Wednesday 29 February 2012

Forthcoming Dodie Smiths

Following on from my recent enthusiasm about Dodie Smith's autobiography, I was excited when someone (Claire, I think, or maybe Verity) pointed me in the direction of Corsair's new reprints of some obscure Dodie Smith novels.  I wrote about The Town in Bloom a while ago, which I thought started very well and got a bit worse, but lots of folk have told me that I should be reading The New Moon with the Old.  Once these come out on 15th March (or, more precisely, when Lent is over and I'm allowed to buy books again) these will definitely be flying their way to me.  I love the cover designs, and I really love the cheap price they're going for at Amazon.  And I say that despite never having got around to sorting out an Amazon Affiliates account.

Anyway, still too under the weather to write much, so I'll just leave you with the pictures...

Monday 27 February 2012

The World My Wilderness - Rose Macaulay

I hope this will turn out coherent.  I wrote most of it a while ago, sent the book away to a friend, and am now trying to complete a review sans book and sans health.  Here goes...

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is my first overlap of A Century of Books.  Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness was published in 1950, a spot which is already occupied on my list by Margaret Kennedy's Jane Austen.  First come, first reviewed, so it's Kennedy who's on the century list.  But I'm still going to talk about Rose Macaulay, naturally...

This is the fifth novel (and eighth book) that I've read by Rose Macaulay, and she is becoming one of those reliable writers I know I can pick up and enjoy; the only dud I've encountered was Staying With Relations.  Wikipedia tells me that her final novel, The Towers of Trebizond (which I have not read) is 'widely regarded as her masterpiece'.  I am edging ever closer to it, since The World My Wilderness is her penultimate book, and the other one which people tend to have heard of, if they've heard of Macaulay at all.

'Reliable' is just another word for 'consistent', really, and Macaulay does seem to write in a consistently dry, almost satirical style, pursuing a similar theme in each novel - albeit a theme so broad that she could have written two thousand novels and never needed to approach it from the same angle twice.  It is dangerous to summarise thus (and others may have said this before me - indeed, now I see that Karyn has) but I believe Macaulay's broad theme across her novels is: 'What does it mean to be civilised?'  In Keeping Up Appearances this is addressed through literary eschelons; in Crewe Train through the 'civilised savage'; in Dangerous Ages through psychoanalysis, and so on and so forth.  In The World My Wilderness, the title alludes to this debate - and the setting, postwar France and England, offers the physical destruction and moral weariness that the word 'wilderness' suggests.  Macaulay includes an anonymous epigraph, from which she draws the title:
The world my wilderness, its caves my home,
Its weedy wastes the garden where I roam,
Its chasm'd cliffs my castle and my tomb...
The cast of characters is initially broad and confusing (or at least it was to me) and I pesevered by ignoring those who weren't dominant in the narrative at any one time, then slotting them all together later.  There are so many children and stepchildren and half-siblings that I had to throw my hands up in the air in defeat.  Ok.  Stiffen the sinews, summon the blood.  Here goes.

Helen and Gulliver had Barbary and Richie.  Helen and Gulliver divorced; Helen moved to France with Barbary (leaving Richie behind) and married Maurice, while Gulliver married Pamela.  Helen and Maurice had Roland.  Maurice was drowned in mysterious circumstances, leaving Helen with a stepson Raoul.  Gulliver and Pamela had David, and Pamela is pregnant again.  Phew.  That will do - I'm leaving out mother-in-law and uncle, who make cameo appearances.

There are so many characters, but I'm only going to focus on the two I thought most important.

The novel begins with Barbary and Raoul moving to England (Richie visits his mother in France) and these two form the chief interest of the novel.  Macaulay is often quite playful with names, and I don't think it's any coincidence that 'Barbary' is so close to 'barbarous'.  She is used to running amok with the French maquis, a group whose aim was to resist the invading Germans, but who extend this resistance to all forms of authority.  She has the same attitude in England, except now her companions are deserters and thieves, living their lawless lives in the bombed out old churches and houses of London.  Her old nurse warns her against being too trusting:
"And I ask, Miss Barbary, that on no account will you ever trust those young men, for of trust they will never be deserving."

Barbary, experienced in discredited young men, had never thought of trusting any of them.  Lend them something, and you never had it back; leave anything about near them, and you did not see it again.  If they could derive advantage from betraying you, betray you they would; these were the simple laws of their lives, the simple, easy laws of the bad, who had not to reckon with the complication of scruples, but only with gain and loss, comfort and hardship, safety and risk.
"Oh no, Coxy," Barbary said, in surprise at the eccentric idea suggested to her.  "I should never trust them.  I mean, trust them with what?  Or to do what?  There couldn't be anything..."
Barbary is a very Macaulayan character, if you'll excuse me coining the term: she is something of an outsider, straight-talking, independent, but uncertain of her place in the world.  And the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree - but while Barbary's inability to cohere with society turns her into a restless, waif-like exile from civilisation, her mother Helen is the selfish, self-absorbed type whose callousness hides behind a veneer of grace and elegance.  She claims to have a 'phobia of being bored', and very little breaks through to her heart.  Helen is overtly uncivilised, as Barbary is, but she respects none of the values of civilisation - preferring, instead, a reckless and ambiguous love for beauty.
"As to one's country, why should one feel any more interest in its welfare than in that of other countries?  And as to the family, I have never understood how that fits in with the other ideals - or, indeed, why it should be an ideal at all.  A group of closely related persons living under one roof; it is a convenience, often a necessity, sometimes a pleasure, sometimes the reverse; but who first exalted it as admirable, an almost religious ideal?"

"My dear Madame, not almost.  It is a religious ideal."  The abbe spoke dryly, and did not add anything about the Holy Family at Nazareth, for he never talked in such a manner to his worldly, unbelieving friends.
It is worth noting that Macaulay delights in giving her characters views that are not her own.  She signposts this with a motif running through her novels; that of looking down on writers and novels.  Some readers always want authors to be making a point, moral or otherwise, in their writing; I am happy if a writer can convey characters acting believably.  That is 'point' enough for me, and I think for Macaulay too - it would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from her writing, other than an examination of the way that certain characters behave in certain circumstances.  She extends beyond this, to questions as vast as the role of civilisations, but she doesn't attempt to answer these questions.  Nor could she.

Speaking of her writing... Macaulay has a dry, ironic tone which I've preferred in other of her novels.  Sometimes, in The World My Wilderness, she seemed to get a bit carried away with a romanticised, flowing, almost baroque writing style.  Perhaps that fits into the themes - but it did include this section, all of which is one sentence:
In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors,of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some cintuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered, or lost shape and line in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner - during all this frightening evanesence and dissolution, the historic churches kept their strange courses, kept their improbably, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth, and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.
This isn't particularly representative of The World My Wilderness - 200 pages of this would have driven me crazy - but it does pop up now and then, and adds to the richness of Macaulay's writing, if you can cope with this sort of thing.

I'm afraid this review is going to peter out rather, because I seem to be heading towards semi-consciousness... so, in summary... I liked it, but I think Macaulay newbies might be better off with Crewe Train or Keeping Up Appearances.  Let's hand over to some other folk, who might have been more conscious whilst writing their reviews...

