Thursday 28 February 2013

Miranda Hart - Is It Just Me?

Another quick this-book-has-been-on-my-To-Review-shelf-forever review, I'm afraid - my reading has been so shamefully little recently - but that means you get to hear about some fun books in short bursts.  And today's is Miranda Hart's bestselling book Is It Just Me?  Note that I don't say 'autobiography' - we'll come onto that later.

I suspect you know who Miranda Hart is, but indulge me for a moment.  She is a comedian (we're not saying 'comedienne' anymore, are we, please?) who sprung to fame in an eponymous sitcom where she falls over things, embraces middle-aged activities a little early, and generally makes fun of herself.  I'm always drawn to female-driven sitcoms, so I've been watching since day one - but the third series, which finished here about a month ago, was the one which really saw Miranda pull in enormous audiences of over 9 million.  One in seven people in the UK were watching, which is extraordinary.

The sitcom has the occasional dud episode, but generally I love, love, love it.  How can I not feel affinity with a woman who, aghast at the idea of going out clubbing, says: "It's 9 o'clock! Four words: Rush. Home. For. Poirot."  For those who don't 'get' it, Miranda is just childish and meandering - but I really admire how she has made slapstick amusing to those of us who normally don't care for it.  I adore her friend Tilly and her ridiculous expressions (I was saying 'McFact' before it appeared on Miranda: McFact.) Stevie (with her 'allure') and Miranda have a wonderful friendship, which is all too rarely shown in comedy.  And then there's her Mum.  It's all great fun, and very watchable.  And very British.

Which brings me onto Is It Just Me?  Although it is by Miranda Hart, about Miranda Hart, it's only really an autobiography to the extent that the sitcom is - it feels a lot like it's been written 'in character'.  Presumably all the events she described happened, at least in outline, but it's certainly selective.  Her tales of dating, office life, holidays, weddings... they're all written as though outlining  an idea for a sketch comedy.  Which is fine - it's more than fine, it's great - but it isn't really an autobiography.  She spends a lot of the time in faux-conversation with her 17-year-old self, disillusioning her of the idea that she'll grow up into a graceful gazelle-type.  (Since I talked to myself in my first Vulpes Libris column - see yesterday's post - I don't have a leg on which to stand.)

Of course, having languished on my To Review shelf for so long, I can't remember any examples to give you.  I chuckled my way through Is It Just Me? without making any notes on it, for reviewing purposes.  So I'll borrow this clip of Miranda reading an excerpt herself...

I haven't mentioned yet, but this was a gift from my lovely friend Lucy, whom I love even though she went and LEFT Oxford last year, to move to big old London town.

So, yes, a giggle of a book which does no more and no less than you'd expect.  Lots of amusing, light-hearted moments, and a surprisingly moving moment when she tells her younger self that her secret ambition to go into comedy has happened, and that she's even spoken to her heroines French & Saunders.  I guess it's the perfect Christmas book, but since that's been and gone... Mothering Sunday?

(By the by, if you have watched the sitcom, and enjoy Sally Phillips wonderful turn as Tilly, may I recommend you seek out her sitcom Parents...)

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Over With The Foxes

(found on etsy)

I think Over With The Foxes would make a great book title... *jots down in notebook* but that's not why I've written it in my subject line.

I'm sure you all know the good people of Vulpes Libris - a collaborative blog, where the 'book foxes' (see what they did there? LATIN) write about all manner of things bookish, from classics to erotica and everything in between.

I was very flattered, of course, when they got in touch recently and asked if they could reblog some of my posts.  Well, said I, I'd rather write some for you - is that ok?  (You see, so often my posts bleed into one another, or rely on some sort of familiarity with other aspects of Stuck-in-a-Book - which would be an appalling marketing strategy, if I were doing this professionally - that I thought reblogs would feel quite strange.)  Luckily, they were more than happy for me to write just for them!

So, about once a month, that's what I'll be doing.  My first piece is up now, and it's about my favourite books.  It probably won't include any huge surprises for any of you...

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Mrs. Harris Goes to New York - Paul Gallico

(image source)
I've finished so few books lately, and have been so dissatisfied with the number of reviews I've been able to post, that I have turned to the small pile of books I finished months and months ago, but never quite got around to reviewing.  So I'm looking back over the hazy mists of time, trying to remember not only what I thought about a book, but what on earth happened in it.

Lucky for me, Paul Gallico's 1960 novel Mrs. Harris Goes to New York has a little synopsis right there in the title.  The sequel to his charming novel Flowers For Mrs. Harris (published in America as Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, and republished together recently by Bloomsbury, with its aspirate in place), Mrs. Harris Goes to New York does, indeed, see Mrs. Harris travel off to see the Empire State.  This time, though, it's not with a dress in mind, though - she and her friend Violet Butterfield (familiarly Vi) are off to reunite a mistreated adopted boy with his long-lost American father.

In case you haven't encountered Mrs. Harris before, she is a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth charlady, who (in the first book) unexpectedly develops an all-abiding passion to own a Christian Dior dress like the one she has seen in the wardrobe of one of the women for whom she works.  Mrs. Harris is a wonderful creation - speaking her mind, with its curious mixture of straight-talking and dewy-eyed romance.  Romance for adventure, that is, not for menfolk - Mr. Harris is good and buried before the series begins. 

