Saturday 31 March 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, one and all!  I think mine will be spent justifying my thesis in a thousand words (fun) and - rather better - hopefully the first trip of 2012 to Jane's Teas.  But I shall not leave you neglected, oh no - here is a miscellany to enjoy.

1.) The book - the first I heard of Marilynne Robinson's new collection of essays was through a post at Mary's Library.  Mary found When I Was a Child I Read Books a little uneven, and I've got to admit, the excitement I felt at the title (a book about books, yay!) was dampened rather when I discovered what it was actually about (philosophy and theology and stuff... oh.)  I have no problem with those topics, but they don't compare to my love of books-about-books.  Still, I'm intrigued to read it, since Robinson is such a brilliant writer - and this afternoon got a ticket to see Robinson talk about the book at Blackwell's on 15th May.  (Anyone around in Oxford then?)

2.) The link - is a week-long course my supervisor Sally Bayley is helping to run in Oxford: Sylvia Plath Interdisciplinary Masterclass.  All the info is here, for those with the interest, finances, and proximity to Oxford!  I would just add, Sally is lovely, passionate about literature, and able to engage people in discussions about it in a dynamic and friendly way.  That sounds like a testimonial, doesn't it?!  But it's true :)

3.) The other link - is the Explore Learning National Young Writers' Award, a competition for budding writers aged 5-14.  A story on 'Old and New', max. 500 words, can be submitted after April 11th by email, post, or at your local Explore Learning Centre.  Andrew Cope will be the judge - apparently he writes the Spy Dog series.  Being out of the loop on children's books, I don't know it - but I bet lots of you have read it aloud to your kids!  All the info you need is here - I'd love to know if your children/grandchildren/nephews/nieces etc. are entering.

4.) The blog post - is Daniel's at Hibernian Homme, mostly for the beautiful picture, and the question at the end - but also because if you haven't discovered Daniel's quirky, joyous, bohemian corner of the blogosphere yet, then you need to do some exploring...

Friday 30 March 2012

P.D. James

This morning I went to the Oxford Literary Festival - only the third event I've attended in eight years in Oxford - and saw P.D. James talking with Peter Kemp (of the Sunday Times) about Death Comes to Pemberley.  As I've grown to expect from James's appearances, she was a witty and wise speaker - even without having read Death Comes to Pemberley (or, indeed, any of her books) I loved it.

My highlight from the event was the childhood story which revealed James's early propensity for crime literature: when her mother read her Humpty Dumpty, young Phyllis's question was "Did he fall, or was he pushed?"

I didn't join my friends in buying a copy and getting it signed, because of my Lenten fast, but I was tempted... has anyone read it?  I've heard mixed reviews, but would like to hear the yay or nay from you lot... those of you who are you still talking to me after my post on The Rector's Daughter!

Thursday 29 March 2012

The Rector's Daughter - F.M. Mayor

There are a few books which I expect to love, end up not loving, and then wonder why.  I lean back in my chair, eye the novel sternly, and ask myself (and it) what went wrong.  Was it timing?  Would a re-read make me fall in love?  Have I recently read something else which does the same sort of thing, but better?  That's a sure-fire way to leave me unimpressed.  Or is the book simply not as good as everyone tells me?

Well, recently a novel joined the ranks of Hotel du Lac, Gaudy Night, and A Passage to India.  All books which have their passionate fans, and (with me) a somewhat underwhelmed reader.  Well, The Rector's Daughter, I certainly didn't hate you.  I liked you rather more than the above trio of disappointments.  But nor did I love you in the way that I anticipated I would, based on reviews by Rachel and Harriet.  So I have stalled writing about this novel... I finished it right at the beginning of 2012, and yet... what to say?  How to write about it properly - justifying my lack of adoration for this much-adored title, but not only that: this was one of those novels which gave me no heads-up on how I would structure a review.  But... well, I'll try.

The Rector's Daughter (1924) concerns the life and ill-fated love of Mary Jocelyn, the rector's daughter in question.  She is motherless, and lives a life of obedient graciousness towards her father - who is deeply intellectual, but not able to show his love for his daughter.  I think Mary was supposed to be in the mold of silently passionate women, having to be content with their lot.  A bit like Jane Eyre, perhaps... but then I have always thought Jane Eyre a little overrated.  Here she is:
His daughter Mary was a decline.  Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early.  Her complexion was a dullish hue, not much lighter than her hair.  She had her father’s beautiful eyes, and hid them with glasses.  She was dowdily dressed, but she had many companions in the neighbourhood, from labourers’ wives to the ladies of the big houses, to share her dowdiness.  It was not observed; she was as much a part of her village as its homely hawthorns.
Mary has one great chance at love, with Mr. Herbert - and I do not think it gives too much away (for it is no surprise) to relate that her chance comes to nothing, and she must live with the consequences of this unlucky, ineluctable failure.  Love is one of the major themes of the novel.  That's true of a lot of novels, but in The Rector's Daughter the theme is love-out-of-reach; the journey from innocence to experience, bypassing happiness.  What horrifies Mary - and what seems to horrify F.M. Mayor too - is any sort of irreverence towards love.
One winter day when Dora Redland had come to stay with Ella, she and Mary met for a walk.  Mary suddenly started the subject.  "I wish you would tell me something about love.  I should think no one ever reached my age and knew so little, except of love in books.  Father has never mentioned love, and Aunt Lottie treated it as if it ought not to exist.  There were you and Will, but I was so young for me age I never took it in."

"What a funny thing to ask!" said Dora.  "I don't think I know much about it either.  There was one of the curates at Southsea - I never imagined he cared at all for me; I had hardly ever spoken to him.  I think some one else had refused him.  That makes them susceptible, I believe, and also the time of year and wanting to marry."  There was a mild severity, perhaps cynicism, in this speech, which astonished Mary.

"But, Dora, don't you think there is a Love 'Which alters not with Time's brief hours and days, / But bears it out even to the edge of Doom'?"

"Take care, Mary dear, you stepped right into that puddle.  Wait a minute.  Let me wipe your coat.  I am not quite sure that I understand what you were saying."
Dora is also a spinster, but less angsty.  I think I would have rather enjoyed a novel from Dora's perspective...

It is usually easy to give reasons why a book didn't work for me.  Indeed, they are few more satisfying activities than laying into a poorly written novel... but The Rector's Daughter isn't poorly written.

Perhaps my ennui can be attributed to spinster novel fatigue?  I have read quite a few recently, and have to say that May Sinclair's Life and Death of Harriett Frean attempts a similar type of novel rather more (for me) successfully.  The public debate about unmarried women between the world wars (covered fascinatingly in a chapter of Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession, and less fascinatingly in Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out) was loud and often angry; the 1920s novels dealing with this issue were written at a time when the issue was contentious, as well as potentially tragic.  Maybe I've just read too many, now?