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"[...]it is despairing, and unrelentingly sombre and pessimistic." - Karyn, A Penguin A Week 

"It's a beautifully written and nuanced story that's filled with amazing (in the fantastic sense) imagery of a post-war London" - Danielle, A Work in Progress

"It’s a stunning, well-written novel." - Katherine, A Girl Walks into a Bookstore

Sunday 26 February 2012

Song for a Sunday

I've featured her before, on my first ever Song for a Sunday, and this is my other favourite song by her: it's Vienna Teng and 'Kansas' (apologies that the quality isn't amazing):

Still feeling rotten, but I dug out the perfect novel to accompany feeling sorry for myself: Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson.  So far, giggling away to myself in a corner.  Lovely.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you all have nicer weekends lined up than I do.  Well, the weekend will probably be fine, it's just that I've come down with a horrible cold... that stage where you feel semi-conscious all the time.  Yeah, not fun.  Lots of bed and Lemsip for me tomorrow... And it's going to be a pretty brief miscellany, so that I can slump in a heap somewhere.  (Cue violins, etc.)

1.) You know me, I love a review of Miss Hargreaves - and I especially love this one by Chris.  Go and have a gander - and if, for some strange reason, you've yet to read the novel... get to it!

2.) Doesn't The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel look wonderful?  I can't believe Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Penelope Wilton are in a film together - and one that looks such heartwarming fun.

3.) A review of Diary of a Provincial Lady, you say?  Iris and Jenny are happy to oblige.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Look Back With Love - Dodie Smith

I am growing very fond of those lovely folk at Slightly Foxed.  Last December I had spotted that they were publishing Dodie Smith's first autobiography, Look Back With Love (1974), and was umming and ahhhing about asking for a review copy... when they offered me one!  Although I'm always flattered to be offered books by any publisher, my heart does a little jump for joy (medically sound, no?) when it's a reprint publisher doing the offering.  And even more so when it's one of these beautiful little Slightly Foxed Editions (I covet the *lot*) - and even more so when it's a title I've wanted to read ever since I first read and loved I Capture the Castle back in 2003.

I was not disappointed.  Look Back With Love is simply a lovely, warming, absorbing book.  It is only the possibility that I may prefer one of her other three autobiographical instalments (think of it; three!) which prevents me adding it to my 50 Books You Must Read list just yet...

You may have gathered from all those volumes of autobiography that Smith doesn't cover her whole life in Look Back With Love.  Indeed, she only gets as far as fourteen by the end of this book, placing it firmly in childhood memoir territory.  I do have a definite fondness for memoirs which focus on, or at least include, childhood - as evinced by my championing of Emma Smith's The Great Western Beach, Angelica Garnett's Deceived With Kindness, Harriet Devine's Being George Devine's Daughter, Terence Frisby's Kisses on a Postcard, Christopher Milne's The Enchanted Places, and one of Slightly Foxed's other recent titles, P.Y. Betts' People Who Say Goodbye.  I especially like them if they cover the Edwardian period - perhaps because that means the subjects will have been adults in the interwar period which I love so dearly.  What links all these autobiographies, besides their recountings of childhood, is that they recount happy childhoods.  That is to say, they all find and express happy moments from within their childhoods, rather than prioritising the miserable or cruel.  Misery memoirs, I'm afraid, will never have a place on my bookcases.  I can understand why people write them - it must be a form of catharsis - but I cannot begin to fathom why people want to read them.

Dodie Smith's family sounds like it was wonderfully fun.  True, her father died in her early childhood, and she was an only child, but these sad circumstances do not seem to have held her back.  She certainly didn't grow up isolated: her widowed mother moved back to her parents' house, and so Dodie grew up surrounded by grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  The aunts gradually married and moved, but three uncles remained bachelors and meant (Smith says) that she never felt the absence of a father.  The dynamics of the family certainly don't seem to be lacking much.  As the only child amidst so many adults, Smith was showered with affection and approval - and no small amount of teasing...
Somehow I knew I must never resent teasing and though I sometimes kicked my uncles' shins in impotent rage, never, never did it make me cry.  Teasing must be accepted as fun.  And I now see it as one of the great blessings bestowed on me by those three uncles whom, even when they became elderly men, I still referred to as 'the boys'.
Smith's autobiography is not a string of momentous occasions, really, but a continuous, welcoming stream of memory.  Of course there are individual anecdotes, but the overall impression I got was of a childhood gradually being unveiled before us, with stories and impressions threaded subtly into what feels like a complete picture.  I was mostly struck by how accurate Smith's memory seems to be:
All the memories I have so far described are crystal clear in my mind; I see them almost like scenes on the stage, each one lit by its own particular light: sunlight, twilight, flickering firelight, charmless gaslight or the, to me, dramatic light of a carried taper.
This particular comment is actually an apology for the fact that, for recollections before she turned seven, Smith cannot recall exact chronology.  Well!  I have come to realise that my own memory is rather shoddy.  I remember strikingly little about my childhood - or, indeed, about any of my past.  If family and friends talk about an event, there's a good 50/50 chance that it'll come back to me - but if I were to sit down and try to write an autobiography, I think I'd come unstuck on about p.5.  I just can't remember very much, at least not without prompts.  Curious.  But it makes me all the more impressed when writers like Smith seem effortlessly to delve into their past and convey it so wonderfully - especially since Smith was in her late 70s when she wrote this memoir.

With memoirs, I seem especially drawn to people (like Harriet Devine) who grew up amongst theatrical folk, people (like Irene Vanbrugh) who became actors, or (like Felicity Kendal) both.  There's always been a part of me that wishes I'd grown up alongside actors and theatre managers.  Although I have no genuine aspirations to be an actor, I'm endlessly fascinated by the world of the stage, especially before 1950.  Well, although Smith's relatives were not connected with the theatre professionally, several were keen amateurs, and some of my many delights in Look Back With Love were Smith's first adventures upon the stage - especially the ad-libbing.

These sections were all the more enjoyable because Smith made frequent reference to her later career as a playwright.  (I've only read one of her plays - her first, published under a pseudonym - but am now keen to read more.)  When I wrote about P.Y. Betts' People Who Say Goodbye I commented that it was as though her childhood had been hermetically sealed.  Not once did she introduce her later life, or make links across the decades.  This worked fine for me, since I'd never heard of Betts before, and was happy to take her memoir on her terms.  Since I came to Look Back With Love with an extant interest in Dodie Smith, I've have been disgruntled if she hadn't made these connections between stages in her life (although, tchuh, she didn't mention I Capture the Castle.)

I keep saying that different things from this book were my favourite part... well, that's because I loved so much of it.  But I think, honestly and truly, my favourite element was Smith's ability to write about houses.  I love houses.  Not just to live in (they're handy for that) but as subjects for novels, autobiographies, TV redecoration programmes...  Chuck me a novel where the house is central, and I'm in.  Write something like Ashcombe and I'm delirious.  So I loved the way Smith conveyed the various houses she lived in.  Not that she wrote in huge detail about decor or style, although these were mentioned - more that, somehow, she manages to make the reader feel as though they were also residents in the houses, looking around each room with the familiarity of those who share Smith's memories.  I can't pinpoint an excerpt which made me feel like this; it permeates the book.