I mentioned in the 'strange things that happened in books I read this year' section of my review of 2012 that I'd read one book where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Black (that was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and one where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Brown.  That was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York - since she did not know exactly who might Henry Brown's father, she needed to go and visit every Mr. Brown in New York...
Few native New Yorkers ever penetrated so deeply into their city as did Mrs. Harris, who ranged from the homes of the wealthy on the broad avenues neighbouring Central Park, where there was light and air and indefinable smell of the rich, to the crooked down-town streets and the slums of the Bowery and Lower East Side.
It's a fun conceit for a novel - I wonder if Jonathan Saffron Foer was deliberately mimicking it? - and Mrs. Harris is an excellent character to use repeatedly in first-encounters - it shows how Cockney and brazen she can be, as well as the endlessly charming effect she has on everybody she meets.

Paul Gallico's novels often hover on the edge of fairy-tale.  The first one I read, which remains easily my favourite (and is on my 50 Books list over in the right-hand column) was Love of Seven Dolls, which is very much the darkest of his books that I've read - but was still very certainly mixed with fairy-tale.  That was what saved it from being terrifyingly sinister.  The two Mrs. Harris novels I've read are much more lighthearted, and Mrs. Harris herself is very much a fairy-tale creation.  She enchants everyone she meets - and I mean that almost literally, in that she seems to be a fairy godmother, changing their lives for the better through Cockney wisdom and irrepressible optimism.  And perhaps a little bit of magic.

There are quite a few other Paul Gallico novels on my shelves, waiting to be read - including the next two in this series, Mrs. Harris, MP and Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow, which Bloomsbury also publish and kindly sent me.  I'm also excited about reading The Foolish Immortals and The House That Wouldn't Go Away.  I'll report back on all of these as and when I manage to read them - but, for now, for when you want to be a little charmed yourself, you could do a heck of a lot worse than spending an hour or two in the delightful company of London's finest, Mrs. Harris.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Firstly - if you fancy a mosey around my bookshelves, Danielle has very kindly asked me to take part in her wonderful ongoing series of Lost in the Stacks: Home Edition.  It's a mix of my bookcases in Oxford and Somerset, and some fun questions to answer.

Happy weekend!  My brother will be here, which will make my weekend fun.  There might even be cake.  You'll just have to make do with a weekend miscellany...

1.) The blog post - is another great review of Guard Your Daughters, this time from Ali.  And she loved it!

2.) The book - I'm excited about A.L. Kennedy's On Writing, which Jonathan Cape sent me recently - it's going to be published on 7th March, so consider this early warning.  It's chiefly a collection of articles about writing that Kennedy wrote for the Guardian, but there are also lots of other essays about writing, character, voice, being a writer etc.  Which one of us isn't interested in this sort of thing, regardless of whether or not we intend to write ourselves?

3.) The link - I'm quite passionate about trying to get people (especially Americans) to watch the sitcom Happy Endings.  It's on in the UK at some odd hour in the morning, but it's on ABC in the US.  It looks like it might be cancelled after this third series.  But it's so, so good.  Quickfire wit, the right amount of silliness... just brilliant.  This link gives 36 Reasons Happy Endings Is The Best Show on Television.  I'm not sure how accurate a depiction it is of the show, but... well, have a gander.  And watch the show!  It's on a break (sigh) til Fri March 29, so watch it then, 8pm... and catch up on DVDs of earlier episodes!

4.) OxfordWords - whilst I'm working as the editor of Oxford Dictionaries' OxfordWords blog, I'll also post weekly highlights from it in my Weekend Miscellany.  I thought "hmm, will this get awkward, mixing my job with my personal blog", but then I thought no, you'll want to read some of the fantastic stuff that we publish there.  It's all fantastic, obvs, but my personal highlight this week is the post about words which have newly entered Oxford Dictionaries Online - more here.  And I wrote a couple of pieces this week, too - What the Nobel Laureates did for us, and a (hopefully witty) article about horses in expressions and idioms.  Oh, and I got drawing in Paint again...

Friday 22 February 2013

On 'The Brontës Went to Woolworths'

Here's the excerpt from Rachel Ferguson's We Were Amused about The Brontes Went to Woolworths:

The Brontës Went to Woolworths was published by Messrs Benn.  Before it was finished, I met an old school-friend in Barker's who asked how it was progressing.  I said, "It's getting so odd that I'm rather frightened of it."

Sir Ernest Benn was wonderfully considerate to me, and his death a real loss to Conservatism, for he could always be relied upon to be angry in the Press about all the right things; indeed, it almost seemed that, with him, ideas and idealism predominated, yet he was invariably balanced and realistic in his fulminations.

When the book came out, Mother and I had just taken a furnished house near Hythe for the summer, and I came down to breakfast to find a foot-high pile of letters, some of them from those who, until then, would none of me.  That book was published quite twenty-five years ago, and I still receive letters about it.  Whatever it had done for me, it indisputably put dog Crellie and doll Ironface on the map, and I often wonder what did happen to 'Ionie' when she made her final exit from the Westover toy-box.  She, or portions of her, must be somewhere, still, for her head and neck were of strong, painted metal...