Perhaps I found The Rector's Daughter too earnest?  I have often noted that novels others love sometimes fail with me if they are very earnest.  It kills a narrative.  And certainly there appeared to be very little humour in Mayor's novel... at least in the first half.  I was surprised, in the second half, to come across moments which would be at home in Jane Austen or E.M. Delafield's lighter work.  This passage was brilliant - it's from Miss Davey, a character (looking back) whom I remember nothing else about:
"Who can that be coming down the road?  Why, it's the pretty little girl with the dark curls we saw yesterday when the Canon took me out a little walk - your dear father.  Oh no, it's not; now she comes nearer I see it's not the little girl with the dark curls.  My sight isn't quite as good as it was.  No, she has red hair and spectacles.  Dear me, what a plain little thing.  Did you say she would be calling for the milk, dear? Or is this the little one you say helps Cook?  Oh no, not that one, only ten; no, she would be rather young.  Yes, what the girls are coming to.  You say you don't find a difficulty.  Mrs. Barkham - my new lodgings; I told you about her, poor thing, she suffers so from neuralgia - she says the girls now - fancy her last girl wearing a pendant when she was waiting.  Just a very plain brooch, no one would say a word against, costing half-a-crown or two shillings.  I've given one myself to a servant many a time.  Oh, that dear little robin - Mary, you must look - or is it a thrush?  There, it's gone.  You've missed it.  Perhaps we could see it out of the other window.  Thank you, dear; if I could have your arm.  Oh, I didn't see the footstool.  No, thank you, I didn't hurt myself in the least; only that was my rheumatic elbow."
Had I simply missed this sort of thing at the beginning, or did Mayor alter the tone?  I'm not suggesting that all novels ought to be comic novels, but without a slightly ironic eye, or dark humour, or even a slight reflective smile, I am rather lost.  This came too late in The Rector's Daughter - or at least I missed it.  Hilary wrote in her review at Vulpes Libris that "There is no distancing irony or humour – its serious tone is relentless."  I didn't find it quite relentless, but otherwise I agree with this sentence (although Hilary, as you'll see at the bottom, was overall more positive about the novel.)  I admire good comic writers so much more than I admire good poignant writers - it is so much more difficult to be comic - but maybe that is simply horses for courses.

However, as I finish a lukewarm review of The Rector's Daughter, I am chastened by the memory of my initial response to Mollie Panter-Downes's One Fine Day.  Who knows, perhaps a re-read of The Rector's Daughter would give me an equally enthusiastic second impression?

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"This is such a brilliant book, worthy of being a classic, really, in that it so perfectly encapsulates how limited unmarried women’s lives could be before the advent of feminism" - Rachel, Book Snob

"The novel is minutely observed; there is beautiful detail about each day and the East Anglian countryside, so that although time passes in the book very slowly, it is wonderfully described." - Verity, Verity's Virago Venture

"This is a novel about how hard it is to understand other people, and how many misunderstandings and even tragedies arise from it." - Harriet, Harriet Devine's Blog

"I wouldn’t have missed it, and I do recommend it. I can understand why this novel is regarded as a hidden gem."  - Hilary, Vulpes Libres

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Read, mark, learn...

I sometimes think, regarding potential topics for SiaB, "oh, you've covered that Si, no need for another post."  But then I remember how different my readership is now from when I started (although there is some overlap, of course) and it is entirely possible (ahem) that you missed my post from 2nd June 2007.  I'll forgive you for that.  It did, I should warn you, include the phrase 'independent, non-contingent paratextual elements' - but fear not, I was speaking in jest, and the topic was... bookmarks.

I imagine there are few corners of the world where a discourse upon bookmarks would be welcome... but I do you the honour of supposing that blog-readers belong in one such corner.  Recently my book group discussed how we marked pages.  A disconcerting number of them were happy enough to turn down the corners of pages (VERY NO) and nobody at all used bookmarks - just the nearest train ticket or envelope, or nothing at all.

Perhaps it won't surprise you to learn that I take a different approach.

There is a little stash of postcards, particularly art postcards, by my bed.  When I start a new book, I have a rummage through these to find a postcard which works well with the book I'm reading.  That might be thematic or (more often) colour palette - basically anything which matches the spirit of the book.  It would feel quite discordant if I did otherwise...

So here are some examples... there are so many I could have chosen, but these were the first that came to mind.  I was reminded of the topic by the suitability of the postcard I used for A View of the Harbour:

I do have another boats postcard somewhere, but I think it's fallen victim to a common curse - when I finish the book, I reshelve it but forget to extricate the postcard.  Maybe I should check through all my maritime novels?  The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi, Sisters By A River by Barbara Comyns...

Here are a few more, to whet your appetite.  For all those old red hardbacks I read (and there are plenty from the 1930s) this Lowry postcard comes in handy...

...when I was reading Maestro by Peter Goldsworthy, I was struck by how appropriate this postcard was. Although the novel's Eduard Keller is not, naturally, Andre Derain (as painted by Henri Matisse) I could easily picture Keller in this way.  Plus, the turquoise of the painting perfectly matched the turquoise of the spine - which was, after all, the reason I originally pulled Maestro off the shop shelf.

So, I've exposed the peculiar tangents of my bibliophilia... do *any* of you do the same?  Even a little?  Or am I in my own strange corner...?

And let me know if you'd like to see any more...

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Your Views...

As promised, here are links to other reviews of A View of the Harbour - I'll keep adding reviews as they appear, so let me know if you've written one.  I haven't included reviews written on LibraryThing, but they can be read altogether here.

"I love Elizabeth Taylor's writing, which so vividly evokes the shabby seaside town and the recent impact of the war on its inhabitants." - Laura, Laura's Musings

"Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly illustrates that regardless of how banal or tedious our day-to-day lives may seem, a profusion of thoughts and emotions keeps us constantly engaged even when we are silent or solitary." - Darlene, Roses Over A Cottage Door

"I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, it is beautifully observed, and the setting and its community are touchingly portrayed." - Ali, HeavenAli

"As usual, I’m not sure that Taylor really likes any of her characters, and nor are they very likeable[...], but that doesn’t matter to me, as I enjoy her cool appraisal of them and their lives." - Liz, Libro Fulltime

"Quiet, pin sharp observation & layers of undercurrents that intrigue you every time you read it." - Alison, The TBR Pile

"The reader is allowed into the heads of these ordinary characters and that is where the magic begins." - Liz, efandrich

"Taylor doesn’t need to create intricate plots or dramatic scenes; she deals in the quiet understatement of every day life, managing to weave a tale of enormous profundity and interest whilst making it seem as if nothing has happened at all." - Rachel, Book Snob

"This is an extraordinarily  complex, subtle, and beautifully observed novel." - Harriet, Harriet Devine's Blog

"Wonderful prose carried me along, and so often I was touched by moments of pure insight and moments of vivid emotion." - Jane, Fleur Fisher Reads

Monday 26 March 2012

Elizabeth Taylor - A View of the Harbour

If you've read any bookish blogs this year, you're probably aware that it's Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Year, and Laura has wonderfully organised a year-long celebration of this novelist.  I almost wrote 'underrated novelist', but she appears so often on lists of underrated novelists that I think she has to forfeit the title.  I can think of plenty who are equally deserving with less fanfare.  So let's just call her a very good novelist, and move onto March's book - A View of the Harbour (1947), published in the same year as One Fine Day, so (a) useless for A Century of Books (!) and (b) not the best novel published that year.  But definitely a darn good book.

I'm deliberately steering clear of everyone else's reviews until I have worked out my own thoughts, and thrown this open to discussion, but I shall post a list of all the reviews tomorrow - so if you've written about A View of the Harbour, either this month or earlier, than let me know!

A View of the Harbour is set in a seaside town, seen initially through the eyes of an amateur artist, Bertram, who is attempting to capture (indeed) a view of the harbour.  At the same time, of course, Elizabeth Taylor is capturing her own view of the harbour - and all the emotions which the people living there (pun alert) harbour.