Most of Look Back With Love is (as the title suggests) lit by the glow of nostalgia.  The humour tends to be gentle, intertwined with the fond remembrance of innocent times past, rather than knockabout comedy, but there was one excerpt which made me laugh out loud.  It's part of Smith's tales of schooldays:
My mother felt the elocution lessons were well worth the extra she paid for them, but she was not pleased when Art became an extra, too.  Drawing, plain and simple, was in the curriculum but, after we had been drawing for a year or so, the visiting mistress would bend over one's shoulder and say quietly, "I think, dear, you may now tell your mother you are ready for Shading."  This, said my mother, merely meant she had to pay half a guinea extra for me to smother my clothes with charcoal; but it would have been a bad social error to refuse Shading once one was ready for it, so she gave in.  I then spent a full term on a bunch of grapes - the drawing mistress brought them with her twice and then we had to remember them; they were tiring fast.  After a few terms of Shading pupils were permitted to tell their mothers they were "ready for Oils", but mothers must have been unresponsive for I can recall only one painting pupil.  She had a very small canvas on a very large easel and was generally to be seen staring helplessly at three apples and a Japanese fan.  After many weeks I heard the drawing mistress say to her brightly, "One sometimes finds the best plan is to start all over again."
Lovely, no?

This has gone on for quite long enough, so I'm going to finish off with a characteristic piece of Dodie's writing.  The setting, ladies and gents, is the senior (mark it, senior) dancing class.
There were so many superb boys that I did not see how I could be without a partner, but I was soon to realise that there were two girls too many and I was always one of them.  Few of the boys were younger than fifteen.  I was only nine and small for my age, but I could never understand why they were not interested in me - I felt so very interesting.
This is the rhythm which is maintained throughout Look Back With Love: young Dodie always thought she was very interesting, and old Dodie looks back across the years with the same level of interest, albeit now more detached.  There is every possibility that this level of self-importance in a child would have been irritating for those around her - Smith freely confesses that she used to recite and perform at the merest suggestion of the drop of a hat - but, from the adult Smith, it pulls the reader along with the same happy enthusiasm.  Smith's childhood was not wildly unusual, but the way she is able to describe it elevates Look Back With Love above other childhood memoirs.  Everything, everyone, is capable of interesting Dodie Smith (adult and infant), and this makes her the most fascinating subject of all.  It is rare that I am bereft to finish a book.  A mere handful of titles have had this effect on me in the past five years.  But Look Back With Love is one - as I turned the final page, I longed for more; I longed to know why she made such dark hints about her stepfather; how her playwriting took off; how she experienced the theatre of the 1930s... thank goodness there are three more volumes to read!

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

Well, I was going to do a round-up of other bloggers who've written about Look Back With Love, but I can only find one who has!  But they say it's quality not quantity, and you couldn't do better than Elaine's review over on Random Jottings:  "Look back with Love is a lovely, lovely, lovely book.  It is charming, it is delightful, it is beguiling, it made me laugh and it made me cry and I adored every single word of it and was very sad to finish it. [...]"

Wednesday 22 February 2012

The Readers and My Life in Books

If you enjoy reading Stuck-in-a-Book but have always thought that it was missing a certain audio quality, then I have just the thing for you!  Simon S and Gav very kindly asked me to contribute my Five Favourite Books to their awesome weekly podcast The Readers - and it's now up!  I'm at the end of the podcast, but obviously you should listen to the whole thing.  Here it is!  Probably not a lot of surprises there for regular readers of SiaB, but I had such fun doing it (and re-doing it when I went on for too long the first time - is anyone surprised?!)

My e-friend Julie alerted me to the fact that the second series of BBC Two's My Life in Books is on its way - some info here - and that seems like a good bandwagon-jumping opportunity.  Some of you will remember that I shamelessly ripped off the idea (and title) for my own My Life in Books series last March/April, inviting some of my favourite bloggers and blog-readers to participate, in mystery-partner pairs.  You can still read them all by clicking on the image below...

Well, I've decided to do it again!  Last time I decided not to ask bloggers in their 20s and 30s, since we've barely begun our reading life - but I rejigged the questions a bit, took away any age limit, and contacted another 16 of my favourite bloggers and asked them to join in.  I'm delighted to say that every single one of them said yes!  Not sure exactly when the series will start, but it'll be sometime in the next two months.  Just thought I'd get you excited about it - it's going to be a fun few collaborative months here at Stuck-in-a-Book, what with Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebrations, Muriel Spark Reading Week, and My Life in Books.  Isn't the blogosphere fun?

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Another Blogger Meeting

I've been lucky enough to meet a lot of bloggers over the past four or so years - one of these days I must compile a list and see quite how many I have met - but the award for furthest-flung blogger has to go to Karyn of A Penguin A Week, whom I met in Oxford today.  Karyn has come all the way from Australia to Penguin-hunt, as you are probably aware if you read her fab blog.  Well, when I saw that she was heading to these shores, I decided we should definitely have lunch and scour some bookshops together - and she thought it sounded like a good plan too.

I arrived a little early at The Nosebag, my favourite lunch place in Oxford, and wandered around to see if Karyn was there yet.  She wasn't, but I did bump into an old housemate, and had to explain that I was meeting somebody off the internet, and only had the small photograph from their site by which to identify them.  Liz (the said housemate) is familiar with my blogging excursions to some extent, but I think I made an 'interesting' impression on the guy with whom she was having lunch...

So I popped outside, and there Karyn was, browsing through the books of the shop next door: I had chosen the eaterie not solely for its good food, but for its proximity to Arcadia, which specialises in Penguins.  We sat, ate, and nattered.  As always when I meet bloggers, it feels like I've known them forever, and I gab away nineteen-to-the-dozen.

Then off we went, to Arcadia, Oxfam, and the Albion Beatnik bookshop.  In all three, we both bought at least one book - in the first, Karyn very kindly bought me the book I'd eyed: Molly Keane's Young Entry.  She also told me how great The Quest For Corvo by A.J.A. Symons was, which reminded me that I borrowed a copy about eight years ago...

Later I got a few more - as always, I love to share my spoils, so here be they:

They Were Defeated - Rose Macaulay
Bachelors Anonymous - P.G. Wodehouse
A Man With A Horn - Dorothy Baker
The Far Cry - Emma Smith
Smoke and other early stories - Djuna Barnes
Young Entry - M.J. Farrell/Molly Keane

I didn't keep track of what Karyn was finding, but I'm sure they'll appear on her blog in due course.  It was a really fun afternoon, and yet another reason to be grateful for that day when I decided starting a blog could be a fun idea - who knew all the people I'd get to meet?

Oh, and my favourite moment of the day?  When the owner of one bookshop suddenly asked me: "Do you know how to make jelly?"


Monday 20 February 2012

Right Ho, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

My book group recently read Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) by P.G. Wodehouse.  I always like an excuse to read some Wodehouse.  A diet of nothing else would be like living on ice cream, but as an occasional snack, there is nothing better.  And it would be a mistake to think that, since PGW makes for such easy reading, that it is easy writing.  I think Wodehouse is one of the best wordsmiths (or should that be wordpsmiths?) I have read, and it is far more difficult to write a funny book than it is to write a poignant or melancholy book.

But perhaps there are people out there who have yet to read any Wodehouse?  Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the way he writes (since, let's face it, there is minimal variety within his output.)  In the typical Wodehouse novel you will have comic misunderstandings, elaborate disguises, accidental engagements, wrathful aunts, and everybody ending up happy in the end.  This formula is more certain than ever in a Jeeves and Wooster novel, where rich, foolish young Wooster gets himself entangled in a comedy of errors, and wise butler Jeeves demurely extracts him from them.