The Carne family of The Brontës were to become curiously real to innumerable people, and when Mother died, in 1947, Reggie Temple wrote from Italy, saying that he couldn't understand why he was grieving so, until he realized that my family was more actual to him than was his own.

In a former book, I have alluded to the many family sagas that came to light, and which readers retailed to me.  It was as if some secret guilty had been exposed as innocent!  But - you must take the helm, firmly, lest you become like one reader, who, apparently, could no longer separate the illusory from the true.  For she wrote, telling me that, as with the governesses in my book, she, too, was one, and most unhappy in her situation in a Carne-like family.  I condoled, only to receive the confession that so strongly had the book dominated her thoughts that she had imagined herself into the role of governess.  Personally, I esteemed more that anonymous postcard which fairly spat venom at The Brontës, so much had the unknown writer hated it.

I made surprisingly little out of that book, in spite of reprints, Penguins and America, but, thanks to Mother, a long-dead dog and a long-lost doll, it had got me started.  A very odd coincidence in regard to it was that, having named my family 'Carne', I found out much later that the Brontë's grandmother had been a Miss Carne...

Wednesday 20 February 2013

We Were Amused - Rachel Ferguson

Thanks so much for the wonderful suggestions on my art post the other day; I'll reply individually soon.  Some of you also liked the pictures I'd found, which was lovely - I really have fallen in love with Korhinta since I posted it, despite not much liking anything else I've turned up by Vilmos Aba-Novak.  Right, books.

Anyone who saw my Top Books list for 2012 will know that I love an autobiography, particularly if it's one by an author from the interwar period.  Rachel Ferguson seems such a complex, interesting novelist (and an actress to boot) that I was excited to read her autobiography We Were Amused (1958).  Well, it was definitely an interesting, involving read - and it's made Rachel Ferguson seem more eccentric and complex than I could ever have imagined!

I've only read a couple of her novels - The Brontes Went to Woolworths and Alas, Poor Lady - which could scarcely be more different.  The former is a madcap tangle about a family who have no boundary between fact and fantasy; the latter is a sombre examination of the fate for aging unmarried women in the period.  Both are excellent - you might all be more familiar with The Brontes Went to Woolworths, and tomorrow I'll be posting a longer excerpt from We Were Amused which relates to that novel.

Truth be told, I was a bit anxious after the first chunk of the book.  I often write here, when reviewing memoirs, that the author mentions miserable events without creating anything remotely like a misery memoir.  Well, Rachel Ferguson gets close... with her love for the dramatic and heightened, she describes her mother's childhood as utterly miserable, and her maternal grandmother as a tyrant.  Here's a typically bizarre Ferguson paragraph:
'Cumber', as our Greenwood cousins called her ('because she cumbers the earth'), was, as Annie Cave, a member of what Wells has termed that essential disaster of the nineteenth century, the large family.  Having married Dr. Cumberbatch, she herself produced five children who lived, a sixth who had the sense to die in infancy, plus at least two who never even succeeded to cradle status.  And all this without anaesthetics, in an era of tight lacing.
Details of Cumber's ogredom palled a little, and I confess that I couldn't wait for Ferguson to set aside childhoods - her mother's and her own - and get to the business of living.  More particularly, living as an aspiring dancer/actress and, later, writer.  These sections were rather wonderful.  Ferguson takes her haphazard life rather casually - all the opportunities and achievements which came her way are thrown in without much explanation, so she'll suddenly be working for Punch, or having her first novel published, or going on a theatrical tour, without much notice.  It's definitely better than labouring all these points, but it's a curious division of spoils considering how many pages she devotes to her experiences judging cat shows...

For most of us, I think it's this middle section of the autobiography which will most appeal.  It's so full of intriguing details and behind-the-scenes information (come back tomorrow for background info on The Brontes Went To Woolworths!) which is invariably interesting to those of us who have never published a novel or appeared on the stage.  She does expect a lot of knowledge of interwar actors, dancers, and journalists which I am (alas) unable to provide - but I need no prompting when she talks about E.F. Benson, E.M. Delafield, and Violet Hunt.

Even if Rachel Ferguson had no creative career upon which to reflect, We Were Amused would be special for her striking, surreal turn of phrase.  Here is a couple of examples:
Our hall wallpaper, which for some reason was not replaced when we moved in, was a real caution and an abomination in the sight of the Lord: it suggested fir-trees and pineapples in a very bad thunderstorm indeed.
Socially Teddington was still of the epoch which invited its doctors to dinner but seldom, if ever, its dentists.
Very amusing! But, if only one could believe that Rachel Ferguson were sufficiently detached!  Perhaps it is foolish to expect an author to be detached in their autobiography, but her moments of irony and satire are weighed down by her equally peculiar outlook on many topics.  Yes, she may have written that twist about dentists with a grin on her face, but she is deadly serious when she suggests the working class have got too big for their boots and are 'overpaid'.  Complaining about the lack of live-in servants feels madly outdated for 1958, she seems faintly insane when writing 'the only cathedral town that doesn't tire one out is York' (what can she mean?), and I lost the thread completely when it came to the chapter on ghosts.  Ferguson assumes a level of credulity (not to mention a familiarity with famous hauntings of the 1930s) which left me entirely cold towards her my-sister's-friend's-cousin-heard sort of anecdotes about poltergeists and phantom footsteps.