It is not quite fair to say, as I often have cause to say, that nothing happens.  This is not an ordinary time in the lives of the harbour neighbourhood.  Each set of characters have come to a climax in their lives: Mrs. Bracey is nearing the end of her life; Lily Wilson is recently widowed young, and Tory is having an affair with her best friend's husband.  Such are the ingredients of soap opera, but in Taylor's hands they take place almost without fuss.  The confrontations which come every half hour in soap opera are here neatly avoided, or politely repressed.  Gossip is the order of the day, not screaming in the street.  Rumour and supposition circle around, not with the fervour of a Barbara Pym novel, but through a need to know as much as possible about one's fellow creatures.

If I were to suggest a theme for A View of the Harbour it would be right there in the title: viewing.  I think the central division between characters is whether they are observant or oblivious.  Neither 'type' takes much action as a result of their knowledge, but some seek this knowledge as though it were their lifeblood; others do not even consider its existence.  Mrs. Bracey - dying, but so slowly that it has become her way of living - is one of the watchers.  She vampirically wishes to know every movement of her daughter, but intends to spread her net wider.  Mrs. Bracey moves from her downstairs room to an upstairs room, simply so she can watch the harbour, and its inhabitants:
Up at her window, and in some discomfort (for her shoulder, her chest ached), Mrs. Bracey sat in judgment.  Guilt she saw, treachery and deceit and self-indulgence.  She did not see, as God might be expected to, their sensations of shame and horror, their compulsion towards one another, for which they dearly paid, nor in what danger they so helplessly stood, now, in middle-age, not in any safe harbour, but thrust out to sea with none of the brave equipment of youth to buoy them up, no romance, no delight.
That final few words brings to mind one of the more curious threads throughout A View of the Harbour.  The narrative, as well as characters, consistently attributes traits to all of youth.  Here's another example:
The young imagine insults, magnify them, with great effort overcome them, or retaliate.  A waste of emotion, Bertram thought, forgetting how much emotion there is to spare. 
This came so often, and so absurdly (of course young people cannot be summed up in these ways, any more than middle-aged or old people can) that I wondered whether it was a flaw in Taylor's writing, and there to serve some point that I missed?  For an author so interested in the peculiarities of individual personalities, it was inexplicable - not to mention the fact that Taylor was herself young (mid-thirties) when this novel was written.

Foremost amongst the oblivious characters is Beth, a novelist, who appears to have no idea that her husband  Robert (aren't husbands always called Robert?) is having a clandestine affair with her best friend Tory.  Taylor writes some perfectly observed scenes of conversation between Beth and Tory - the latter trying to maintain the friendship alongside a betrayal which Beth knows nothing about.  There is only one moment of fieriness - Beth still oblivious - which includes this section (the ellipsis in the middle has about half a page of dialogue in it, by the way):
"You talk as if you were Auntie Beth in one of the women's paper," said Tory scornfully.  "You've no idea of what is real, and how real people think."  She put her hand to her breast, as if she were saying: "I am real."  She was suddenly swept away on a tide of words such as came from Beth only through her pen.  "Writers are ruined people.  As a person, you're done for.  Everywhere you go, all you see and do, you are working up into something unreal, something to go on to paper... you've done it since you were a little girl... I've watched you for years and I've seen you gradually becoming inhuman, outside life, a machine.  When anything important happens you're stunned and thrown out for a while, and then you recover... God, how novelists recover!... and you begin to wonder how you can make use of it, with a little shifting here, and a little adding there, something can be made of it, surely?  Everything comes in handy. [...] One day something will happen to you, as it has to me, that you can't twist into anything at all, it will go on staying straight, and being itself, and you will have to be yourself and put up with it, and I promise you you'll be a bloody old woman before you can make a novel out of that." 
One of the novel's ironies is that Beth, as a writer, should be an expert at reading people - but though she has a complex understanding of the characters she creates, Beth does not look beyond the surface of those around her.  Or, rather, she trusts them implicitly.

When the novel opened with a painter, I thought "Right, the oldest trick in the book - an author explores ideas of creativity through the perspective of a painter, rather than a writer" - but Taylor gives us both.  It is Beth who takes on the Lily Briscoe role, in terms of structuring the book - which closes when she finishes writing her own novel.  It's always tempting, and usually erroneous, to assume that writers in novels are reflections of the novelists themselves.  However different Beth is from Elizabeth Taylor, surely something of Taylor's own thoughts and experiences must have gone into this excerpt?
"This isn't writing," she thought miserably.  "It is just fiddling about with words.  I'm not a great writer.  Whatever I do someone else has always done it before, and better.  In ten years' time no one will remember this book, the libraries will have sold off all their grubby copies of it second-hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust.  And, even if I were one of the great ones, who, in the long run, cares?  People walk about the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James were never written.  They could not easily care less.  No one asks us to write.  If we stop, who will implore us to go on?  The only goodness that will ever come out of it is surely this moment now, wondering if 'vague' will do better than 'faint', or 'faint' than 'vague', and what is to follow; putting one word alongside another, like matching silks, a sort of game."
That's very striking - and perhaps illuminating.  Beth's absorption in her writing is certainly one of the most interesting threads in the novel.  But in case you think the whole book is anxious and fraught, here is one of the funnier sections (and there are plenty of moments of humour - mostly connected with the clash of perspectives, especially where children are involved.  Taylor is very good at the nonsensical commonsense of children.):
"It is for you," Stevie said, coming to lean against Robert's knees as he read.  "It is a shaver."  She laid the bunch of soiled gulls' feathers upon Robert's waistcoat.  They were loosely bound with coloured wools.
"Is it indeed?" Robert said, scarcely lowering his paper.
"It is for putting the soap on your face with instead of a shaving-brush."
Then he picked up the feathers and examined them.  When he had thanked her he glanced across at Beth, and they smiled gently at the thought of him dipping these grubby feathers into lather and painting his cheeks with them.  Amusement and affection linked them together for a moment.
"You see how soft it is!" Stevie said, entranced by her own generosity and the loveliness of the gift.
"It is very soft indeed," Robert agreed, flinching away.  ("What the devil do I do in the morning when I shave?" he wondered.)  "Next you should make a hat for your mother," he said, his eyes challenging Beth's.  "A nice feather hat for her to wear when she goes to London."
"Of course not," Stevie said.  "I am too young to make hats."
Beth nodded with triumph and malice at her husband.
You'll notice that most of my quotations come from this family - and there is a reason for that.  I found them, and their story, easily the most absorbing and original.  Although all the characters overlapped to some extent, there are really three separate threads through A View of the Harbour, and I think perhaps it was too many.  I know this is a celebratory year, but I have to admit a few problems I have with Taylor's novels... well, one major problem.  I always find that it takes me a sizeable chunk of her books to get into their flow, as it were (except for Angel - I loved that one from page one.)  She introduces so many characters, quite sketchily, and leaves us to hurry after them, trying to catch up.  That's one thing.  But what I do not understand - what I cannot rationalise, but which happens time and again for me - is why I do not appreciate her writing for the first third of each novel.  After that, I find her an extraordinary stylist, and could read away for weeks - and I definitely come away thinking Taylor incredibly good - but I always struggle to engage with her writing initially.  Does anybody else feel this way?