But the sheer joy, the genius, of Wodehouse is his wordplay.  It's the kind of thing which will either appeal or not, and is impossible to explain into funniness (which is true of all humour, probably) - Wodehouse uses language like an acrobat, dashing from hyperbole to understatement in a moment; finding the longest way to express the shortest phrase; finding the most unexpected metaphors and similes, and twisting them all together alongside absurd slang and abbreviation.  Who but Wodehouse could have written this line?
Girls are rummy.  Old Pop Kipling never said a truer word than when he made that crack about the f. of the s. being more d. than the m.
Or have conceived of this image, when serving an aunt with alcohol?
"Give me a drink, Bertie."

"What sort?"

"Any sort, so long as it's strong."

Approach Bertram Wooster along these lines, and you catch him at his best.  St. Bernard dogs doing the square thing by Alpine travellers could not have bustled about more assiduously.
Like Richmal Crompton's William Brown, Bertram 'Bertie' Wooster is nothing if not blessed with aunts - most of whom view him with an unwavering, and understandable, loathing and distrust.  But, like William Brown, Wooster is endlessly well-meaning.  This is what makes him such an attractive hero - more or less all the messes in which he finds himself are caused by trying to help others, often in the romantic department.  Although Wooster himself sees engagement as a misery beyond all others, he often attempts to help others reach this state (invariably finding himself engaged to the soppiest female present.)

But so far I have not been specific.  I should mention Right Ho, Jeeves.  Aunt Dahlia - the only aunt who can tolerate Wooster, although she demonstrates the sort of affection which is shown through terse telegrams and much use of the term 'fathead' - summons Wooster to her mansion in Market Snodsbury, Worcestershire.  (Not many novels feature Worcestershire, the county in which I was raised, so it's nice to see it get a mention - and Pershore, no less, which was the nearest town to my house.  If you're thinking the village name is ridiculous, I should mention that Upton Snodsbury is in the area, and presumably inspired Wodehouse.)  He is being summoned to distribute prizes at a school, a fate which Wooster would rather avoid, to put it mildly.  So he ropes in newt-fanatic Gussie Fink-Nottle, who had been looking for an excuse to go there.  For why, you ask?  Well, with the coincidental air which characterises so many of Wodehouse's convoluted plots, the girl with whom Fink-Nottle is besotted happens to be staying there.  She, 'the Bassett disaster' as Wooster terms her, comes across pretty clearly in his first description of her:
I don't want to wrong anybody, so I won't go so far as to say that she actually wrote poetry, but her conversation, to my mind, was of a nature calculated to excite the liveliest suspicions. Well, I mean to say, when a girl suddenly asks you out of a blue sky if you don't sometimes feel that the stars are God's daisy-chain, you begin to think a bit.
The romantic entanglements do not end there, of course.  Wooster's cousin Angela and her beau Tuppy also have something of a rollercoaster relationship, just to add to festivities.  Then there is Wooster's white jacket, which Jeeves is determined shall not be worn...

My favourite scene from this, and one which often appears in anthologies etc., is Gussie at the prize-giving.  All I'll say is that he's been drinking, for the first time in his life.  It's supposed to stiffen the sinews and summon the blood, but it's a little more chaotic than that.

This isn't my favourite Wodehouse novel.  I think I prefer the stand-alone books to the series, perhaps because they're all the more unexpected and strange.  But Wodehouse's exceptionally brilliant use of language is on fine form in Right Ho, Jeeves and I certainly loved reading this.  There are many imitators, but nobody can equal Wodehouse for his strand of comic writing - and a dose of it, in between other books, is always, always welcome.

Sunday 19 February 2012

London (Part Two)

Ok, we've looked at the spoils I bought - but those were not the only books I dragged home on the train, because there were some lovely books handed out to us at the Bloomsbury event - more anon.  (I'm afraid uploading photos broke halfway through writing this, hence lack of pictures.)

There are quite a few publishers who have been in touch with me over the years, and although review copies do not flow at the rate they once did -  a combination of (for the world) the recession and (for my blog) a focus away from modern literature - I am very lucky to know some incredibly lovely people at these companies.  And two publishers (Bloomsbury and Sceptre, since you ask) tie for being the very most lovely.  Bloomsbury might just inch ahead, because although they don't have access to Debo Devonshire (I did once inform Nikki Barrow at Sceptre that I'd be very willing to put up the Duchess on my sofa, if she were ever visiting Oxford) Bloomsbury's Alice does exchange tales of baking disasters with me.  In my world, that's lovely.

So I was delighted when Alice got in touch and asked me if I'd like to attend a Tea Party with various other bloggers, some authors, and the various members of staff at Bloomsbury.  One quick reshuffle of my work days, and I RSVPed an eager 'yes!'

It was lovely to see some of my favourite bloggers again - amongst those I'd met before were Elaine, Karen, Kim, Jackie, Lynne, and Marcia/Lizzy Siddal.  New to me were Victoria/Litlove and Jane.  I think that's everyone, apologies if not!  It was especially wonderful to finally meet Victoria, after years of reading her blog - we didn't get to chat for that long, but she was just as great as I'd anticipated.  I barely spoke to Jane at the Tea, but we had a very animated chat whilst we waited for the post-tea event... more on that later!

It's always difficult (I assume) to organise these events - how do you make sure the authors get to see everyone?  How do you make it friendly and still get information across?  How the heck do you stop bloggers gabbing away to one another all night?  Well, Bloomsbury did it marvellously.  We had plenty of time to mingle and natter, meeting many Bloomsbury folks (indeed, re-meeting quite a few, whom I'd met at the launch for Kisses On A Postcard 2.5 years ago) and I especially enjoyed chatting with Katie Bond from the publicity department.  Katie had somehow found out my outrageous (but sadly true) statement that I have to be heartily persuaded to leave my comfort zone and read anything post-1950 - and she teased me about it, especially when she caught me leaving the party with an armful of books.

Those books being: William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson, A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp, and The Forrests by Emily Perkins.

Boyd popped in briefly to sign copies and have a chat, in a maelstrom of visiting dozens of bookshops across London.  Joinson gave a lovely talk about her book, which made me desperately want to read it - actually I was most pleased by her discussion of her blog and what it's like when you meet someone who has read it.  I naively don't think about any of the non-commenters who read my blog (although statistics tell me they make up about 95% of my readership) and I'm always surprised when people in Real Life turn out to be lurkers.

I was most excited about hearing Kate Summerscale, who spoke very winningly, humbly yet convincingly about her upcoming book Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, based on the real diaries of a disgraced Victorian wife (who, in turn, protested that they were her own imaginary scenarios, rather than fact, when her husband discovered them.)  Fascinating stuff, and I can't wait for copies to be available.

Alexandra Pringle, the doyenne of Bloomsbury, gave a wonderfully impassioned talk on behalf of several Bloomsbury titles, and the new venture Bloomsbury Circus - and it was eight words from her which made me desperate to get my hands on The Forrests by Emily Perkins: "It reminds me of Virginia Woolf's The Waves."  As Jackie pointed out, this statement could have the opposite effect - but it certainly did wonders for my keenness to read the novel.  It's out 24th May, but I snaffled away a copy... you'll be hearing more about that soon, and probably not just from me.

The fun and games couldn't last forever, sadly, and all too soon bloggers were donning coats, grabbing an extra book on the way to the door, and heading on their separate ways... except for three of us, that is, as Jane, Lynne, and I stayed behind to hear Susannah Clapp talk about Angela Carter (and A Card From Angela Carter) with Sir Christopher Frayling.  We were very lucky to get places, as it was sold out very early, and even lovely Alice couldn't get in.  I found it fascinating - not only the speakers, but more or less everyone in the room seemed to have known Angela, and had their anecdotes to share.  Carter is an author I am keen to explore, and this talk made me ten times keener.