Even stranger, to me, is her total fixation upon London - well, Kensington.  She describes a period spent in a different area of London as though she'd been exploring a South American country, or taken a voyage to Moscow.  She has no time at all for any of Britain's other cities, towns, and villages.  Life begins and ends with Kensington for Ferguson - she'll often assert that somebody is a Kensingtonian, and consider it credentials enough to satisfy the reader.  I shall never understand the London-centric mind, and I should probably give up hoping I ever shall.

So, it's a curious mix.  It's almost all fun and interesting, but the selection and apportion of pages - not to mention the tone and turn of phrase - certainly mark out Rachel Ferguson as an eccentric.  If you'd wondered how much of a departure she found The Brontes Went To Woolworths, well... if anything, she seems to have toned things down for the novel.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

On Not Knowing Art

Berliner Straße im Sonnenschein (1920s) - Lesser Ury
(image source)

I wish I knew ways to find paintings and artists that I loved - other than looking around the same old art galleries in London.  Some bloggers (notably Mary and Jane) seem often to attend wonderful exhibitions or highlight the work of a great local artist.  I respond to paintings much more emotionally and vividly than I do to music, and yet my knowledge of art is so slight.  And it doesn't help that this strong response is really only for 19th and 20th century art, particularly interwar; I've yet to find anything older that which I really love.

Interior, The Orange Blind (c.1928) - Francis Cadell
(picture source)

I think one of the issues is that my deepest affinities, with paintings as with books, are for the middlebrow - the domestic and the rural.  And, as with literature, these are not fanfared as much as other varieties of art - and it's quite likely that I shall respond most strongly to artists who are not technically the most proficient or most significant.  It really is the same as my love for middlebrow literature - but with novels, I know what I'm doing and I know where to look.  With paintings, I just meander around a Google image search, filled with hope... it's taken me about half an hour to stumble upon these three paintings, all of which I really like.

Korhinta (1931) - Vilmos Aba-Novak
(image source)

So I'd love some suggestions of artists to investigate, galleries to visit, and exhibitions to attend.  I believe in you, my readers!  And let me know what you think of these paintings I've unearthed.  I have literally no idea whether they are world-famous or done in someone's loft.  Perhaps that is a nicely democratic way of enjoying paintings... but I've done it for long enough now.  Help!

Monday 18 February 2013

Return of Winnie-the-Pooh

When it was announced that there would be an authorised sequel to Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, I was rather sceptical.  It seemed doomed to failure from the outset, and previous attempts to cash in on Milne's talent (notably the horrendous Disney adaptation, and resultant filling of the world with the hideous illustrations that were mangled into being) weren't encouraging.  But I read the first story online and was pretty impressed; Verity gave me a copy of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood (thanks Verity!), and... 15 months later, quick as a snap, I read it.

I don't know why it took me so long, other than because it almost always takes me an age to read the books on my shelves, however much I've been looking forward to them.  But it seemed the perfect choice for my sickbed last week, undemanding and jolly, and so I took it down.

My thoughts could be summed up by saying: "It's pretty much as good as it could be."  We all knew it would never be as good as the original - how could it be? - but it could have been a lot, lot worse.

The right people wrote and illustrated it, for a start.  David Benedictus, the writer, had already dramatised the Winnie-the-Pooh books for the radio, and Mark Burgess (stepping into E.H. Shepard's shoes as illustrator) was the colourist for Shepard's illustrations in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.  These are clearly men who have a great awareness of, and fondness for, the genius of Milne and Shepard.  Whatever results they come up with, they have written and illustrated with respect and caution.  Not for them, the slap-dash "Wouldn't it be funny if Rabbit looked like he was off his head on drugs, and Eeyore were an alcoholic?" stylings of Disney.

The stories in the book take place during one of Christopher Robin's school holidays.  I'll write a little bit about the ending of The House at Pooh Corner in another post, soon, but it's clear that Christopher Robin hasn't forgotten his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood.  He's changed a bit, but he's still delighted to see them - and they organise (or should that be organdise?) a speshul welcum home party for him, complete with speshul invitations.  Roo has his eye on a green jelly, and is trying to convince everyone else that the red and yellow ones look better.  Kanga successfully diverts Owl's story about Uncle Robert.  Pooh gets drowsy and dreams about honey.  "Jollifications and hey-diddle-diddle," comments Eeyore, and who are we to disagree with him?  Of course, Christopher Robin eventually turns up, and all is well.  It is a gentle, auspicious start to the collection.

Things continue pretty well.  As we go through the book, the events are chosen well.  Owl wants to write a book.  They start a school - Eeyore is headmaster.  Cricket is played.  Rabbit tries to take a Census...
"I thought I was a sensible animal," Rabbit said, shuddering. 
"Of course you are," said Pooh, "everybody knows that." 
"And it was such a sensible idea, the Census." 
"It's almost the same word," agreed Pooh.
It's all very much in keeping with the gang's original adventures, which is great.  Benedictus does, though, add another character.  A drought dries up the river, and there emerges (possibly indignant from years of having pooh-sticks dropped on her head), Lottie the Otter.  She wears pearls, says 'darling', and has gumption.  She certainly isn't a replication of any other characters - it's impressive the Benedictus has found a gap in the seemingly-comprehensive gallery of personality types invented by Milne - but, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lottie never quite works as a character.  Benedictus cannot rely on the charm that Milne has already built up in Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore et al - and there is a lot of looking-over-the-shoulder at events and expressions from previous books, which is better than if they'd been ignored altogether.