And is there an identifiable Taylor style?  Her quintessential sentences are almost callous - not the naivety or matter-of-fact darkness seen in Barbara Comyns or Muriel Spark, but the objectivity of the omniscient surveyor.  'Godlike', if you understand me to refer to the indifferent gods of classical mythology, rather than the very un-indifferent Christian God.  She lets her characters act, and watches them.  This struck me as a very Taylorian couple of sentences:
Prudence knew by her father's saying "whatsoever" that he had lost his temper.  When he had gone out Stevie's crying dropped into the minor key.
She describes cause and effect, but leaves a gap between them which could only be filled after intimacy with the characters involved.  Familiarity between characters, especially within family units, leads to a sort of shorthand of reactions, where emotions are seldom spoken, and actions considered but endlessly deferred: these emotions and potential actions are either understood intuitively by the observers of the novel, or.... missed completely by the oblivious.

Over to you!  This should be a sort of discussion, especially for those of you who have read the novel but don't have blogs.  What did you think of A View of the Harbour?  Do you think Taylor was successful in her aims - and what were her aims?  Would you have been able to tell this was an Elizabeth Taylor novel without her name on the cover - and if so, why?

Remember, I'll be posting links to all the reviews I can find (!) tomorrow - so let me know (and add here) if you've given your own view of A View of the Harbour...

Sunday 25 March 2012

Sunday Songs

Rather than have a load of posts tagged 'Sunday Songs' which you have to scrawl through, should you ever wish to see an overview of them, I thought I'd compile a list of all the songs that have featured...  it's alphabetical by artist surname/group name.  Enjoy!

Adele - Skyfall
Tori Amos - Winter
Julie Andrews - In The Bleak Midwinter
Zee Avi - Concrete Wall
Beck - Everybody's Got To Learn Sometimes
Diane Birch - Rewind
Birdy - Skinny Love
Bombay Bicycle Club - You Already Know
Mae Bradbury - Fade Away
Kate Bush - Running Up That Hill
Lindsey Butler - I Don't Want To Talk About It
The Cardigans - Communication 
The Carpenters - Rainy Days and Mondays
The Connells - '74-'75
Alex Cornish - My Word What A Mess 
Marion Cotillard - My Husband Makes Movies
Amelia Curran - The Mistress
Lana Del Rey - Video Games 
Lana Del Rey - Ride
The Dixie Chicks - Not Ready To Make Nice
Minnie Driver - Everything I've Got In My Pocket
The Eagles - Desperado
Karise Eden - You Won't Let Me
Emma's Imagination - Drive
Everything But The Girl - I Didn't Know I Was Looking For Love
Rebecca Ferguson - Nothing's Real But Love
A Fine Frenzy - Electric Twist
Florence and the Machine - Shake It Out
Brooke Fraser - Something in the Water
Nelly Furtado - Try
Judy Garland & Barbra Streisand - Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again
A Girl Called Eddy - People Used To Dream 
Glee Cast - Shake It Out
Goldfrapp - A&E
Gossip - Heavy Cross
Nancy Griffith - Love at the Five and Dime
Aiden Grimshaw - Curtain Call
Sara Groves - Childhood Summer
Christine Guldbrandsen - Surfing in the Air 
Lisa Hannigan - I Don't Know
Richard Hawley - For Your Lover, Give Some Time
Darren Hayes - Dublin Sky 
Hem - The Fire Thief 
Ella Henderson - Five Tattoos
Natalie Imbruglia - Do You Love?
Jewel - Hands
Charlene Kaye ft. Darren Criss - Dress and Tie
Mat Kearney - Hey Mama
Becky Kelley - Where's The Line To See Jesus?
Solange Knowles - Losing You
Cyndi Lauper - Sally's Pigeons
Amos Lee - Colours
Lemolo - Whale Song
Lifehouse - You and Me
Aimee Mann - Wise Up
Charlotte Martin - Wild Horses 
Daniel Merriweather and Adele - Water and a Flame
Joni Mitchell - Both Sides Now
Alanis Morissette - That I Would Be Good / That Particular Time
Mutya Keisha Siobhan - Flatline
Paolo Nutini - Candy
Beth Orton - Stolen Car
P!nk - Just Give Me A Reason
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss - Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us
Princess and Mr. Tom - Come On
Rosey - Love
Bic Runga - Say After Me
Sia - Breathe Me
Elin Sigvardsson - Bang 
Charlotte Sometimes - How I Could Just Kill A Man
Take That - Love Love
Vienna Teng - Antebellum
Vienna Teng - Kansas
Texas - The Conversation
Third Day - Kicking and Screaming
Juliet Turner - Belfast Central
Shania Twain - You're Still The One
Kate Walsh - It's Never Over
Kate Walsh - Seafarer
Jessie Ware - Wildest Moments
Kathryn Williams - Jasmine Hoop
Kathryn Williams - Heart Shaped Stone
Kathryn Williams and Neil MacColl - 6am Corner
Sian Reese Williams - The First Cut is the Deepest
Sophie May Williams - Time After Time
Amy Winehouse - Love Is A Losing Game
Rachael Yamagata - Worn Me Down
Rachael Yamagata - You Won't Let Me

Saturday 24 March 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I was quite miscellaneous (as it were) yesterday, so this feels a bit like an elongated weekend.... but there is always room for a book, a link, and a blog post!

1.) The book - is Edgar Allen Poe's Murder at the Rue Morgue and other stories, sent to me by Penguin.  It's part of their new Penguin English Library series, each of which comes with a rather funky patterned cover.  (Yes, folks, that's right - I'm bringing back the word 'funky'.)  They're not reinventing the wheel with their choices - there certainly aren't any undiscovered voices being, er, discovered - but it's always fun to have classic books in attractive formats.  Trollope's The Warden has also arrived, and will hopefully be the incentive I need to read some Trollope (although I feel oddly guilty about reading non-twentieth century titles this year...)

2.) The blog post - is Eva's intriguing question: reading pilgrim or reading monk?  I'll let her explain the rest...

3.) The link - is a trailer (of sorts) to a film I'll be seeing on Sunday: Grand Hotel.  It's based on the book by Vicki Baum, which I have had in my possession but never read, and won the Oscar for Best Film back in 1932.  Oxford's wonderful Ultimate Picture Palace often show classic films, and this is the final in their 'season' on films set in hotels.  Great idea, no?

If you happen to be in Oxford at 3.45 on Sunday... do come along!

Friday 23 March 2012

A couple of reminders...

First reminder!  There is one month to go until Muriel Spark Reading Week!

Quite a long way off, yes, but perhaps time to put in an order at the library, or root through your bookshelves... or, if you have an e-reader, Open Road emailed me to let me know that they have just released eight Muriel Spark ebooks.  More info here - but I'm pleased to see lots of rarer Spark titles have been included, alongside her most famous book The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Amongst the titles are two that I'm planning to read during the week (or in the weeks leading up to it, as I've sneakily started already) - The Only Problem and Reality and Dream.  These ebooks are available in the US and EU countries (excluding UK, sadly) - so it might well be easier than finding hard copies in your area.

My second reminder is about something happening rather sooner - my contribution to Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Year is hosting the discussion on A View of the Harbour, and that will be taking place next Monday.

You'll be pleased to know that I've now actually read the novel, and I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts and hearing yours.  If you've already posted a review of the novel, go and add a link to Laura's Mr. Linky, and I'll also pop your link in a post here.  Otherwise, keep your eyes peeled for Monday morning's review!