All in all, a lovely day - thanks Bloomsbury!

Saturday 18 February 2012

London (Part One)

Sorry I've been a bit quiet on the blogosphere this week (although perhaps it won't have felt like that to you!) - I seem to have been utterly exhausted all week, hitting the hay as soon as I get in through the door.

Of course, that hasn't been oh-so-early every night.  On Thursday I got home at about 9.30pm after a day packed with fun in London.  Well, actually, my morning was spent having a lovely conversation with my friend Clare, who used to work at the Bodleian with me, and now lives in my third favourite city in Britain (I think), Edinburgh - it comes after Oxford and Bath, in case you were wondering, although I do have a soft spot for Wells, for being not remotely like a city.

First things first in London, I headed off to Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange.  I don't know the geography of London at all well, and basically I navigate by the bookshops I know and love.  There must be lots that are waiting for me, which I've somehow never found - but I buy more than enough from this one, trust me.  This is the first time I've taken books in to sell/exchange - a hefty pile, for which (he barked at me) "£6 sale, £12 exchange".  Well, what do you think I did?  And with my £12 vouchers in hand, I headed off to browse.

If you're thinking that £12 for about 15 books was a little mean of them, then fear not - very few of their books are more than £2 or £3, and there are three big (unsorted) basement rooms where books are 50p each.  But I didn't have the time to head down there - nor, since they put in lots more bookcases, do I find it a particularly enjoyable place to browse - but the cream of the crop is upstairs.  In the past I've found a signed novel by Rose Macaulay (£1), a signed novel by A.P. Herbert (£1) and countless other gems.  On Thursday I certainly came away with a sizeable pile... and today's post I'm going to tell you about them.  In tomorrow's post, I'll write about the reason I was in London - which was to attend a wonderful party put on the deliciously delightful folk at Bloomsbury.

So... onto the books.  These, by the way, include my 2000th book, according to my LibraryThing account.  I wonder which one it was... anyway, here they all are.  As per usual - comments, please, especially if you've read them!

London Feb 2012 1 by Stuck-in-a-Book

A Dedicated Man - Elizabeth Taylor
Appropriate during her centenary year.  There always seems to be an ET on their shelves, oddly enough.

Identity - Milan Kundera
I read this a while ago (thoughts here) but wanted a copy for myself - and it's in the same quirky edition.

The Magic Toyshop - Angela Carter
This was pretty appropriate on the way to an Angela Carter event!  I adore these Virago patterned editions, but this is the first one I've actually got - and it's beautiful!

Travel Light - Naomi Mitchison
Well, a cheap VMC... why not?  And one with a nice cover, too.

London Feb 2012 2 by Stuck-in-a-Book

The Unmade Bed - Francoise Sagan
A lovely Hesperus edition of an author I've been doing my usual: collecting, and not getting around to buying.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne - Brian Moore
Quite a few of you recommended this when I listed the books published in 1985 - and what can I do but obey?

The Man Who Planted Trees - Jean Giono
Ok, I already have this - but it's the illustrations which make little books like this, and this edition has different illustrations.  Harry Brockway, since you ask.

Loving and Giving - Molly Keane
Absolutely hideous edition, but needs must.  Well, not needs, perhaps.  But I was (wait for it) Keane to read more Keane.

Mansfield - C.K. Stead
I have read some of Stead's criticism of Katherine Mansfield, but I hadn't realised that she (or perhaps he... hmm...) had written a novelisation of Mansfield's life.

Slightly Foxed pile by Stuck-in-a-Book

Slightly Foxed...
They also had six old copies of the Slightly Foxed Quarterly - and I grabbed all of 'em.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Elizabeth Taylor is coming to Stuck-in-a-Book...

A little early, since the conversation about Palladian is in full swing over at Rachel's, but I thought I'd let you know that the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary celebrations are coming over to mine for March.  Laura has organised monthly readalongs at different blogs (more info here) and I believe there is still opportunity to sign up to host a month.

Anyway, March's book is A View of the Harbour (1947), and I'd love you all to join in.  I'm planning on posting my own thoughts about A View of the Harbour, and opening up a discussion, somewhere towards the end of March (provisionally Monday 26th March) in order to give everyone time to read the book earlier in the month.  But, fear not, I will be reminding you before that!

Lovely.  Hope you'll join in with one or two Elizabeth Taylor reads this year - I've missed January and February, oops, but I'm hoping to jump on board with other titles throughout 2012.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Mr. Allenby Loses The Way - Frank Baker

This is one of those books I probably wouldn't blog about if it weren't for A Century of Books.  Under the terms and conditions of this challenge, I promised (er, sort of) to read a book from every year of the 20th century, and post a review of each one.  I didn't think that would be the tricky part.  The paltry figure I currently have stated as completed is not quite so paltry as it appears, since there are three or four books which I've read but have yet to review.

Sorry, side-tracked.  I wouldn't normally blog about Mr. Allenby Loses the Way by Frank Baker because it is has the two characteristics of many books I read: it's incredibly difficult to find affordable copies, and it's not especially good.  If it were scarce but brilliant, I'd be the first to write about it; if it were readily available and mediocre, I'd write that review too.  But since it's impossible to find (I read it in the Bodleian) and not really worth finding... oh well, rules is rules, and this is my book for 1946.  Plus it's nice to think that someone will have written about this book on the interwebs, because otherwise a would-be Googler would find nothing.

The name Frank Baker will doubtless ring a bell - it is he who penned one of my all-time faves, Miss Hargreaves, and I keep persevering with his work, in the hope that I find something else as wonderful.  (Miss H, as I blogged recently, even pops up her head in Mr. Allenby Loses The Way.)  But genius seems only to have wandered by once, and the other Baker books I've read are rather more pedestrian.  Actually that's probably not the right term for Mr. Allenby Loses The Way because, in fact, it baffled me utterly in its strangeness.

Sergius Allenby is a diffident newsagent who lives fairly contentedly with his wife and niece.  He's not unlike Norman, from Miss Hargreaves, in being an unassuming but imaginative man.  The family dynamics aren't as amusing as the Huntley family's, but it all seems fairly normal (albeit amidst the air raid sirens and rationings of the time) until a gentlemen turns up wanting to talk to Mr. Allenby.

There was something remarkable about him, thought Sergius, yet he could not easily have described him except to say he was tall, lean-figured, dressed in good but unmemorable dark clothes, with graceful, cat-like movements of the arms.  His dim eyes, blurred by heavy horn spectacles, stared down at his brilliantly polished black shoes as though within those orbs stirred some oracle who guided him.  He was like a shadow, without substance or personality.  When he opened his mouth to speak Sergius expected some extraordinary remark to issue from him.  “There is a basilisk sitting on your right shoulder.”  But he only said, in a persuasive and delicate voice, “You are Mr. Allenby, I believe?”
It turns out that the gentlemen is not, in fact, a gentlemen - but a fairy usurping the body of one.  Sergius is asked whether or not he believes in fairies, and somewhat nervously conceded that he always has done - based on the mysterious and imprecise events surrounding his own birth, abandonment by his mother, and subsequent adoption.  This confession is all that is needed for the fairy-man to grant Sergius five wishes - a transaction done with a businesslike demeanour unbefitting a fairy.
Sergius sat, drumming his fingers on the table-cloth and staring dreamily into space.  The strange referred again to his note-book.  "Hm. Yes," he murmured, "Sergius Allenby.  To be allowed five wishes with the usual reservations.  Period, one month.  Casual wishes not operative.  No other person to assist.  Allow me to congratulate you, Mr. Allenby.  I might tell you, in confidence, that you are the only person in this area to be granted five wishes."

