilst at home in Somerset I indulged by reading her 'memoir' part numero uno Life Among The Savages and fell completely in love with it. Think Provincial Lady transferred to America (Vermont, I think) in the mid-1950s, with no servants. It's havoc, but it's brilliant.

I had Shirley Jackson in a box. Not literally, that would be creepy - but it isn't too far away from the sort of thing I'd expect from Jackson territory. The three novels I've read by her (We Have Always Lived in the Castle; The Haunting of Hill House; The Bird's Nest) and the odd short story (very odd short story) had led me to expect Gothicky, creepy, interesting angle on mental illness sort of stories from Jackson. When I started Life Among The Savages, in which Jackson wittily documents the day-to-day life of a wife and mother, I had to adjust how I responded to her. It's odd that certain paragraphs can go either way... this one, for example, is wry and whimsical in context. But read it with your Jackson-in-horror-mode hat on, and it feels rather different...
There was a door to an attic that preferred to stay latched and would latch itself no matter who was inside; there was another door which hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close good-humouredly for a time when some special reason required it. We had five attics, we discovered, built into and upon and next to one another; one of them kept bats and we shut that one up completely; another, light and cheerful in spite of its one small window, liked to be a place of traffic and became, without any decision of ours, a place to store things temporarily, things that were moved regularly, like sledges and snow shovels and garden rakes and hammocks. The basement had an old clothes-line hung across it, and after the line I put up in the backyard had fallen down for the third time I resigned myself and put up a new line in the basement, and clothes dried there quickly and freshly.
Anyone who has read The Haunting of Hill House will know how easily Jackson could have turned this into something terrifying - but there is nothing remotely creepy about this book. The narrator - a version of Shirley Jackson, no doubt, but only a version - evinces none of Jackson's neuroses or agoraphobia; instead she is a housewife and mother in the self-deprecating, amused mould of the Provincial Lady.

She starts off the book with two children, Laurie and Jannie. About halfway through the book Sally comes along:
Sentimental people keep insisting that women go on to have a third baby because they love babies, and cynical people seem to maintain that a woman with two healthy, active children around the house will do anything for ten quiet days in the hospital; my own position is somewhat between the two, but I acknowledge that it leans towards the latter.
Obviously I don't have children, and very few of my friends have reached that stage of their lives, so I'm new to the world of child-anecdotes. Maybe I wouldn't have loved this so much if I'd spent ten years hearing people recount the adorable things their children do, but I've got to say I laughed out loud a lot whilst reading Life Among the Savages. More at the narrator's reaction to things, to be honest - like taking children to see a Santa Claus who promises rather too much to Laurie and Jannie; learning to drive with an instructor who is 'undisguisedly amused at meeting anyone who could not drive a car'; coping with the influence of a teacher who tells Jannie that more or less everything is either 'vulgar' or 'unwomanly'. And her husband is there all the time too, loving and affectionate and just as inept as his wife. Having said that, what comes off the page is as happy a family as I've encountered in fact or fiction - and her husband is rather more helpful and on-board than the Provincial Lady's Robert.

I can't really quote any of the choicest bits because the anecdotes tend to blend into one another, taking up many pages - they're built up so that the family becomes recognisable, rather than a series of one-liners. Apparently it was all published separately before, but you can't see the joins. Having said that, the first section of the book is my favourite, perhaps because it includes their hilarious attempts to rent a house (everyone is determined that they should buy instead) - a similar section was my favourite part of D.E. Stevenson's comparable Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, so perhaps this betrays my adoration of people looking at properties - yes, Kirstie and Phil are basically my surrogate parents. Or would be, if I knew them.

Oh, and if you're not sold on the book yet, there's a delightfully contemptuous and pitying cat called Ninki. Loved her.

While I haven't read anything in this line of books which is as good as the Provincial Lady, Life Among the Savages is certainly one of the closest runners-up. I thought it was incredibly funny as well as being quite sweet. I'm not sure it quite deserves to be called a memoir, as Jackson is incredibly selective about which side of her personality gets filtered into the book, but that's her prerogative, and the result sure beats any number of angsty misery memoirs. It's sunny, funny, and... er, runny. In that it's made me run off to buy Jackson's other memoir, Raising Demons.

Books to get Stuck into:

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment - D.E. Stevenson
: the first half of this book is brilliant, and owes a huge amount to the Provincial Lady. The second half is fun, but not as good... however, it's worth it for the first half alone.