Thursday 22 March 2012

Opus 7 - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I'm reading around my next DPhil chapter, on Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, and thus there might well be a little spate of Warner related posts coming up here over the next few weeks.  I have an inkling that this might be one of those reviews which is very specialist, and might not attract much interest (1930s narrative poem, anyone?) but I shall plough ahead and see what happens!

I read Opus 7 (1931) by Warner mostly as a counterpoint to Lolly Willowes, but it is also interesting on its own account.  It's a narrative poem, about fifty pages long, about Rebecca Random - an unsociable woman who lives in an idyllic cottage, 'lives on bread and lives for gin', and has an almost uncanny ability to grow flowers:

Some skill she had, and, more than skill, a touch
that prospered all she set, as though there were
a chemical affinity ‘twixt her
stuff and the stuff of plants.
Indeed, the most obvious connections between Opus 7 and Lolly Willowes are the countryside, and this almost witchlike ability that Rebecca has.  Flowers spring up almost overnight, and make Rebecca and her garden something of a spectacle for the villagers.

But the topic is really just a way of exploring the dynamics of village life, especially the darker side.  Rebecca starts to sell her flowers - but only because she needs money for drink.  The villagers buy her flowers for their mantelpieces, parties, and funerals - but do not accept her; she engages in these exchanges, but does not talk to the people next to her in the pub, nor buy them the drinks they anticipate.  In a really interesting aside, Warner leaves the stance of anecdote-reteller and dips into the author's voice - comparing her addiction to writing and rewriting with Rebecca's reliance on alcohol:
And down what leagues of darkness must I yet
trudge, stumble, reel, in the wrought mind's retreat ;
then wake, remember, doubt, and with the day
that work which in the darkness shone survey,
and find it neither better nor much worse
than any other twentieth-century verse.
Oh, must I needs be disillusioned, there's
no need to wait for spring!  Each day declares
yesterday's currency a few dead leaves ;
and through all the sly nets poor technique weaves
the wind blows on, whilst I - new nets design,
a sister-soul to my slut heroine,
she to her dram enslaved, and I to mine.
I rarely read poetry, as you know, so perhaps I am not the best judge of quality.  I recently wrote a little bit about Warner's collection Time Importuned, which I didn't really like or dislike.  I felt I got a lot more out of Opus 7 - perhaps because it had a sustained narrative, and everything which comes along with that, particularly the foregrounding of character.  Once I had that all set in my mind, I could sit back and enjoy Warner's writing.  It was occasionally a little forced, and I didn't approve of all her attempts to create end-rhymes.  This was rather inexcusable:

But now Rebecca, wont to chatter ding-
dong with the merriest, and when drunk to sing

But in general I found it rather beautiful - her use of metaphor is quite striking, for instance.  This excerpt isn't to do with Rebecca, but concerns the aftermath of village life after the first world war - looking back to the war with quite a chilling, effective image.  Even with all the writing about the trenches which I have read (which we have all read, I imagine) this made an impact on me:
I knew a time when Europe feasted well :
bodies were munched in thousands, vintage blood
so blithely flowed that even the dull mud
grew greedy, and ate men ; and lest the gust
should flag, quick flesh no daintier taste than dust,
spirit was ransacked for whatever might
sharpen a sauce to drive on appetite.
I can't imagine any publisher willing to publish Opus 7 now, simply because of its form and length.  It's not long enough to be considered a novel in verse, but it is obviously too long to be merely a poem.  However I am glad that Chatto and Windus decided it was worth issuing back in 1931, in their lovely Dolphin Books series (which I collect when I stumble across them) - it's not my favourite book by Warner, but it is rather powerful and striking.  And, for a poetry ignoramus, rather an accessible way to enjoy the form, without forfeiting the qualities which make me primarily a lover of prose.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Please Don't Eat The Daisies - Jean Kerr

After I read Shirley Jackson's Raising Demons, I went on a little Google spree to see what others had said about it.  Well, turns out, not an awful lot.  But I did find another name mentioned alongside hers once or twice - and that was Jean Kerr.  She might well be very famous, but I'd not heard of her before... but I was looking for more in that amusing-tales-of-wife-and-motherhood line, of which E.M. Delafield's Provincial Lady will always be the doyenne, and so read Kerr's Please Don't Eat The Daisies (1957).

It's very fun.  It isn't as good as Delafield or Jackson, in my opinion - perhaps because there is less attempt at an overall structure.  Although all three authors were initially serialised, it's most obvious with Kerr - and her book is really one-note: the exasperated wife and mother.  This sort of thing: 'You take Christopher - and you may; he's a slightly used eight-year-old.'  That is more or less what I was looking for, of course, and she is rather brilliant on that one-note - it's just not going to enter my pantheon of greats.  It was turned into a 1960 film with Doris Day, and later a TV series with Pat Crowley, although I can't imagine how.

Oh, I forgot, there was one piece which slid onto a very different topic - 'Touours tristesse' was a rather amusing pastiche of Francoise Sagan.

I'll leave you with an example.  I realise I've been very brief about Please Don't Eat The Daisies, but, to be honest, I'm pretty sure you'll know whether or not you'll want to read this based on the title and concept alone...   (Oh, and bear in mind, when you read the word 'pants', that this is an American book.)

Another distressing aspect of disciplining young children is that somehow you are always left with the flat end of the dialogue - a straight man forever.  It's not just that you feel idiotic.  The real menace in dealing with a five-year-old is that in no time at all you begin to sound like a five-year-old.  Let's say you hear a loud, horrifying crash from the bedroom, so you shout up:

"In heaven's name, what was that?"


"That awful noise."

"What noise?"

"You didn't hear that noise?"

"No.  Did you?"

"Of course I did - I just told you."

"What did it sound like?"

"Never mind what it sounded like.  Just stop it."

"Stop what?"

"Whatever you're doing."

"I'm not doing anything."

"Stop it anyway."

"I'm brushing my teeth.  Shall I stop that?"

Obviously this way madness lies.  Personally, I knew I had to win this battle of dialectics or seek psychiatric care.  I don't promise that my solution will work equally well in all cases, but it does do nicely around here.  Nowadays when I hear that crash I merely call up, clearly and firmly, "Hey you, pick up your pants."

I am, of course, operating on the absolute certainty that whoever it is will have at least one pair of pants on the floor.  And the mere motion of picking them up will distract him, temporarily at least, from whatever mayhem he was involved in.  As far as that crash is concerned, I never really wanted to know what it was.  I just wanted it to stop.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Raising Demons - Shirley Jackson

Raising Demons is the 1957 sequel to Shirley Jackson's hilariously wonderful memoir/novel about being a wife and mother, Life Among the Savages (1953).  I paid a steepish amount for a hideous paperback (pictured), and thus managed to secure Raising Demons, saving it for a treat - and I read it whilst recently beleaguered with a cold.  It is an absurd indictment of the publishing industry that these books are so difficult to find, especially on this side of the ocean.  They are brilliant, and deserve to be classics (please, some publisher or other, please!)  I don't often laugh out loud while reading, but with Raising Demons (as with Life Among the Savages before it) I sat in the corner giggling away to myself, getting curious and worried glances from my housemates.

I went back and read what I wrote about Life Among the Savages (you can do the same thing if you click here) and basically everything I said for that book is true of this one.  Funny, warm, happy, funny, clever, and did I mention funny?  But I shan't be lazy; I shall write a new review for this book, and not just send you back to that review...