And there lies the problem, the inevitable problem, with Return to the Hundred Acre Wood.  The charm is missing.  Or, rather, it is less.  The same goes for Mark Burgess's illustrations - the spark of genius which characterised both Milne's writing and Shepard's drawing is absent from their imitators.  That indescribable something which brought Shepard's illustrations so charmingly alive, and gave Milne's prose a subtle undertone of wry wit and affectionate knowingness - it has not been bestowed upon Burgess and Benedictus, at least not in these guises.

The main emotion I have, when closing the very enjoyable but ultimately, of course, inferior tales of the Hundred Acre Wood?  To re-read the originals, naturally.  What fun!

Sunday 17 February 2013

Song for a Sunday

I could listen to Lana del Rey's Ride over and over and over again all day...

Saturday 16 February 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

It's been a tiring week, mostly because I came down with a virus last weekend (I'm very glad I scheduled four posts to appear before I was stricken!) so I'm looking forward to collapsing a bit.  AND seeing my dear friend Mel, who is visiting Oxford.  I hope you all have equally fun plans!  And if you don't, solace yourself with a book, a link, and a blog post.

1.) The book - who'd have thought that one of the new books I'm most excited about would be a graphic novel?  I loved the colourful, gentle touch of Brecht Evens' The Wrong Place, so different to the brash superhero-comic-style of many graphic novels (but not all, of course.)  So I asked Jonathan Cape if they'd be kind enough to send me his latest, and they very nicely did - it's called The Making Of and it looks to have the same aesthetic.  I will, of course, tell you more when I've read it.

2.) The link - is to the first post I've written in my new job at OxfordWords!  Actually, the first one I wrote will be appearing on Tuesday - this post, on '5 Words You Didn't Know Were Acronyms', was written yesterday as a quick substitute for something else - but it was great fun to write, and might surprise you.

3.) The blog post - I'm afraid I've been pretty rubbish at commenting on posts this week, from my sickbed, but I've been reading 'em.  Mary/Mrs. Miniver's Daughter has some lovely mural images in her latest post.  She seems to be at an exhibition every other hour, and I must follow her example and try to get to the British Murals and Decorative Painting 1910-1970 exhibition before it closes on 9th March.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Q&A with Mary Henely Magill

As promised, here is my interview with Cheerful Weather for the Wedding screenwriter Mary Henely Magill!  It's a real privilege to have her here.  And don't forget, the DVD is currently out, available from Amazon and lots of other places.

Mary with director Donald Rice, on set.
(photo by Mark Tilley)
ST: For people who haven't read Julia Strachey's novel, describe it in a sentence!

MHM: I’m not good at this kind of thing at all, but I’ll give it a go … It’s a very sharp and funny and odd tale about a romance gone awry and a family on the verge of chaos.

ST: How did you discover the book?

MHM: It was given to me as a present by a very good friend.  We were both huge Persephone fans and she worked around the corner from the shop in Bloomsbury.  I was about to get married, but I don’t think my friend had read the book herself.  Dolly is not exactly the model bride-to-be.

ST: What led to you adapting it, and getting the film made?

MHM: I was looking for a small(ish) scale project to adapt and this seemed to be it.  I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I had worked in production on short films with Teun Hilte and Donald Rice, and they were involved with Cheerful Weather for the Wedding from the beginning.  Teun optioned the rights, and we always planned that Donald would direct the movie.  He edited the first few drafts of the script and eventually we wrote the script together.  Once Felicity Jones was on board, everything moved very quickly.

ST: Were there any bits of the novel which you loved, but didn't feel would work for the screen?

MHM: Yes!  My favourite thing in the book is when Dolly remembers the moment she knew Joseph had fallen in love with her.  He didn’t actually say the words.  He told her that she would “adore” a jumbly, whatever that is, but he was really saying that he adored her.  I absolutely loved this and wrote it into the script.  We wound up changing the scene completely and the whole thing was cut – which was really disheartening.  But, we replaced it with the barn dance scene, which is my favourite part of the film so it all worked out!

ST: Here's my idiosyncratic personal question, because it was about my favourite bit of the novel.... why weren't the socks emerald green?! 

MHM: I really don’t know why we changed that.  I think we liked the idea that they looked like “cat sick.”  That was just a weird thing that got lost in translation somehow.  I always laughed about the socks in the book.  In the first few versions of the script, everyone who read it would say there was way too much stuff about the socks.  

ST: Any amusing anecdotes from the set?

MHM: The crew stayed in chalets at a place called Sandy Balls (look it up, it’s real!) and that provided lots of tittering and silliness.  We also had a hilarious evening at a hotel in Salisbury which involved restaurant ineptitude that would make Fawlty Towers look like The Ritz.  But, the most amusing anecdotes from the set are far too inappropriate to share on this blog!