Provincial Daughter - R.M. Dashwood: although Provincial Lady is the better book, this sequel by E.M. Delafield's real-life daughter is much closer to Jackson's book in date of publication, and it's delightful to hear from 'Vicky' all grown up.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Joy of New Bookshelves

Only the true book hoarder can understood the joy of a new bookcase. My 'new' one is old, very simple, not particularly attractive in and of itself, and has been lying somewhere else in the house for years. But - it is space for books. I have some empty spaces on shelves. I don't have to squeeze new purchases tightly between other books, hoping that the whole bookcase doesn't collapse throught the strain.

People see my room in Oxford and comment on how many books I have - to which I can only smile wryly, and think "If only you knew..." I have maybe an eighth or a tenth of my books in Oxford, and the rest are housed in Somerset... with double-stacked bookcases toppling out onto the landing. The bookcases are acquired gradually, generally from Argos or nabbed from my parents - one day I hope to have lots of lovely old shelving, or at least matching, but for now I'm settling for practicality! Anyway, I thought I'd give you a little tour of my bookcases...

Here's the new one, and it's got the end of my fiction - shelves alphabetically by author, to make things as easy as possible to find for my parents when they get emails from me, asking them to post me something.

And back to the beginning of the alphabet - here, double-stacked, we go from A to L... all double-stacked, naturally.

...and from M to P, I think. Hidden behind these rows are my Agatha Christies and some other odds and ends... in fact, I can't remember, I should check... Oh yeah, Colin, I (erm) 'borrowed' your Mr. Funny bookend.

This is a new scheme - I've wanted to house my Viragos together for a while. There are quite a few in Oxford, which would probably finish off this tall bookcase, but for now it's accompanied by some old Penguins and (below the picture) R-T authors. This shot goes to show that publishers shouldn't relinquish those classic, gotta-have-them-all designs...

Here are all the Angela Thirkell novels, kindly given to me when someone who'd lost their parents wanted to find a suitable home. Also featured are Dickens and Trollope (all the Barsetshire authors together) and the bottom shelf has the books my Grandad owned. Yes, one shelf. I obviously didn't inherit my book-hoarding from him...

I don't think this bookcase could hold one more book if it wanted to. This is all my biographies, autobiographies, plays, and poetry - and is at the top of the stairs. I'm slowly taking over the house... Notice the caving shelves, unsuccessfully held up by a wicker basket.

And finally, back in my bedroom. The shelves attached to the wall are the special ones reserved for books by A.A. Milne, Richmal Crompton, and E.M. Delafield. In our old house it was above my bed, and once fell down on me in the night... ouch. The bookcase on the floor is something of a miscellany - children's books, non-fiction, theology... and everything that doesn't go anywhere else. Also in shot: neglected violin and languishing GCSE art project.

Hope you enjoyed it, sorry the photos have been a bit poor, but at least the Virago one is pretty good quality for your zooming-in desires! Why not give us a tour around your own bookcases!

(EDIT: I'm afraid I thought the pictures were big enough, but turns out they're not, and I've not got the enormous originals... will take new photos when I can, and upload those...)

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Elizabeth Jenkins

I recently read Elizabeth Jenkins' wonderful memoir The View from Downshire Hill (published in 2004, but inexplicably difficult to find - I read it in the Bodleian). Sooner or later I might write about it at greater length, but for now I will simply mention that it is a wonderful source of literary anecdotes, and often quite funny. Here's a bit I thought you might like, about her novel The Tortoise and the Hare.
This was, in terms of financial success, my best novel, but I encountered some severe, personal criticism from readers who felt that the interest of the book was too much confined to one class, not to say one income bracket. I was told by a young man, a student in a university society to which I had been asked to give a talk, that what was wrong with the book was that it wasn't about anything that really mattered. As I felt that the suffering caused by the break-up of a marriage was something that did matter, I asked him, in surprise, what were some of the things that really mattered? After a pause, he said: "Well, trade unions."

Monday 25 April 2011

Everybody wants to be a cat...

When I was grabbing a book for the train down to Somerset, I decided upon Jennie by Paul Gallico. I bought it nearly three years ago, and have had numerous recommendations for it - especially from the appropriately nicknamed Dark Puss. After recently loving Love of Seven Dolls (more here) it seemed sensible to try more Gallico - with the bonus that Jennie would fit into the themes of my doctoral research even if, published in 1950, it's a little too late for my period of study.

And I decided, since I was at home, it would be nice for Sherpa to pose sitting alongside my copy of Jennie. Sherpa had other ideas... as documented through this post.