Despite my enthusiasm for Life Among the Savages, I'm well aware that Shirley Jackson is much more likely to make you think of Gothic, creepy, psychological novels - like the excellent We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  She does that sort of thing incredibly well.  But she also excels at this sort of gentle, family-orientated, self-deprecating writing - a genre which many would dismiss, I'm sure, but which I (and many of you) adore.

By the time Raising Demons starts there are six in the family, plus attendant animals, and they have outgrown the house which was so amusingly bought at the beginning of Life Among the Savages - and so they start hunting for a new house.  Or, rather, everyone tells them which house they should choose - the one with the wonky gatepost, converted into four self-contained flats.  Despite insisting that they don't want to move, nor rent their house, they find themselves sending all their belongings into storage, and converting the flats into one house.  It is here that they live out their ordinary, hilarious lives.

Jackson has a talent for two types of humour at once: the knowing grin we grant to the recognisable, and laughter at the bizarre and unexpected.  These initially seem like opposite sides of the coin; that authors would have to pick one or the other - but Jackson manages both at once, by taking the everyday, identifiable dynamics of the family home... and exaggerating them.  And then putting them in a pattern, so that events pile on events, creating a surreal outcome.  Yet one which seems entirely possible - had, perhaps, happened to Jackson herself.

Having written about illustrative quotations yesterday, I should provide excellently evocative ones today, shouldn't I?  I liked this one, about the mother preparing her son for his first Little League game - obviously rather more nervous than he is:
As a matter of fact, the night before the double-header which was to open the Little League, I distinctly recall that I told Laurie it was only a game.  "It's only a game, fella," I said.  "Don't try to go to sleep; read or something if you're nervous.  Would you like some aspirin?"

"I forgot to tell you," Laurie said, yawning.  "He's pitching Georgie tomorrow.  Not me."

"What?"  I thought, and then said heartily, "I mean, he's the manager, after all.  I know you'll play your best in any position."

"I could go to sleep now if you'd just turn out the light," Laurie said patiently.  "I'm really quite tired."

I called Dot later, about twelve o'clock, because I was pretty sure she'd still be awake, and of course she was, although Billy had gone right off about nine o'clock.  She said she wasn't the least bit nervous, because of course it didn't really matter except for the kids' sake, and she hoped the best team would win.  I said that that was just what I had been telling my husband, and she said her husband had suggested that perhaps she had better not go to the game at all because if the Braves lost she ought to be home with a hot bath ready for Billy and perhaps a steak dinner or something.  I said that even if Laurie wasn't pitching I was sure the Braves would win, and of course I wasn't one of those people who always wanted their own children right out in the centre of things all the time but if the Braves lost it would be my opinion that their lineup ought to be revised and Georgie put back into right field where he belonged.  She said she thought Laurie was a better pitcher, and I suggested that she and her husband and Billy come over for lunch and we could all go to the game together.
That also gives an example of my favourite technique in the book.  It's simple, but I find it endlessly amusing: it is what Jackson doesn't write.  So much of Raising Demons is left to the reader's imagination.  Not much is needed, to be honest - any reader is likely to deduce that the mother is distrait, and the son calm.  Jackson isn't trying to be super-subtle with that point.  But I love that it is never quite spelt out - and that other characters thus often miss what is so obvious to the amused reader.  Here's an example in that vein:
By the Saturday before Labor Day a decided atmosphere of cool restraint had taken over our house, because on Thursday my husband had received a letter from an old school friend of his named Sylvia, saying that she and another girl were driving through New England on a vacation and would just adore stopping by for the weekend to renew old friendships.  My husband gave me the letter to read, and I held it very carefully by the edges and said that it was positively touching, the way he kept up with his old friends, and did Sylvia always use pale lavender paper with this kind of rosy ink and what was that I smelled - perfume?  My husband said Sylvia was a grand girl.  I said I was sure of it.  My husband said Sylvia had always been one of the nicest people he knew.  I said I hadn't a doubt.  My husband said that he was positive that I was going to love Sylvia on sight.  I opened my mouth to speak but stopped myself in time.

My husband laughed self-consciously.  "I remember," he said, and then his voice trailed off and he laughed again.

"Yes?" I asked politely.

"Nothing," he said.
Lovely!  I really can't recommend this book, and Life Among the Savages, enough.  It's such a shame they're so difficult to find - but I promise they are worth the hunt to anybody who likes Provincial Lady-esque books.  (Hopefully you'll find a nicer copy than mine - I quite like the other image featured, yours for $500.)  Like the PL et al, I know I'll be returning to this family time and again.  I'm rather bereft that only two were written... and on the hunt for other, potentially similar, books.  And more on that before too long...

Monday 19 March 2012

A little about When God Was A Rabbit, but not really.

I've mentioned it before - I'm always fascinated by the behind-the-scenes of blogging.  I know when, how, and where I write my own blog posts, but I'm aware that each blogger does these things slightly (or, indeed, very) differently.  I've recently finished When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman, which I'm going to talk about a tiny amount, because my musing on it headed me off in a different direction - about how we structure blog posts.  Yep, it's going to be a meta-post, if you will (stolen joke alert: I'm so meta, even this acronym.)

How do you start?  (Sorry, non-bloggers, these questions won't mean much to you.)  How do you structure your posts?  I have realised that, increasingly, I start from one or two key quotations, noted in the book (in pencil, naturally) and one or two key bullet points, in my head.  Without those (especially given the gap in time between reading and reviewing) I am rather lost.

But how do I go about finding those quotations?  The short answer is, I don't know.  I think my blog reviews are a little more reliant on supportive quotations than many bloggers, but I know there are some of you who also quote a lot - how do you choose?  Studying English literature, especially when at undergraduate level, I was well trained in the art of reading a novel without knowing how I would write about it - usually, then, without having a predetermined essay question - so I'd just be reading, say Fanny Burney's Evelina and hoping to find a good essay topic in the midst of reading.  (In Evelina's case, I wrote about laughter... did you know that she half-laughs and almost-laughs and thought-of-laughing a huge amount, after the embarrassing laughter scene at the ball, but doesn't actually laugh again until she is engaged?  Truedat.)

Gosh, I am easily sidetracked.

So, how do I (how do you) choose these excerpts?  I tend to have a pencil at the ready, to note down any particularly amusing or poignant sections - or, preferably, a paragraph or two which seem to me to encapsulate the feel of the book.  Which is quite a nebulous and ill-defined brief, but perhaps you do the same, and thus can understand?  I certainly have almost no hope of finding a useful quotation once I've finished reading the book.  Once I've got that, I can expand outwards - my summary and response of the book needs that central few examples to circle out from.  If I didn't make a note of the page number whilst I was reading, then... those are the posts which don't have any excerpts.

Which brings me onto Sarah Winman's When God Was A Rabbit (2011), which I read recently for book group.  I quite liked it; I thought the writing was good and the structuring not very good.  There was just far too much in it - a bit like a soap opera.  I think Winman will either go on to write increasingly good novels, or she will stop now, having put everything she could think of into When God Was A Rabbit.

But the main reason I'm not going to write a full-length review of the novel is because I got to the end of it without having noted down any excerpts.  There wasn't a single passage which struck me as being especially noteworthy - for whatever reason.  Of course, you could simply say that this makes Winman very consistent; there weren't any pages I noted down for being awful, either.  But it does make it more or less impossible for me to begin to structure a post about the book.  Or, rather, it would end up like one of the reviews I wrote when I started my blog - very short and very hazy!