ST: If you had to pick a favourite line from the screenplay, what would it be?

MHM: Yikes.  I really like when Kitty says that she doesn’t want the boy who looks like he has rabies.  I also like it when Mrs. Whitstable says that Dolly is beautiful, and then announces that she (Mrs. W) has lost her eyesight.  This was not in the book, although almost all the rest of Mrs. Whitstable’s lines were.  I actually took it from an aged great aunt of mine who said nearly the same thing to me when I visited her in Greece when I was 18.

ST: Which other books would you like to adapt, in an ideal world?

MHM: I could go on and on with this one, but here are the first three that come to mind:
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Timothy and Two Witches by Margaret Storey

ST: And the question I ask everyone... what are you reading at the moment?

MHM: I’m attempting to read Middlemarch for the third time.  First two attempts ended in failure.  I think I hate it.  I feel like a complete philistine for saying that, but I am really struggling to get through it.  Pathetic!  I also just re-read The Go-Between, which I think is absolutely brilliant.

Thanks, Mary!  (And, by the way, I've never got beyond the first 100 pages of Middlemarch...)

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding: the film

First off, I should let you know that tomorrow I'll be posting an exclusive Q&A with the scriptwriter of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, Mary Henely Magill - so, look forward to that!

I saw the film last week (incidentally, it is now available on DVD), and I'll confess that I was a bit nervous before I went.  As quite a few of us said in the fab discussion we had here, the novel (novella?) felt quite unfilmable.  And the reviews weren't all hugely positive... although mostly they seemed upset that it wasn't Downton Abbey.  (Why on earth should it be?)  One even complained that it wasn't very cheerful, and irony exploded.  Well, I've got to say - with one or two reservations, I thought it was really good.  I'd definitely recommend getting hold of the DVD, if you can't get to a screening.

I'm going to assume I skip a synopsis, because you can just read the novel review above, if you don't know what's what.  So instead, because I don't really know how to structure a film review without a synopsis, I'm going to give you my thoughts in bullet points... just below the film trailer.

1) As you can see from the trailer, the film is beautifully shot.  That's usually a damn-with-faint-praise comment, but I don't see why it should be.  Every frame was sumptuous, whether interior or exterior.  A golden, hazy spring day was as strikingly gorgeous as a sharp winter's morning in a bedroom.  Even if the script and acting had been appalling (which they certainly weren't), it would be a delicious film to watch.

2.) Felicity Jones was the Big Name for the film, and she was good, but I think the best people were Ellie Kendrick as Kitty, Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Thatcham, and Fenella Woolgar as Nancy.  Let's look at them one by one...

3.) Ellie Kendrick was so wonderful as Anne Frank in a TV series about her a while ago, and she was equally wonderful here.  Her Kitty was precocious, spontaneous, affectionate, and witty.  The most engaging character on screen, for my money.

4.) We all know Elizabeth McGovern for her Downton performance nowadays, but she was signed up for Cheerful Weather for the Wedding first.  On the page, Mrs. Thatcham is unbelievably absent-minded.  McGovern brings that across, but also makes her realistically stern and single-minded.

5.) I don't remember Nancy in the novel, but the dynamic between her and husband David were a wonderful part of the film.  Fenella Woolgar is so brilliant at the brisk barbed comment or sardonic murmur.  A total joy.

6.) From the main trio - James Norton's Owen was as much a nonentity on screen as on the page, but that's the way it should be.  Luke Treadaway was fantastic as Joseph, in both impassioned and frivolous scenes, and Felicity Jones put it in a thoughtful performance as bride-to-be Dolly.

7.) I loved how, from the opening notes of the score onwards, the film captured the hysterical madness of the narrative.  Especially in the first half, the frenetic, overlapping conversations and muddled characters was done really well - with the right level of detachment from genuine emotional concerns.

8.) The flip-side of this are the extended flashback scenes, and a deep-and-meaningful between Joseph and Dolly on the day of the wedding.  I know opinions differ on this, but for my money, the characters in Julia Strachey's novel aren't intended to be sympathetic.  It doesn't really matter what they think and feel, because they're all grotesques, and the point of the book is to be a madcap romp through events.  Which meant I didn't buy the emotional scenes between Dolly and Joseph, which seemed to dilute the tone of the film.  You can't really have your cake and eat it - either it's a surreal comedy, or it's a poignant one.  I think it would have been better to avoid making the characters at all sympathetic (same goes for the film of Angel), although I understand that that would make it harder to pitch or market.

9.) It *is* a really funny film.  The cinema was filled with laughter on many occasions.  The trailer goes a bit slapsticky, but the film itself isn't, and most of the humour came from dialogue and facial expressions.

10.) The socks weren't emerald green!  My favourite bit!  But that is something I asked Mary... come back tomorrow to find out her answer to that and other questions...