There is a very simple story behind Jennie - an eight years-old boy called Peter suddenly discovers that he has turned into a cat. As you do. Unlike metamorphosis tales like Lady Into Fox, the novel isn't focalised through those who witness the change - nor do we witness Peter trying to live alongside his family as a cat. They are quickly left behind, as Nanny throws him into the street ("Drat the child! He's dragged in another stray off the street! Shoo! Scat! Get out!") Peter dashes through the streets, is beaten unconscious by a territorial cat who doesn't want to share his shelter, and by the time Peter comes to, he is in the company of Jennie.
Peter rolled over and behled the speaker squatted down comfortably beside him, her legs tucked under her, tail nicely wrapped around. She was a thin tabby with a part white face and throat that gave her a most sweet and gentle aspect heightened by the lively and kind expression in her luminous eyes that were grey-green, flecked with gold.

Jennie gives him a bath and a mouse ('To his intense surprise, it was simply delicious') and sets about teaching Peter how to be a cat - as, after a little hesitation, she believes his account of how he became a cat.

It is this vein of Jennie which gives it both its charm and somehow rescues it from being too fey or whimsical. Gallico captures the behaviour of cats so exactly (the first rule, at all times: WASH). If he'd kept an eye on the human observers, laughing at how cats misunderstood such-and-such, or inventing witty reasons for cats behaving so-and-so, then Jennie might well have been unbearable. Instead, it is... well, 'realistic' is hardly the word, but Gallico shows Jennie in as workmanlike a manner as possible under the circumstances. Her explanations of how strays must loiter in every doorway when exiting, to check the street for safety, make sense. The way she uses humans, and doesn't trust them, chimes in with many of the timid cats one sees on the streets. I didn't love the idea of cats greeting one another with faux-18th century decorum, nor the idea of some sort of feline telepathy, but in general Gallico didn't overstep the mark.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote her own fantasy in the form of Lolly Willowes, said this in a 1929 lecture:
Since [the fantasist’s] main thesis surprises by itself, he must deny himself further surprises…. The novelist not only may niggle away with small licences all the time, he is a dull dog if he doesn’t. But the fantasist, having taken his initial liberty, must mind his Ps and Qs for the rest of his adventure…. The fantasist who has begun by asking for one vast initial credit must do on that credit to the end.
Well said, Sylvia. And Gallico is almost always content to let the turning-into-a-cat liberty be the main one. True, there are some unlikely dramatic incidences as they board a ship to Glasgow, and Gallico sprinkles coincidences through the novel like nobody's business, but...

When I wrote about Love of Seven Dolls I mentioned that it had something of the atmosphere of a fairy-tale - which didn't hinder the pathos, but rather made the evil streak of the novel less striking. Jennie is even more like a fairy-tale - in fact, at times it felt like a Disney film. The characters are drawn with surprising reality, but the events are not. Easily the most interesting chapters were those where Peter was learning how to be a cat, or contemplating the relationship between owner and pet. I was less interested when merry escapades took over, and there is one spectacularly superfluous chapter about Lulu - an excitable, flirty, irreverent cat with whom Peter is briefly smitten. I think Gallico perhaps felt his initial conceit was flagging a bit, and so introduced this little ball of fire - but Lulu sticks out so obviously as a distraction to enliven proceedings that I feel she should either have arrived much earlier, or not been introduced at all.

It is the plotting and tone which made Jennie a bit of a disappointment to me. The characters of Jennie and Peter are great - and, as I've said, Gallico has really closely observed cat behaviour. But the tone is too sprightly, even with the sad aspects of the story. What I loved in Love of Seven Dolls was the dark, subversive tone intertwining with the whimsical. If Jennie doesn't become too whimsical, it also never wanders into darker territory - it felt a lot like a children's tale which wouldn't stray too far from an accessible storytime-voice.

It is a really fun novel to read, and I'm sure a similar idea has been done much worse. But Lady Into Fox demonstrates how subtle and moving the metamorphosis novel can be; Love of Seven Dolls shows Gallico is capable of more - Jennie just didn't live up to the hopeful expectations it had accumulated after three years on my bookshelf. But do give it a go - it might be just the novel you're after.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Song for Easter Sunday

He is Risen! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

A special Easter-themed Song for a Sunday - my favourite hymn, 'My Song is Love Unknown'.

Friday 22 April 2011

Good Friday

Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

A blessed Good Friday to one and all. I'm at home in Somerset at the moment, so blogging will be sporadic - have a good Bank Holiday weekend everyone.

Wednesday 20 April 2011


Hands up who saw this post title and thought that I'd be talking about Mrs. Woolf? Well, that was the immediate connection in my mind when I saw Virginia on the shelf in my local £2 bookshop. If
it was the title that made me pick it up, it was (a) the beauty, (b) the brevity, and (c) the Scandinavian..ity... that made me buy it. You know what a sucker I am for all those things. And it felt just the right book to read after church, in the park, on a beautifully sunny afternoon.