So, there you have it.  If a novel doesn't present two or three of these excerpts whilst I'm reading, I'm all lost at sea.  How about you?  Do you flick back for quotations after you've finished, or make notes as you go along?  And are there any books you've just felt incapable of writing about - for different reasons than those discussed in relation to In Cold Blood last week!   Just because you don't know where to start, or how to frame it.

Gosh, Stuck-in-a-Book is just becoming a place where I discuss why I'm not reviewing books, isn't it?!

Sunday 18 March 2012

Song for a Sunday

Today's Sunday Song isn't my usual dreamy/folky choice - but rather a loud anthem sort of song.  I still love it, but I wouldn't lie back in a hammock with a Rose Macaulay novel and hum along to it!  Over to Gossip, and 'Heavy Cross'...

Saturday 17 March 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you're having a good weekend!  I'll be off on one of my trips to villages with odd names - this time it's the turn of Ready Token.  Brilliant, no?  I'll leave you with a book, a link (or two), and a blog post.

1.) The links - I started writing a post last November on book covers (and by 'started writing', I mean I copied out two links and wrote 'COVERS' as the post title) but I've realised that it's not going to come to fruition for a while. So instead I'll just give you the links.  The first is to an excellent Caustic Cover Critic  interview with designer Alison Forner, which includes many examples of her beautiful work - one of which is above.  The second is a sort of review of the best covers of 2011 (which sadly too few illustrations), from the Guardian.  JUST what you wanted in the middle of March, no?

2.) The book - fans of the Mapp and Lucia series by E.F. Benson will be pleased to know that another sequel has been written by Guy Fraser-Sampson (also known as Pursewarden).  His Major Benjy really caught the spirit of the original series (my thoughts here) and, if we can't have Benson writing new books, then Guy Fraser-Sampson is second best.  And although these things shouldn't matter, I'm glad that he's been given a lovely cover this time around - for Lucia on Holiday.  If you're quick, you might be able to hear Guy talk about it about on Radio 4's Open BookLucia on Holiday is published on 29th March.

3.) The blog link -  is Trevor's fantastic review of Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, on his site The Mookse and the Gripes.  If you've yet to be convinced to try it out, I think he might just do the trick.

Friday 16 March 2012

Dear Octopus - Dodie Smith

When I was reading Dodie Smith's first volume of autobiography, Look Back With Love, the title which cropped up most (and most intrigued me) was her play Dear Octopus (1938).  She didn't write much about its creation or production, since obviously she didn't write the play during her first eleven years, but she makes allusions now and then.  My attention was grabbed by the mention of family reunions, John Gielguid, and that curious title.  Actually, I'll instantly put you out of your misery, lest you think this is a play set in an aquarium.  The title derives from the speech Nicholas gives at his parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary:
"To the family - that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to."
Despite being an only child, Dodie Smith seems very able at portraying sibling relationships within large families.  (Indeed, one character claims to be 'crazy about large families', and their husband caustically remarks 'That's because you're an only child.')  Rose and Cassandra always seemed very believable in I Capture the Castle (albeit Thomas rather less so) and Dear Octopus is no different.  The size of the cast, and the various familial and marital relationships, was rather dizzying - but, of course, it would have been rather easier to identify everyone when seeing it on the stage, rather than reading the play.  We discussed reading plays a couple of years ago, and it seems that I am in a minority - although it has to be said that I do prefer reading plays with small casts, rather than the mammoth ensemble of Dear Octopus.

The situation is a tried and tested catalyst for all manner of action: a family reunion.  I don't think there's much point in me going into specifics, but it involves all the expected angles.  A daughter returns after a seven year absence, holding a secret; a sister-in-law holds resentment about a long-ago rejection; siblings compete and misunderstand each other; children try to understand the adult world; the gathering draws further attention to one family member who has recently died.  And, naturally, there is a romance plot threaded through - which culminates rather too neatly, perhaps, but everyone likes a bit of feel-good theatre.

There is plenty in Dear Octopus which does remind one of the insouciance of much of I Capture the Castle - and, indeed, Cassandra's faux-sophistication.  Like this, for example:
MARGERY: Ken'll carry on with anyone who crooks their little finger at him.
HILDA: Don't you mind?
MARGERY: Not in the least.  It's a safety valve.
Young love and young marriages are treated quite flippantly at times, although elsewhere the oncoming war (they must have known it was oncoming?) does crash through this flippancy:
LAUREL: Your father's picture.  He was exactly your age when he was killed. (Suddenly.)  Oh, darling, darling--
HUGH: What?
LAUREL: Sometimes I wish we were quite middle-aged.
HUGH: Good lord, why?
LAUREL: So that you wouldn't have to go if there's another war.
HUGH: It'll take a damn good cause to get me to war.
LAUREL: Oh, you all say that.
But the focal point is not budding romance - it is the security and trust of a fifty-year long marriage.  There is a lovely sense through that the anniversary couple in question (Charles and Dora) can cope with the antics of their family because of the depth of their bond.  For a young(ish) unmarried woman, Smith conveys this very well, and very calmly.

Dear Octopus doesn't reinvent the wheel.  There are a lot of plays in a similar mould, and even with a similar tone, but Smith's construction and balance throughout is so well done that this seems like an exemplar within its crowded genre.  Perhaps it won't overly excite the reader, or transform any lives, but it does its job rather well.  I don't know how often the play is revived now, but you do get a chance to see it, grab the opportunity.  Otherwise, I recommend you track down a copy, and have an entertaining afternoon...

Thursday 15 March 2012

Short non-review today...

For the sake of A Century of Books, I must record that I have read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) - but I have no desire to write about it.  I hated reading it.  The writing was good.  But it is a horrible book, about a horrible murder committed by horrible people.  People will, I daresay, suggest that I am shying away from 'real life', but unpleasant actions are no more real than pleasant ones.  The usual, indeed, is rather more real than unusual.  There is a greater amount of reality in the Provincial Lady books than within the pages of In Cold Blood.  I cannot understand why anybody wants to read crime books, let alone true crime books: one half of the world does not understand the pleasures of the other.  Reading In Cold Blood could never be a pleasure for me, and the amount of displeasure it caused me wholly obscured any admiration I should feel towards Capote for his writing ability or his experimentation with genre.  I wish I had never read it.

Any books for which you feel like this?

Wednesday 14 March 2012

One Fine Day - Mollie Panter-Downes

Back to normal now, folks!  You'd think I'd have taken the opportunity to write lots of reviews, ready to post... but... I didn't.  Although I hope you were suitably intrigued by the little clues I gave yesterday... the first one up is the brilliant re-read.  So brilliant, in fact, that it's leaping onto my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About...

39. One Fine Day - Mollie Panter-Downes

I do more re-reading now than I used to, but I tend towards books I already know I'll love.  So there are some novels I'll read every two years or so, and some that I don't remember much about, but knew I loved ten years ago, say.  What I seldom do (understandably, perhaps) is re-read books that I didn't love - those that I disliked, or thought only quite good.

Thank goodness I decided to re-read Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day.

I first read it back in 2004, and thanks to never emptying my inbox (currently at 76,992 emails - all read, don't worry) I can tell you that I reported thus to my online book group: "I did enjoy this, but not as much as I was expecting given Nicola’s love love love of it.  I was expecting E.M. Delafield and it landed more Virginia Woolf than I thought it would??  Memorable, though."  The Nicola in question is Nicola Beauman, doyenne of Persephone Books, who has often held up One Fine Day as an almost perfect novel.  Indeed, it was she who rediscovered the book for Virago's Modern Classics series.