Tuesday 12 February 2013

A London War Note

I can keep it from you no longer!  The book is London War Notes 1939-1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes.  Congratulations to anybody who correctly guessed that (I'm typing this in advance, so for all I know you all guessed it.)  I'll give you a proper review when I've finished the book (and very reluctantly handed it back to the library, because secondhand copies are prohibitively expensive) but here's an excerpt to give you a taste of Mollie Panter-Downes' style:

Coming out into the blackout after these evenings is like falling into an inky well; the only lights are the changing green and red crosses of the masked traffic signals and the tiny flashing torches of pedestrians feeling their way like Braille readers around the murky puzzle of Piccadilly Circus.  A hawker with a tray of torches does a roaring trade there these dark nights.  So great has been the demand for batteries that spares are now unobtainable, and exasperated Londoners whose torches fail find that they either have to buy a complete new one or risk breaking a leg when they sally out of doors.  Everyone echoes Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream": "A calendar, a calendar! look in the almanack; find out moonshine, find out moonshine."  It is felt that moonlit nights may be an invitation to bombers, but at least they're more friendly.
More soon...

Monday 11 February 2013

My new job

I promised to tell you about my new job, and now that I'm a week into it, I will.

Firstly, I suppose I should get some housekeeping out of the way.  I am now employed by Oxford University Press, and involved with their blog, but all opinions given here are solely mine, and not OUP's.  There, that's out the way - transparency always a good idea!  But I'm not going to pretend to keep blog and job completely secret, because I think there are things on OxfordWords which you'll really enjoy.  Indeed, I linked to it before I ever worked there.  It would be silly to keep these things to myself.

So, yes, I am Content, Communications, and Engagement Manager for OUP online dictionaries (for four months, as part of someone's maternity cover).  And - I love it!  I have really, really enjoyed my first week - to the point where I'm already a little sad that it's probably only going to last four months, in this position.  Everyone's very friendly, and the job is both challenging and fun, so far.

What do I actually do?  My lovely line manager is still easing me in, and at the moment most of my role revolves around the OxfordWords blog - commissioning, editing, proof-reading, and (occasionally!) writing blog posts about language.

Although I won't be writing hugely often, I have written my first post - which is a competition, so I didn't actually have to write very much, but I did come up with this Dickens-related question.  Enter to win a Kindle Fire HD!  (Yes, yes, you know my stubbornly paper-books-only-please position, but if you're Kindle-inclined - Kinclined? - then it's a fantastic competition.  And obviously I can't enter anyway.  Incidentally, the only downside to this job is that I can't receive OUP review copies anymore!)

We language-lovers also, of course, love puns.  If they're puns mixed with pedantry, what more could we ask for?  I don't know where I stand with copyright, so I'm not going to copy the picture across, but I crafted something in Paint which will stand for time immemorial as Great Art... no? (If that Twitter link doesn't work, try this one on Facebook.)

All in all, I'm so happy that I applied for it - and, more than that, that they offered me the job!  It's even more ideal for me than I'd imagined, and the people friendlier than I could have hoped.  It already feels to me like I've been part of the team for ages.

I'll keep mentioning OxfordWords content here, if I feel it's appropriate for SiaB readers - and hopefully will also be posting regularly here.  As a teaser, one of (seven!) books I'm reading at the moment is a fantastically good and observant chronicle of the Second World War... and it isn't by Nella Last... guesses?

Saturday 9 February 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, folks!  As I warned, things have been a bit quieter than usual on SiaB this week.  I'll tell you more about my job next week (thanks for all your lovely congrats) - for now, sit back and enjoy a book, a link, and a blog post.

1.) The blog post - You know how great it is when someone loves an author you love?  Even better is when initially they don't, and then discover later that they do.  Harriet rather hated her first experience with Ivy Compton-Burnett (whom, as you might know, I adore).  Bravely, after some encouragement from me and some reading around the blogs, Harriet decided to give Dame Ivy another try.  And let there be rejoicing in the street, it worked!  Let Harriet explain it all, here.

2.) The book - just look what will be coming out in April...

3.) The link - I'm afraid I can't remember where I first saw this (it was on Facebook, let's face [ahem] it) but thanks if you brought it to my attention!  It's 30 of the Most Beautiful Abandoned Places - some really stunning, quite eerie, photos.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Making My Mark

Once or twice on Stuck-in-a-Book I've talked about my little foibles when it comes to bookmarks.  Click back on those links to find out more (especially the first one, which gives a few examples) - basically, I like my bookmarks and books to fit together, by theme or colour.

And I was especially pleased by the bookmark/book combination that's currently on my bedside table... so I had to share it with you.

Not only are Jane Bowles' short stories shaping up to be pretty stunning (thanks Sort Of Books for sending it to me!) but just look how well the postcard from Blackwell co-ordinates with the image of the woman on the front.

It's the little things in life that please me...

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Exciting news!

If starting a new job weren't enough exciting news, I have more!  Some of you may have seen it on Twitter and Facebook, but I haven't mentioned it here yet.

I shall be appearing, with Elaine from Random Jottings, at the Felixstowe Book Festival 15-16 June 2013!

We'll be nattering about book blogging - how we got involved, what it entails, anecdotes etc.  Not entirely sure what we're saying, but I imagine it'll be fairly organic.  Let's face it, when Elaine and I get talking, we're not worried that there will be long periods of silence.  Hopefully the audience will be able to get a word in, for a Q&A!

If you live remotely near Suffolk, it would be lovely if you could come!  Obviously we're not the only event - the website is here, so have a browse through.  I'd love to meet SiaB readers, so do come along and introduce yourselves.  For more info, either see that website, or read what Elaine had to say about it all.