Jens Christian Grøndahl is a Danish writer who's probably really well known, but was new to me. Virginia (2000, translated 2003 by Anne Born) is a deceptively simple novella about guilt and the ways in which brief encounters in other people's lives can change the paths taken for both. If that's ringing Atonement-sounding bells in anyone's minds, then you're not entirely off the mark - but Grøndahl treats the topic rather more calmly. I haven't read enough Scandinavian literature to comment, I suppose, and I can't read any except in translation, but I'm going to generalise wildly nonetheless. Scandinavian literary fiction seems to bathe the action in a haze - the beautiful landscapes are reflected in the choice of language, which isn't short and sharp, but slightly dreamy and pensive. The Guardian reviewer wrote that Virginia 'makes even Chekhov seem effusive.' Of course there's The Girl With The Gruesome Shocks to prove me wrong, but I did say 'literary fiction'...

Virginia begins in 1942 in occupied Denmark. A young woman (I'm going to take a plunge and say that she's unnamed, because I don't *think* we're told that she's called Virginia - that name becomes important elsewhere) leaves Copenhagen to stay with a family she barely knows on the North Sea coast - presumably to avoid a city in wartime, although this is never really spelt out. Here is the first paragraph of Virginia, which gives you a taste of the prose:
You could never get used to the sound, the distant drone of aircraft engines passing high overheard in the night. It was hot under the sloping timber roof, and she kept her window open. She lay with one leg outside the duvet, breathing in the stuffy holiday cottage air and feeling the cool breeze on her calf and thigh, listening to the small dry click when the wooden edge of the black-out curtain bumped against the window-frame. She'd just had her sixteenth birthday that summer, the only time she stayed at the house by the sea. She didn't belong here. She slipped out of our life and we slipped out of hers.
One of that family is our narrator (also unnamed?) who, at fourteen, is a couple of years younger than her, and something of a distant admirer. There is precious little dialogue between them, and almost no indirect speech - in fact there is barely any direct speech throughout Virginia - but
Grøndahl evokes their dynamics perfectly. He is full of calf love, and she doesn't really notice he's there. The awakening of first infatuation is a topic which has been treated time and again, and although Grøndahl's approach is gentle and subtle, it would not suffice as the pivot of even so short a novella - and indeed it is not the pivot.

In a local outbuilding there is an English solider, whose aeroplane has come down. While the narrator is infatuated with the girl, she in turn is experiencing her first love - for a man with whom she cannot converse, and whose presence she must keep secret. We learn this piece-by-piece, through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy. Or, rather, through those eyes as remembered by the same boy fifty years later - for Virginia is a novella of remembering, and incomplete recollections. The narrator calls the boy 'he', even though it is himself. We see the scenes through a glass darkly - and this is the pivot on which the novella turns. The boy has accidentally discovered the English pilot's hiding place:
The German soldiers had stopped on the other side of the planked wall. He could hear their voices quite clearly now but couldn't understand what they said. When he looked up again the pilot gestured excitedly at him as if to urge him away, out of the shed to where the soldiers were coming round the corner to the doorway.

He did not move while the other repeated his desperate, soundless gesture. Not a single thought passed through his mind in the seconds that followed, but through all the succeeding years I have asked myself whether the German soldiers had seen me go into the shed and whether it would have made any difference if I had gone out to them alone instead of letting them find us together.

Maybe they would have searched the place anyway. On the other hand it is not impossible that they might merely have laughed at the terrified boy who came out of his hiding place before they went along the path, while in fact the boy stayed there watching them and holding his breath. The possibility has stayed with me always, like a thought I have never been able to think through to the end and so have never finished.
These thoughts stay with the reader as well as the character through the rest of the novella - we move forwards fifty years. The narrator saw the girl (then a middle-aged, grey-haired woman) only once more, in Paris - he later meets her ex-husband and children. These scenes are haunted by his uncertain guilt - even more subtle than Atonement, because he cannot be certain that his actions were wrong, or just simply tragically unfortunate. It is a moment which has defined much of his life - but one over which he may have had no control.

In so slight a novella, so much is evoked. There is even something of a twist, which I shan't spoil, but which is elegant and sobering. As I wrote at the top, Scandinavian authors seem to have a beautiful way of encasing a narrative in a sort of hazy beauty.
Grøndahl enhances this by having almost no direct dialogue - which makes the novella so much more authentic as the recollections of a 64 year old man for his youth, as well as putting the events at a suitably nebulous distance. For those of you who love novellas as much as I do, Virginia is a really beautiful, thoughtful example (and there are copies from a penny on Amazon!) - I look forward to finding what else Grøndahl has written. Anyone?

Books to get Stuck into:

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson: this portrayal of rural American [edit: I mean Canadian, thanks Elizabeth!] family life, and the sister who left and has felt guilty all her life, has an equally clever twist, as well as being funny, sad, and thoughtful.