"It does seem a lot." Sergius coughed apologetically.  "It always used to be three in the old tales."

"Frankly, there's not much one can do with three; and first wishes are invariably wasted."
And it is after this that the novel becomes strange.

I imagine quite a lot of you would have stopped listening when I used the word 'fairy'.  I've got to admit, I wasn't thrilled at the prospect myself.  Even with my love of slightly strange novels, which dabble in the fantastic (like a certain Miss Hargreaves, don't know if you've heard of it) I shudder at the thought of fairies and suchlike appearing in a novel.

Well, you're in luck.  Turns out he might not be a fairy after all.  Humphrey Nanson occupies the other narrative thread - he is a strange sort of psychologist, who muses a lot on the nature of morality, works in an underground room filled with erotica and children's books, and seems to be able to possess people.  Told you it became strange.  But he also enjoys toying with other people's lives, and wielding power over them.
“There is the simple expedient of the telephone directory.  Don’t you adore the pin of fate?  As for the joke – I would aim merely at the baffling and bewildering of the chosen victim.  For example, Harold Finching, warehouse clerk, receives, every Tuesday morning, through the post, a parcel of boiled cod and bootlaces.  Miss Pennyprim, of Mon Abri, discovers, every Sunday morning, a pair of bright scarlet bloomers hanging from her line.  Mr. Allenby, newsagent, is visited by a business-like fairy and told he may have five wishes.”
Curiouser and curiouser.  Even curiouserer is that Mr. Allenby's wishes seem to be coming true...

There are some fantastic ideas in this novel.  My favourite conceit within it (which is more or less incidental to the plot) is that of an artist so absorbed in painting the sea scene in front of him that it is not until the picture is completed that he realises he has included a woman drowning herself... as indeed she has.  But good ideas do not a novel make.  Where Miss Hargreaves was insouciant and joyful with an undercurrent of the sinister, Mr. Allenby Loses The Way rather loses the joy.  Instead we have a lot of meanderings about philosophy and morality and psychology which do little other than baffle and skip round in circles.  In the meantime, the plot arcs and interweavings don't seem to make much sense or maintain much continuity.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no character with the life of Miss Hargreaves.   She is a true one-off, a brilliant invention; I could read her dialogue with delight for months.  There is a vitality in her which spreads through her novel.  Mr. Allenby Loses The Way has no such character; everything is slightly leaden.  The writing is not bad, in and of itself, but neither is it sprightly.  The odd amusing turn of phrase reminds me of Baker at his peak, but only for a moment or two.

After I read Miss Hargreaves I had hoped I had been introduced to a wonderful writer, and could spend many happy years tracking down and loving his novels.  Instead, I am left rather desolate that Miss Hargreaves was the one bright light amidst mediocrity.  But I'll keep trying his books.  If any of them are half as wonderful as Miss Hargreaves, it'll have been worth the search.

Have you had that experience with any author - one brilliant book, but only one?  If so, let me know...

Monday 13 February 2012

Muriel Spark Reading Week (23-29 April)

I was so thrilled with all your responses when I suggested Muriel Spark Reading Week the other day - although I was pretty sure I was onto a winner when the idea struck me, since Spark seems so perfect for this sort of blog readlong.  Two comments especially delighted me - Harriet's offer to be co-host, and Thomas's offer to make us a badge to accompany the Reading Week, which I proudly unveil below.  Didn't he do a fantastic job?  Thanks very much, Thomas!
 As you can see from the badge, we've decided upon dates: 23rd-29th April.  That should give you plenty of time to dig out a Spark novel or two...

As for the week itself, we don't really have any rules and regulations.  Just read one or more books by Muriel Spark (they're very short!), let us know when you have, and at the end of the week we'll post a round-up of everyone's reviews.  Or, of course, be inventive!  Posts about film adaptations, poetry, Spark's life or critical responses to Spark are all very welcome.

During the week, Harriet and I will be posting on alternate days - our own reviews, but also places where discussion about Spark can take place (perhaps especially for those who want to join in but don't write blogs themselves.)  

What I'd really love is if we all, between us, managed to write about all 22 of Spark's novels.  That might be something of a pipe-dream... and of course you can read whatever you want, but I'd personally love it if you sought out something a little more unusual.  Two dozen reviews of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would be fun, but it would be even more fun if we left no Spark unturned...

Over to you!  Harriet and I would love you to spread the word - please do use Thomas' wonderful badge, and encourage other readers to join in Muriel Spark Reading Week (and pop a link to you post in the comments, if you like).  Let me know if you have any idea yet which Spark book you'll be reading... I'm already very excited about it all - I hope you are too!

Sunday 12 February 2012

Song for a Sunday

A lovely Sunday to you, friends, and a song to accompany it.  This slightly melancholy, but very beautiful, take on The Korgis' 1980s hit 'Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime' was recorded by Beck for the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which is also brilliant.)

Saturday 11 February 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, everyone!  Mine will be a little less fun than yours, at least to start off with, since I'll be at work.  But then I'm off to London to see a film that's so bad it's become a cult hit - you can read more about it here.

It's been a while since I last did a Weekend Miscellany, so I'm going to be casting my mind back a bit for some of these...

1.) Claire (Captive Reader) continues to delight me with her reading choices, mostly because they're books I love too.  I have longed for the day when a fellow blogger would fall in love with AA Milne's writing (my AAM obsession began pre-blog, where I read nearly everything he wrote, so SiaB has been less AAM-tastic than it would have been, had I begun blogging in 2001.)  Anyway, Claire has done just that - click here for her review of Milne's Autobiography.  But it doesn't end there - she's also written a stonker of a review of my favourite non-fiction read from last year, William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner's letters, The Element of Lavishness.  Go check 'em out.

2.) Lovely Merenia sent me the link to a Guardian article on 'Top 10 Literary Believers'.  As I emailed Merenia, I am appalled that John Ames (from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead) didn't make the cut.  Which believers would you add to the mix?

3.) World Book Day for Book Aid International is back on 1st March!  I'm just going to quote the blurb they sent me, as they can best tell you about their great works:

Book Aid International increases access to books and supports literacy, education and development in sub-Saharan Africa. We send over 500,000 brand new books annually to 2,000 libraries, benefiting 2.4 million people every single year. Overall, we’ve sent more than 20 million books to partner libraries since 1954. Take a look at our website for further information:

4.) Thomas has succumbed and joined A Century of Books!  Hurrah!  That makes at least six of us doing it, over the course of a year or more.

5.) Thesis restraints (not to mention A Century of Books) meant that I shan't be able to read Roz Morris's My Memories of a Future Life, but the blurb she sent me did sound intriguing:
If you were somebody’s past life…
What echoes would you leave in their soul?
Could they be the answers you need now?

It’s a question Carol never expected to face. She’s a gifted musician who needs nothing more than her piano and certainly doesn’t believe she’s lived before. But forced by injury to stop playing, she fears her life may be over. Enter her soulmate Andreq: healer, liar, fraud and loyal friend. Is he her future incarnation or a psychological figment? And can his story help her discover how to live now?
My Memories of a Future Life is much more than a twist on the traditional reincarnation tale. It is a multi-layered story of souls on conjoined journeys – in real time and across the centuries. It’s a provocative study of the shadows we don’t know are driving our lives, from our own pasts and from the people with us right now. It asks questions about what we believe, what we create and how we scare and heal each other.