Monday 4 February 2013

A Spy in the Bookshop

I've been a bit worried about what will happen when I get to my first Reading Presently book which I haven't hugely liked.  And the time has come.  Since it was given by a very dear friend (my ex-colleague Lucy) I don't want to seem unappreciative - but I also, of course, don't want to lie.  So I'm just going to give my honest review, with the caveat that I'm VERY grateful to Luce for giving it to me (and another addendum, that I've just read a really fun, great book which Lucy also gave me.)

As it happens, I didn't especially dislike A Spy in the Bookshop (letters between Heywood Hill and John Saumarez Smith 1966-74), it just disappointed me a bit.  JSS (as I shall know him for the rest of this review) had previously edited the letters of Heywood Hill and Nancy Mitford, which I very much enjoyed - and was actually the first thing I read in the Mitford canon.  Obviously buoyed by success, JSS decided to publish his own correspondence with Heywood Hill...

Hill had just retired from the bookshop at 10, Curzon Street, and running the shop was a man with the extraordinary name Handasyde Buchanan (known as 'Handy').  His wife Mollie worked there too, as well as assistant Liz.  The letters JSS sends to Hill are, basically, 165 pages of them bitching about the Buchanans.  Forgive the terminology, but nothing else will quite fit.

You know when you're on a bus, or in a shop, and overhear angry conversation between two people about an absent third - and you think "I bet it's six of one and half a dozen of the other"?  Yes?  That is to say, the absent third person would probably have equally as compelling a case against the gossiping couple present?  That's the feeling that I got from A Spy in the Bookshop (2006).  JSS writes off a letter saying "THIS is something awful Handy did today"; Hill replies "Gosh, that's awful"; JSS writes "You think THAT'S awful?  What about THIS!"

I don't blame JSS for writing these letters.  I imagine it was rather cathartic - and sometimes, as with the following example, rather amusing:
Instead, he took the chance when Mollie was away, "to smarten me up": a process that I need hardly describe, consisting as it always does of a catalogue of his own virtues.
but it does rather pall.  Which makes it particularly galling when JSS does edit out excerpts which seem rather more interesting.  This editorial comment made me gnash my teeth, and pencil two exclamation marks in the margin:
[Some details followed about Rome and some of the people, including Muriel Spark, whom I'd met through my ex-uncle Ronald Bottrall.]
Oh, John!  Tell us about that, please!

There is enough about the everyday running of a bookshop to keep me reading, and anybody who can slip in anecdotes about Nancy Mitford is onto a winning thing with me, but I would have loved more.  Heywood Hill could also be witty when he wanted to be:
P.S. One of those real hopeless customer questions from a neighbour here.  A book about a man in California who kept wolves as Alsatians.  She had it in paperback but lost it, she found it such a help with her jackal.
But here again, I'm afraid I have a problem with their outlook.  I hate the idea of books being worth a lot of money if they're first editions, and all that talk of 'unclipped', 'neat copy' etc.  The idea of books as collectible objects based on their appearance or scarcity rather sickens me, as an avid reader.  And commercial value, naturally for booksellers, is paramount in their mind.

Heywood Hill has proven to be a worthy correspondent, in the letters with Nancy Mitford, and I did get the sense that he was lowering himself rather for JSS's petty missives.  I don't doubt a genuine affection between them, but I do believe that Hill wasn't bringing out his best letters for JSS.

It's a fun enough collection, and the bookshop setting certainly helps, but it does scream afterthought, once the Nancy Mitford letters were successful.  Without either correspondent having her talent for letter-writing, and with such a repetitive, almost bitter, note sounding throughout, A Spy in the Bookshop is only fairly enjoyable - and there are certainly better places to look for this sort of collection.  But, once again, thank you to Lucy for being sweet enough to give me a copy!

Sunday 3 February 2013

Song for a Sunday

Thanks so much for your good lucks and congratulations yesterday!  More soon...

For today, enjoy Nelly Furtado and 'Try'.

Saturday 2 February 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm starting a new job on Monday (maternity cover) at Oxford University Press.  It's all happened very quickly - I applied for it two weeks ago - and I'm both excited and nervous.  I might well tell you more about it in the future, once I've worked out how much distance I ought to keep between my job and this blog, but for now I just want to explain why posts will be a bit sporadic for the next week or two, as I get used to a new environment.  But I've quite enjoyed posting every other day, for a bit, rather than everyday - because more people seem to interact with each post that way.

But don't worry, I'm definitely not going anywhere!  Stuck-in-a-Book is still very important to me.

Some quick weekend links...

1.) The book - is Jenn Ashworth's The Friday Gospels, which I'm 50 pages into.  I loved her A Kind of Intimacy, and have somehow still not read her second novel (bad Simon), but have gone straight onto the third, which Sceptre kindly sent me when I sent them a begging email.  It's about Mormons, and is from various different perspectives, all of which are wonderfully realised so far.  More soon...

2.) The link - Radio 4 do a programme all about Nancy Mitford!

3.) The blog post - I'm trying to resist writing about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries again (IT'S JUST GOT SO EXCITING), but I've found my way around that by linking, instead, to Iris's blog post about it, and about Pride and Prejudice's anniversary - have a gander here.