Atonement by Ian McEwan: well, it had to be, didn't it? I've not reviewed it on SiaB, but
writ on a larger scale than Virginia, it's undoubtedly a clever and moving examination of how momentary decisions cause lasting guilt.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Bassington Giveaway

Do you think the above is the version read by bears everywhere? In between finishing The Unbearable Bassington and writing my review of it, I stumbled across a copy of it - and, even better, it comes with a wide selection of his short stories too - including my favourite, 'The Story-Teller'.

I'm not just bragging, of course - this little gem is up for grabs. Pop your name in the comments if you'd like me to send this off to you - open worldwide. (Apparently it's available on Kindle for free, so even if you don't win this, you should be able to read it!)

Monday 18 April 2011

The Unbearable Bassington - Saki

One of my favourite things about the blogosphere is when lots of people start reading the same neglected author at the same time. I've seen it happen with Shirley Jackson, Barbara Comyns, and of course Persephone favourites Dorothy Whipple, Marghanita Laski etc. It's even more wonderful when it's a complete coincidence - I had just finished reading The Unbearable Bassington (1912) by Saki, when Hayley posted her review of it here. We even have identical battered Penguin copies. Actually, hers is much less battered than mine... Hayley and I belong to the same online reading group, and our united praise of the novel has sparked off everyone there dusting off their Complete Saki collections, or buying themselves copies. I had seen a cheap Penguin in my local secondhand bookshop, and offered it up for grabs - Elaine (aka Random Jottings) leapt at the chance, kindly reciprocating with E.F. Benson's The Luck of the Vails - and she has already posted her thoughts here. (I've just spotted, as I edit this post, that Lyn's review has popped up too!) Cut a long story short, we all thought it was great.

And now to cut a short story long. I have loved Saki ever since I stole my parents' copy of his complete works. (Er, sorry Mum and Dad... did I ever return it?) His short stories are wonderfully sharp, biting and a little macabre at times - but always hilarious. You can read a couple of them on here, if you select Saki from the drop-down author menu in the left-hand column. So I turned to The Unbearable Bassington expecting more of the same... well, there is certainly a lot of one-liners, the litotes which British authors do so well, and a sort of Wildean humour. I liked this line: "As far as remunerative achievement was concerned, Comus copied the insouciance of the field lily with a dangerous fidelity." (If the Biblical allusion passes you by, click here.) Even the epigraph could have been penned by our Oscar: 'This story has no moral. If it points out an evil at any rate it suggests no remedy.' And Comus Bassington could have stepped out of one of Wilde's works - he is a feckless, money-wasting burden upon his mother Francesca. He absently intends to marry heiress Elaine, but puts no effort into wooing her. Instead, he borrows money from her to waste, and generally lives a hedonistic, slightly sadistic, life. Here he is:
In appearance he exactly fitted his fanciful Pagan name. His large green-grey eyes seemed for ever asparkle with goblin mischief and the joy of revelry, and the curved lips might have been those of some wickedly-laughing faun; one almost expected to see embryo horns fretting the smoothness of his sleek dark hair. The chin was firm, but one looked in vain for a redeeming touch of ill-temper in the handsome, half-mocking, half-petulant face. With a strain of sourness in him Comus might have been leavened into something creative and masterful; fate had fashioned him with a certain whimsical charm, and left him all unequipped for the greater purposes of life. Perhaps no one would have called him a lovable character, but in many respects he was adorable; in all respects he was certainly damned.

Francesca is no saint, though. A really interesting discussion could be had as to which Bassington is most appropriately given the epithet 'unbearable'. Francesca ("if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room") is dominant on the social scene, which means we see her fierce (but genteel) fighting with everyone else, put-downs delivered with a smile, and constant battling to stay on top (and solvent). Saki's eye for the viciousness of social interaction is matched only by E.F. Benson's, and Saki does less to cloak it. It's all rounded-off with delicious humour, of course, but there's no getting away from the fact that mother and son are equally selfish - although they care for each other, in a disguised and distorted manner. Here is Francesca's oh-so-empathetic thoughts about her brother:
In her brother Henry, who sat eating small cress sandwiches as solemnly as though they had been ordained in some immemorial Book of Observances, fate had been undisguisedly kind to her. He might so easily have married some pretty helpless little woman, and lived at Notting Hill Gate, and been the father of a long string of pale, clever useless children, who would have had birthdays and the sort of illnesses that one is expected to send grapes to, and who would have painted fatuous objects in a South Kensington manner as Christmas offerings to an aunt whose cubic space for limber was limited. Instead of committing these unbrotherly actions, which are so frequent in family life that they might almost be called brotherly, Henry had married a woman who had both money and a sense of repose, and their one child had the brilliant virtue of never saying anything which even its parents could consider worth repeating.