Above all, it’s the story of how one lost soul searches for where she now belongs.
If you're a fan of audio, you can listen to the first 4 chapters here, on download or by streaming.
6.) I don't entirely know what an online trend book of the visual arts is, but apparently The Red List is one.  It looks interesting - have a gander here.

That'll do for now.  I'm sure there were other links I was going to include, but... they can wait until next week!

Friday 10 February 2012

Sixty Wonderful Years!

It's a bit late in the week for celebrations, but some of you will, like me, have been celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee on Monday.  My housemates and I went down to the pub and toasted HRH (indeed, I stood up and sang the National Anthem, but quite quietly.)

And today I went to Boswell's in Oxford and bought this:

Here's to another sixty years!  Well, probably not, but I'm hoping she makes the 75th Jubilee.  Or at least chalks up another four years and becomes our longest reigning monarch.

I don't want to turn my blog into a political arena, with republicans and monarchists sniping at each other, but I also knew that some of you would share my love for, and huge admiration of, the Queen - and the rest of you might be amused by how this 26 year old decides to spend his money...

Wednesday 8 February 2012

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

I try to remember sometimes, when I'm waving my arms left and right, dividing books into sheep and goats and making my pronouncements about them, that quality is largely subjective.  We all know this, of course.  When I say a book is good, it's shorthand for "I thought it was good."  When I say a book is bad... well, sometimes it's just bad.  But more often than not, I mean: "I didn't like this book, and here are the reasons why.  If these don't bother you, then you might still enjoy it.  Thanks, love Simon."

I'll be keeping all this mind when I'm writing about Julian Barnes' Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending (2011), kindly sent to me by Jonathan Cape.  Because Dame Stella Rimmington and her posse must have thought it the best book published in 2011.  Although I can't imagine why.

Which is not to say that I thought The Sense of an Ending was bad.  It isn't.  It is very, very average.  There were probably a thousand other books published in 2011 that were equally good, and many that followed a very similar pattern: lengthy biography of main character(s); twist; twist; end.

Normally I'd give you a brief outline of the plot, but to be honest the first half of the (admittedly short) novel seem to do just that.  It's Bildungsroman by numbers.  We start with Tony Webster at school, with his friends Colin and Alex.  They're something of a clique, but do open up to allow the entry of new boy Adrian.  He is very serious and deep etc.; they pretend to be deep, but are mostly Adrian Molesque.  Everything meanders along, we get the sort of coming-of-age stuff which bores me rigid, and Tony meets his first girlfriend - Veronica Ford.  Webster and Ford, geddit?  Ahahahah. *Sigh*

Big event happens, which I shan't spoil.. fast-forward forty years, and Tony gets an unexpected letter from a solicitor which reopens a can of worms.  Cue all manner of reflection on the past, including trying to get back in touch with Veronica.  Towards the end there comes a few twists, which were executed rather better than the rest of the novel (thought I) and, indeed, the ending is, in general, the best part.  Perhaps that's why Barnes chose his title; to draw attention to this...  I think The Sense of an Ending would actually have worked much better as a short story; it does all seem to lead to a single climactic moment, and could be condensed much shorter than its 150 pages.

He (Barnes? Webster?) if fond of breaking off into observations which teeter between the profound and the platitudinous.  Here's one:
It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.
Quick flick, and here's another:
We live with such easy assumptions, don't we?  For instance, that memory equals events plus time.  But it's all much odder than this.  Who was it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten?  And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.  But it's not convenient - it's not useful - to believe this; it doesn't help to get on with our lives; so we ignore it.
Hmm.  It does sound a bit like he's deliberately inserting passages which can be whipped out for the blurb, doesn't it?  The narrative is from Tony Webster's perspective, and if these musings come from him, then that's a legitimate narrative device - perhaps Tony is the sort to make these vague sort of summaries about the world.  But if they're Barnes' own pseudo-philosophical moments, then I am a little concerned.  Similarly, I've always disliked the "If this were a novel..." line of writing, ever since I read it in Enid Blyton's stories, and it's a trick Barnes uses over and over again.  His writing is, in fact, unceasingly self-conscious.  In general I found his writing passable - 'readable' - but nothing more.  I might dip a toe into the readability/excellence debate at some point, but it is a debate already overpopulated with toes.

Perhaps my problem is that I've recently read Virgina by Jens Christian Grondahl, and William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, both of which are novellas concerned with the inadequacy of memory, and both of which are rather better than Barnes' contribution to the field.  I asked people on Twitter yesterday (yes, I know, how frighteningly modern is that?) and consensus seemed to be that Barnes' win was more of a Lifetime Achievement than anything else.  Since this is my first Barnes novel, I can't comment - I can only say that I would be astonished if it were the best book written in 2011, under any criteria.  Since I've only read two other novels published last year (one of which was by a member of 2011's Booker panel) I don't feel qualified to say.  So I'll hand over to those who might know better... (I picked three from many, many reviews.)

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"I was immediately captivated by the gorgeous writing" - JoAnn, Lakeside Musing

"Although it is very well-written, I thought it was ultimately an unsatisfactory and frustrating read." - Mrs. B, The Literary Stew

"The writing is simply gorgeous, and it tackles one of my favourite themes and plot techniques, the human condition and the reliability of our distant memory." - Bibliophile by the Sea

Tuesday 7 February 2012

A Resource For The Trickier Part of the 20th Century

It's no secret that the second half of the twentieth century is more likely to prove a headache for me, during A Century of Book, than the first half.  I'm rather dreading getting to October and finding only post-1950 years left to read.  But then I was reading dovegreyreader (not to be confused with dovegreybooks, the lovely online book group I'm in) the other day, and spotted that Lynne had posted about a book called The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950, edited by Carmen Callil (of Virago fame) and Colm Toibin (of, y'know, some books.  That I haven't read.)

Normally I'd have dismissed the book as a bit of a gimmick, or perhaps something that wouldn't be especially useful to someone like me, who normally avoids post-1950 fiction unless he has a very good reason for reading it.  But under A Century of Books I thought it might be a very useful resource... and, after all, I do love a list.

There is a contents, where the books are listed by year.  This points one off to the main body of the book, which is organised alphabetically by author.  And then each book is given a page, which amounts to a mini blog review, really (although it doesn't say which editor, if either, wrote each one.)  As a nice touch, in the small author biography underneath each recommendation, it gives their age at the time of their book's publication.

Some years have quite a few books suggested (1991 has ten) whereas some get no entries at all (1974, for instance.)  But it should come together to an interesting list.

Let's look, for instance, at the year of my birth: 1985.  What do Callil and Toibin recommend?

Family and Friends  Anita Brookner
Blood Meridian  Cormac McCarthy
Lonesome Dove  Larry McMurtry
Black Robe  Brian Moore
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit  Jeanette Winterson

Well, I've not read any of them.  I've not even heard of McMurty or Moore.  The only book I've read by Brookner was (as you might remember) rather a failure with me.  But I quite like the mix of lastingly famous and slightly obscure.  Oh, and the back of the book has useful lists of prizewinners, for everything from the Booker to the Miles Franklin Prize to Stakis Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year.

Flicking through The Modern Library, there are quite a few books which often appear on lists and make me sigh.  I would expect more from Callil and Toibin than to see them join the The Catcher in the Rye/The Bell Jar school of lists (both hugely overrated, in my eyes.)  And Captain Corelli's Mandolin, really?  But at the same time they pick out some lesser known authors whom I love - Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Ivy Compton-Burnett...