Well, turns out Nicola was right, of course.  I had initially thought One Fine Day only fairly good, whereas now I believe it is an absolutely excellent - and, indeed, important - novel.

My early comparison with Virginia Woolf is one that I stick by, although why I would have thought that was a bad thing, I can't imagine.  But I am aware that a lot of you will be turned off by the mention of Woolf - let me encourage you not to be!  One of the reasons that I think One Fine Day is an important novel is that it is something of a bridge between the middlebrow and the modernist.  It is Panter-Downes' style which makes the novel so exquisite, and yet it has none of the inaccessibility of which Woolf can be accused.  She has all the fluidity and ingenuity of the great prose/poetry stylist, combined with the keen and sensible observation of the domestic novelist.  Time for me to hand over to Mollie Panter-Downes for a fairly long excerpt:
The bus was full of women, sighing, sweating gently under the arms of their cotton dresses as they held on to their baskets and their slippery, fretful children.  A tiny boy screamed like an angry jay, drumming his fists on the glass.  He wa-anted it, he wa-anted it!  Bless the child, wanted what?  It, it, ow-w-w! he wept with fury at adult stupidity already frustrating his simple world.  A spaniel on the floor at somebody's feet shifted cautiously, lifting a red-cornered eye towards his owner, hoping and trusting that no one would tread on his paw.  Human uneasiness and irritability seemed to fill the bus with hot cottonwool, choking, getting up the nostrils.  If it did not start in a moment, it might burst with pressure from its prickling cargo.  Only a young man, a hiker, seemed to sit aloof and happy in the heat.  He wore a blue shirt and drill shorts; on his knees was a knapsack.  His neck was a dull red, so was the brow of his cheerful, ordinary face.  Perhaps he had only just come out of the Army or the Air Force, thought Laura, watching him study his map with such happy concentration.  Ow, ow, ow-w-w, wept the tiny boy, unable to escape and go striding off amongst the bracken, still handcuffed to childhood.  I'll smack you proper if you don't stop, threatened his mother.  The young man studied his map, reading England with rapture.  The driver, who had descended to cool his legs and have a word with a crony outside the Bull, swung himself up into his seat.  An angry throbbing seized the bus, the hot bodies of the passengers quivered like jelly, the jaws of an old woman by the door seemed to click and chatter.  With a lurch, they started.  The tiny boy's tears stopped as though within his tow-coloured head someone had turned a tap.  His brimming eyes stared out at the streets as he sat quietly on his mother's lap, clutching a little wooden horse.
I think that's brilliant, just beautiful.  Mollie Panter-Downes also has a great way with metaphors and similes, offering unexpected images which somehow don't jar, and convey much more than a simple statement could.  I'm not going to be able to resist quoting MPD (if you will) quite a bit, by the way, so here's an example: 'Now that he was home, he could not abide the thought of other people's bath water running out, meeting on the stairs with forced joviality, someone else's life pressed up against one in a too small space like a stranger's overcoat against one's mouth in a crowd.'

It's unusual for me to talk about the style of a novel before I address the rudiments of the plot, but I do think it's MPD's style which sets her apart from her contemporaries.  In terms of plot, nothing really happens.  One Fine Day, as the title suggests, is all set during one day.  The war is over, and people are beginning to get back to their old lives - only, of course, nothing can ever really be the same.  Laura (the central character, through whose eyes we see most of the novel) goes shopping, visits a family in the village, tries to retrieve her dog from a gipsy encampment, and walks up a beautiful hill.  The events of the day are, in fact, uneventful.  It is this ordinariness, in contrast to the uncertain and unkind days of war, which resonates throughout One Fine Day.  Laura's observations and reflections are not dramatic or life-changing - but that is their beauty.  What a relief it must have been to read about the pursuit of a gardener, or the view from a hill, rather than menacing newspaper headlines and the constant worry about loved ones.  The novel relaxes into this peacefulness and freedom - but with a continuous backward glance.  The war has changed Laura.  She is
a bit thinner over the cheekbones, perhaps, the hair completely grey in front, though the back was still fair and crisply curling, like rear-line soldiers who do not know that defeat has bleakly overtaken their forward comrades.
There is an undercurrent throughout One Fine Day of changed times - not just the working-class villagers who no longer want jobs in domestic service, or need to pay strict adherence to codes of class civility.  Laura has been separated from her husband Stephen for years; he has not watched their daughter Victoria grow up.  The family is not destroyed by this, nor is it even unhappy - but it is strained, and it is tired, but resilient.  Mollie P-D conveys so perfectly the triumph and relief of this weary, determined little family unit, who do not fully understand one another, but who stand together, grateful for all they have managed to keep.

Alongside Panter-Downes' beautiful writing, it is the character of Laura which is the novel's triumph.  Perhaps the two cannot quite be separated, because she is built of this wonderful style - it is not quite stream of consciousness, it never leaves the third person, but it flits through thoughts and noticings and reflections as Laura does.  And she is such a wonderful character.  She reminds me a bit of Mrs. Miniver, but without her slight tweeness.  Laura loves beauty, especially beauty in nature; she is a little absent-minded and uncertain, but she is strong and caring and optimistic.  Laura is observant but not judgemental; intelligent but not an intellectual.  A line of poetry runs through her head, in relation to her everyday activity:
Who wrote that? Laura wondered absently.  She could not remember.  Her mind was a ragbag, in which scraps of forgotten brightness, odd bits of purple and gold, were hopelessly mixed up with laundry lists and recipes for doing something quick and unconvincingly delicious with dried egg.
Laura is a perfect heroine for the wave of feminism which re-evaluated the worth of domestic life.  Perhaps especially because she does not entirely idealise it herself; she describes her class and people as 'all slaves of the turned-back fresh linen, the polished wood reflecting the civilised candlelight, the hot water running into the shining bath.'  But she is a willing slave - all grumbles and laments are covered in the sheer gratitude Laura feels for life and freedom.  I can't convey quite what a wonderful character Laura is, nor quite how perfectly Panter-Downes understands and shapes her.  To create a character who is both realistic and lovable must be one of the most difficult authorial tasks.  She is as psychologically well-developed as Mrs. Dalloway or Laura Ramsay, but as delightful as Mrs. Miniver or the Provincial Lady.  It is an astonishing combination.

I wrote blandly, back in 2004, that One Fine Day was 'memorable, though', unappreciative wretch that I was!  Truth be told, I had not remembered much of the novel.  And I doubt I will remember which steps Laura took, which neighbours she encountered, nor which views she expressed.  This is the sort of novel which cannot be remembered for its contents; only for the impression it leaves.  And that I certainly shall not forget.  I'm so grateful that I returned to One Fine Day, and was given a second chance to appreciate properly the work of brilliance that it is.  I am only left wondering, of course, quite how many other novels I have underestimated in this manner...??

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"An ordinary day, an ordinary family, ordinary lives, but an extraordinary novel." - Margaret, BooksPlease

"The author’s love for this part of England absolutely sings through this little gem of a novel" - Geranium Cat's Bookshelf

"But there were also fundamental changes in England’s social fabric, which this short novel portrays in exquisite and sometimes painful detail." - Laura's Musings

"It is a moving, elegiac novel about love, beauty, and most importantly, freedom" - Rachel, Book Snob