Saki continues in a similar vein for much of the novel, and it is delicious. Lots of social cattiness and social failure, awkwardness when nemeses are sat together at dinner, that sort of thing. If it did not have the bite of his short stories, or quite their brilliance, then it was still certainly very good - the sort of thing a Mapp & Lucia fan would want to read when they're at their most spiky.

I thought I had a firm grasp on what Saki was doing, and I was enjoying it a lot, until I came to the final chapter. Oh, that final chapter. I shan't tell you the catalyst, but it is some of the best and saddest writing I have ever read. So, so brilliantly done - not a word overwritten, and not a false emotion. Stunning. At first it felt like it had come out of nowhere, completely out of kilter with the rest of the novel - but it actually had the effect of unveiling my eyes to the rest of The Unbearable Bassington: suddenly I could see that laughter and weeping, joy and sadness, had danced together throughout the whole narrative. Laughter was resolutely winning most of the way - but when it slipped, and weeping rode higher, it was really only the undercurrent of the novel flooding into view.

The Unbearable Bassington really is the most incredible little book. I think I still prefer his exemplary short stories, for their quick and witty impact, but The Unbearable Bassington is spectacular in a different way. Capuchin have recently republished it, and I'm glad that someone has - this is a novel which shouldn't be neglected, and here's hoping that the recent spate of reviews across the blogs will encourage a mini Saki-revival...

Sunday 17 April 2011

Song for a Sunday

Some unashamed summery pop music today, I think, in a bid to encourage the sun to shine. A Fine Frenzy has released two albums - this is from her second, Bomb in a Birdcage. It's perhaps not my favourite from the album, but I do love the video, and the song is lively and fun. Here is 'Electric Twist' - enjoy!

For all previous Sunday Songs, click here.

Saturday 16 April 2011

A very quick weekend miscellany...

Just two things today -

1.) Thank you SO much for all your wonderful and impassioned comments on my Agatha Christie vs. Dorothy L. Sayers post here. If you haven't done so, do go and read the comments - they're brilliant, and often hilarious. And the poll at the moment? I'm delighted to say that Agatha is three votes ahead of Dorothy!

2.) It's time for the prize draw for Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt. Patch hasn't been in action recently, but since this novel is about a dog, it seems right and proper that he lends a hand. And the winner is...

Congratulations, Harriet! And thanks Patch for choosing someone who lives in Oxford... promise it wasn't rigged. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Friday 15 April 2011

Hardy hard? Hardly...

Quite often you'll see Harriet and I write about the same books around about the same time. That's because we're in the same book group in Oxford... and usually she is much more prompt than me at actually getting around to writing about the things. Today's post is no different - I'm writing about Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, and she did so here.

I thought I'd cracked Hardy, last year. I made my second attempt with Jude the Obscure, and loved it - it even ended up on my Top Ten of 2010. And so I was excited when Harriet suggested that our book group read The Return of the Native - I wanted to get some more Hardy under my belt, now that I'd discovered that I loved him.

Hmm. Well, that didn't pan out quite as expected. You'll have to forgive my post title - I put it in because it amused me, not because it was true. Whilst I'd been surprised that Jude swept me along like a modern page-turner, I found The Return of the Native something of a slog.

The novel kicks off with a few pages describing Egdon Heath, which are apparently famous and much-loved. Well, you know me and descriptions of landscape - I was flicking past these pages before too long. And we come to a group of yokels discussing and dancing on the hillside. This crowd did give for a moment or two of something I didn't expect at all - humour!
Want of breath prevented a continuance of the songs; and the breakdown attracted the attention of a firm-standing man of middle age, who kept each corner of his crescent-shaped mouth rigorously drawn back into his cheek, as if to do away with any suspicion of mirthfulness which might erroneously have attached to him.
That occasioned a little chuckle, and I liked this next bit from later in the novel so much that I went and read it aloud to my housemate:
"Strange notions, has he?" said the old man. "Ah, there's too much of that sending to school in these days! It only does harm. Every gateost and barn's door you come to is sure to have some bad word or other chalked upon it by the young rascals: a woman can hardly pass for shame some times. If they'd never been taught how to write they wouldn't have been able to scribble such villainy. Their fathers couldn't do it, and the country was all the better for it."
(In my village, I must say, the local vandals tended towards the pictorial.) None of these characters end up being particularly important, however, and it's all a rather lengthy introduction to some of the novel's main players - Eustacia Vye and Damon Wildeve. Eustacia is all flashing eyes and passionate proclamations; Damon is all wry comments alternating with romantic gestures. Awkward, then, that he's about to marry someone else - a girl so virtuous and accepting that I can't even remember her name.