So, it's not a resource I shall follow unquestioningly.  It doesn't provide the unknown gems that I find everyday across the blogosphere, nor would I have needed this book to tell me that To Kill a Mockingbird is worth reading.  But I think it'll still come in handy, should I start to panic about finding anything to read in, say, 1975, or 1988.

If there is a year for which you'd like to know the list, just let me know... but my overriding thought is - wouldn't it be wonderful to compile a book like this from blogs?  I suppose A Century of Books will eventually provide a similar overview - one for each of the blogs participating, indeed - but I suppose there's no guarantee that these will be good books...

Monday 6 February 2012

Ashcombe - Cecil Beaton

Firstly, I'm so thrilled about all the response to Muriel Spark Reading Week, which will thus definitely go ahead!  More info on dates etc. when Harriet and I have conferred...

Secondly - I'm a bit wary about putting this blog post up... because I don't have a copy of the book myself, and it's so lovely that, if I can convey that even slightly, all the secondhand copies online will disappear.  But I can't afford the ones that are around now, so... I'll just have to tell you about it, and cross my fingers that I stumble across an affordable copy somewhere.  Sigh.  Sometimes I love you guys too much for my own good.

Preamble over: the book is Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease (1949) by Cecil Beaton.  I wanted to read it because Edith Olivier features a lot (she first told Beaton of the house) and so I sat in the Bodleian and read it.  I also took lots of photos, but then I looked again at the photography permission form, and noticed that I'd promised not to publish any of them anywhere, including online.  Oops.  So I'll have to see what pictures are available elsewhere.  (This photo comes from here.)

Ashcombe is about a house of that name, inhabited by Cecil Beaton between 1931-1946... actually, shall I let Cecil Beaton explain the book himself?  He kindly does so in a Preface:
My tenure of Ashcombe House began with new year of a new decade – the fatal decade of the nineteen-thirties.  “The thirties”, years marked by economic collapse, the rise of Hitler and the wars in China and in Spain, were essentially different in character from their notorious and carefree predecessors, “the twenties”, but they had one thing in common – living then you could still cherish the illusion that you might go on for ever leading your own private life, undisturbed by the international crises in the newspapers.  This illusion was finally and irrevocably shattered in 1939.

So utterly has the world changed since that summer day, nearly twenty years ago, when I stood for the firs time under the brick archway at Ashcombe, and surveyed my future home, that ways of living and of entertaining which the seemed natural today sound almost eccentric.,  Looking back through old diaries recording some of the parties that took place at Ashcombe in those days, it struck me that for this reason it might be interesting to try to string together in narrative form my recollections of that time.  The shape these recollections have assumed is that of a memoir of the house itself, but thought I see this little book primarily as a tribute of gratitude to Ashcombe, a house I shall never cease to regret, it is also and inevitably a story of the people who came to visit me there.
Someone wrote to him, on the book's publication, to say how pleased he was that Beaton 'made clear that we were not a group of delinquent Bright Young Things dressing up'.  And indeed, he introduces all the guests over the fifteen years as friends, rather than celebrities - even though amongst their number were Rex Whistler (who painted the image below), Salvador Dali, Diana Cooper, and other luminaries from the worlds of art, theatre, and literature.

(this picture came from a great blog post on Little Augury, which has several others from the book too)

But for me, there was one stand-out character in the book: Ashcombe House itself.  When Beaton first found it, with the help of Edith Olivier and Stephen Tennant, it was in neglected disrepair.  He eventually managed to negotiate a lease from its owner, Mr. Borley (who seems to have been appositely boorish) at a cheap rate, on the understanding that Beaton would do a great deal of restoration to the property.

And these were the sections I loved.  I'm a sucker for any property programme on television - they can be buying, selling, or building a house, but my favourites are when they transform them.  So it's my hankering after Changing Rooms scaled up to a majestically bohemian and artistic standard.  There are plenty of photographs throughout, many showing 'before' and 'after' shots, and although they are (naturally) in black/white, they still give a wonderful picture of the process and the time.  Above all, the pictures and writing together create a three-dimensional picture of what Ashcombe was like to live in.  I love novels where houses play an important role, and it's even more delightful when the house in question existed, and its effect was real.
Ashcombe, in this century, could be neither a gentleman’s home nor a farmer’s retreat.  It is essentially a artist’s abode; and, under the varying conditions in which I lived there, the house conformed to every change of my temperament and mood, proving as great a solace during the grey years of war as in the now almost forgotten days of gaiety.
Of course, Ashcombe alone might not give this effect.  It has latterly been owned by Madonna, which is rather a ghastly thought.  I doubt she has the same artistic sensitivities of Beaton, if her leotards are anything to go by.  Part of the charm of Beaton's book is his character, and the friends he had.  I doubt I'd have been entertained by them so much if they were in a London townhouse, but transport them to the idyllic countryside of Wiltshire, and I'm enamoured.  I don't mean that I was bowled over by the individuals themselves so much as the type of group.  It did make me wish for a moment that my friends were all artists and writers and theatre managers: we could go and paint murals on the walls of our country homes and put on impromptu plays in the garden.  Then I realised that my friends and I do sometimes paint together (albeit on canvas) and have been known to read out an entire Shakespeare play together - so I'm not doing too badly.   But I've never had a circus room (how delicious would that be?) and never had call to say "It's too bad, they’ve broken my best silver bird-cage!"

(A painting of Ashcombe owned by Beaton, c.1770)

Sadly, of course, the years of his lease were not without sadness.  Beaton moves onto the war, and writes movingly of how it affected him and his friends - at least one of whom, Rex Whistler, was killed in action.  While this section was written no less well than the rest, perhaps it is of less especial interest than those parts of the book which focus on Ashcombe House - simply because so many other people have recorded the pain of war.  An anguish, if less extreme then no less real, comes when Beaton must end his lease and say goodbye to Ashcombe.  Or, rather, he is evicted when Borley decides that his son will move in.  Within his rights as a landlord, but still a desperately sad loss for Beaton, who so clearly loves the house.

What I didn't expect, when I ordered Ashcombe to the library, was Beaton's talent as a writer.  I knew him as a designer and photographer, but had not expected him to write so beautifully and simply about his house.  Without ever having seen the house, I now know it intimately - not the layout, but the feel of the rooms and the grounds and the surrounding county.

Beaton in the bathroom, surrounded by visitors' hands(!)
Thinking about it, this might not be the ideal book for the city-lover.  Even though I currently live in a city, my heart is definitely in the fields and woods, and the spirit of the countryside.  The people there are friendlier.  The mix of nature and man and animal is much clearer to see, and beautiful even when at its most practical.  I will devote a post to this at some point, I keep building up to it, and Ashcombe is another piece in the jigsaw of why I love the countryside.  So if you love London (and so many of you seem to) or have never lived in a small village, then I don't think you'll be able to love this book in quite the same way that I do.  But, perhaps, as I can read books set in London with the passing interest of a tourist, so you can come on a reading charabanc, have a good look around, and then rush back to your streetlighting and taxis and neatly contained parks.  For people like me, who love villages and villagers and life in the middle of nowhere - who don't really feel completely alive anywhere else - Ashcombe is not simply an ode to artistry, a toast to happy memories, and a lament against the far-reaching damage done by war; it is a paean to the countryside and to life lived amongst fields, and trees - and happy, playful friends, unaware of what was around the corner.