Naturally everyone is in love with everyone else. Throw the reddleman Diggory Venn into the mix (a reddleman being someone who transports sheep-dye around the countryside, and is covered head to toe in the stuff), and the 'native' himself Clym Yeobright, and we've got a love-hexagon or -septagon or somesuch going on. To be honest, it all felt a bit like a watered down version of Jude the Obscure, even though that novel came later. All the partner-swapping, and going back and forth between people; false promises and broken vows; wild and amorous announcements followed by bitter renouncing, etc. etc. This excerpt is fairly representative:
She interrupted with a suppressed fire of which either love or anger seemed an equally possible issue, "Do you love me now?"

"Who can say?"

"Tell me; I will know it!"

"I do, and I do not," he said mischeviously. "That is, I have my times and my seasons. One moment you are too tall, another moment you are too do-nothing, another too melancholy, another too dark, another I don't know what, except - that you are not the whole world to me that you used to be, my dear. But you are a pleasant lady to know, and nice to meet, and I dare say as sweet as ever - almost."
This sort of histrionics does occasionally result in humour where I imagine Hardy didn't intend it. The following is possibly my favourite quotation from Victorian literature, and one I intend to put to good use in moments of over-dramatic angst:
"Your eyes seem heavy, Eustacia!"

"No, it is my general way of looking. I think it arises from my feeling sometimes an agonizing pity for myself that I ever was born."
Well, quite, Eustacia. It comes to us all.

I can't decide whether The Return of the Native really is much worse than Jude the Obscure or if I was simply not in the mood for Hardy. And I wasn't, especially since I had to speed-read the second half for book group... to which only one other person came!

Perhaps I'm not being fair, and I have enjoyed ripping into Hardy a bit - it somewhat makes up for the slog I had reading it. I'd love (as I always love) someone to come along and disagree with me - there must be someone who loves this novel? Maybe I would if I read it in a different mood. As it is... I'm back to the drawing-board with Thomas Hardy.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Year Three & Four: The Sketches

It seems that, despite my best intentions, at no point in the last year did I collect together the sketches from Year Three on my blog - so here are Year Three and Four together! They've been sadly less frequent than I intended when I started up this blog, but... never mind. In fact, I can't believe there have only been fourteen in the past two years. Oops. Must Do Better.

Clicking on each cartoon *should* take you to the relevant post.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Agatha vs. Dorothy

In the six-and-a-half years that I have lived in Oxford, I have only been to three events at the Oxford Literary Festival. This is owing to a few reasons - mostly, perhaps, because I tended to be at home when an undergraduate, and at work since then. It doesn't help that they now charge £5 simply to find out what events are happening when (in a book
filled with adverts - one would think they should either charge for it, or have adverts, but not both). You can scroll through the website, but it is tedious.

I must add the third reason that I have been so rarely - all the authors I love are dead. There are some I like who are alive, but that number does not include many of the literati who favour Literary Festivals with their talks. So... what could be better than a talk about dead authors??

Harriet reminded me in the morning, when we blitzed an Oxfam book fair together, and I headed along to Agatha vs. Dorothy - PD James and Jill Paton-Walsh debating these grande dames of detective fiction.

It was a wonderful discussion - Phyllis James is very funny, and both women had very perceptive things to say about detective fiction as a genre, and amicably disagreed with one another at various points. The central idea behind the talk was that James would champion Agatha Christie, while Paton-Walsh championed Dorothy L. Sayers. It didn't quite work out like that, since (as one audience member perspicaciously pointed out) both seemed to prefer Sayers. James based her defence on the fact that Christie is more popular... but said she thought Sayers was the better writer, with better characters too.

We (the audience) were asked at the beginning and end to raise our hands in support of either Agatha or Dorothy. Mine went firmly up for Agatha both times - and I wish PD James had been more emphatic in her defence of Agatha Christie, without feeling the need to rest upon four billion sales worldwide, astonishing though that number is. I have no qualms in saying that I prefer Christie's novels to Sayers - and I might even go so far as to say they are better. Without a doubt, on a paragraph-by-paragraph comparison, Sayers is the better prose stylist. But when it comes to plotting out a mystery, with clues and twists and denouement, Christie is more or less a genius, and Sayers is utterly hopeless. True, I have only read two of her novels (Strong Poison and Gaudy Night) but both are amateurish in terms of the whodunnit plot. Whereas Christie's incredible talent in this area is, to my mind, unparalleled.

And onto characters. Yes... Christie's supporting characters are somewhat cliche-laden (even though, as I discovered last summer when reading Murder at the Vicarage, she is rather funnier with them than I'd remembered) but if working harder at characters makes you come up with the loathsome Peter Wimsey, then I'm rather glad she didn't... Right now I'm ducking, because I know that (inexplicably) Lord Wimsey is adored and cherished throughout much of the blogosphere, but I couldn't stand him and his self-pleased snobbery. Eugh! Whereas Poirot and Miss Marple are wonderful.

So, that's my colours nailed to the mast. Please raise your hands (or, since I shan't be able to see that, post in the comments) for Agatha or Dorothy - and make your defences as impassioned as mine!

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Year Five: Book Reviews

Baker, Frank - Mr. Allenby Loses The Way 
Barnes, Julian - The Sense of an Ending 
Beaton, Cecil - Ashcombe
Benson, Stella - Living Alone
Bentley, Nicolas - How Can You Bear To Be Human?
Betts, P.Y. - People Who Say Goodbye
Bioy Casares, Adolfo - The Invention of Morel
Border, Terry - Bent Objects 
Bowles, Jane - Two Serious Ladies
Bridge, Ann - Illyrian Spring
Brookner, Anita - Hotel du Lac
Capote, Truman - In Cold Blood
Chesterton, G.K. - The Man Who Was Thursday
Cholmondeley, Mary - Red Pottage
Colquhoun, Kate - Mr. Brigg's Hat (Review by Our Vicar's Wife)
Crompton, Richmal - Still William
Dick, Kay - Ivy and Stevie 
Dickens, Charles - Great Expectations 
Dostoevsky, Fyodor - The Double
Essex, Mary - The Amorous Bicycle
Evens, Brecht - The Wrong Place
Fadiman, Anne - At Large and At Small
Ferguson, Rachel - Passionate Kensington
Field, Eugene - The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac
Gallico, Paul - Jennie
Gibbons, Stella - Westwood
Girouard, Mark - Enthusiasms
Goldsworthy, Peter - Maestro 
Graham, Virginia - Here's How
Green, Henry - Blindness
Grondahl, Jens Christian - Virginia
Hamilton, Patrick - The Slaves of Solitude
Hardy, Thomas - The Return of the Native
Hillis, Marjorie - Live Alone and Like It
Howe, Bea - A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee
Jackson, Shirley - Life Among the Savages
Jackson, Shirley - Raising Demons
Jackson, Shirley - The Lottery and other stories 
Kaufman, Andrew - The Tiny Wife
Keller, Helen - The World I Live In  
Kennedy, Margaret - Jane Austen 
Kerr, Jean - Please Don't Eat The Daisies
Kingsolver, Barbara - The Poisonwood Bible

Last, Nella - Nella Last's Peace
Leduc, Violette - The Lady and the Little Fox Fur
Macaulay, Rose - The World My Wilderness 
Maugham, W. Somerset - Up At The Villa
Maxwell, William - So Long, See You Tomorrow
Maxwell, William & Sylvia Townsend Warner - The Element of Lavishness
Mayor, F.M. - The Rector's Daughter
Mills, Magnus - All Quiet on the Orient Express
Milne, A.A. - Mr. Pim Passes By
Morley, Christopher - Safety Pins
Nicholls, David - One Day
Olivier, Edith - Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady
Olivier, Edith - Country Moods and Tenses  
Panter-Downes, Mollie - One Fine Day
Pratchett, Terry - Going Postal
Queneau, Raymond - Exercises in Style
Saki - The Unbearable Bassington
Smith, Dodie - I Capture the Castle
Smith, Dodie - The Town in Bloom
Smith, Dodie - Look Back With Love  
Smith, Dodie - Dear Octopus
Spark, Muriel - Memento Mori
Steinbeck, John - The Pearl
Stephenson, Simon - Let Not The Waves of the Sea
Stonier, G.W. - Shaving Through the Blitz
Strachan, Mari - The Earth Hums in B Flat
Taylor, Elizabeth - A View of the Harbour
Toole, John Kennedy - A Confederacy of Dunces
Townsend, Sue - Adrian Mole series  
Trefusis, Violet - Echo
Trevelyan, G.E. - Appius and Virginia
Trillin, Calvin - Tepper Isn't Going Out
Trillin, Calvin - Deadline Poet 
Vincent, Lady Kitty - Gin and Ginger
von Arnim, Elizabeth - Christopher and Columbus
Warner, Sylvia Townsend - Time Importuned  
Warner, Sylvia Townsend - Opus 7 

Warner, Sylvia Townsend and William Maxwell - The Element of Lavishness 
Winman, Sarah - When God Was A Rabbit
Wodehouse, P.G. - Right Ho, Jeeves 
Wren, Jenny - Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl
Young, E.H. - The Misses Mallett