Sunday 31 March 2013

Happy Easter!

He is risen indeed, hallelujah!

Have a lovely Easter, wherever you are - and, those of you who can, could you spare a prayer for Our Vicar's Wife? (For those who are new to Stuck-in-a-Book, that's my Mum.)  She's ill at the moment - not life-threatening or anything, but still, health would be much appreciated all round :)

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Little Poems About Authors

I spent this evening at the Penguin Bloggers' Night, which I'll write about properly next week - lovely to see the old guard (as Kim described us on Twitter!) and to meet some new faces - and, of course, to hear the authors read extracts from their forthcoming books.  More on't that soon.

The writers mural at Barter Books, Alnwick

What I'm writing today, instead, is somewhat fanciful... on the train home, I started to craft little poems about authors.  Some sincere, but mostly frivolous.  I thought you might enjoy reading them - and that, hopefully, they'll inspire you to follow suit (either in the comments here, or on your own blogs.)  Here are the four I made up on the train journey!  Do have a go; it's fun, and makes you feel a bit like you might be Dorothy Parker's new best friend.

George Eliot; or, Asking for Eliot in a Bookshop
Who'd have guessed, dear Mary Anne,
Your efforts to be thought a man
Would lead, in the next century,
To: "Sorry, sir, T.S. or G.?"

Virginia Woolf
The Angels of the House you slew,
And buried in decorous graves,
Leaving (with arched eyebrow) you:
The common reader who made waves.

Philip Larkin's Legacy
Oh Larkin, yes, you swore; that's fine.
But no-one knows the second line.

What's troublin' ya?
I am glum; something's marred me.
Life is hard; I am Hardy.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson

I don't read many living authors, certainly not as a percentage of my overall reading, but I think there is only one whom I consider to be a 'great' - and that is Marilynne Robinson.  This opinion was formed on the basis of her novel Gilead, and has been strengthened by reading her first novel, Housekeeping (1980).  I don't think it is as good as Gilead, but it is still a strikingly beautiful example of how astonishingly an author can use prose.  The opening lines are surprisingly stark, given the writing that follows:
My name is Ruth.  I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Forster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.
This opening, hovering between comedy and tragedy without any indication which side the balance might fall, is an indication of the absence of men in Housekeeping.  Indeed, the only man who has stuck around makes a dramatic exit in the first pages of the novel - in a manner which reminded me of the opening to Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, although Robinson's came first.  The man is Ruth's grandfather; the exit is on a train in the town where they live; the train derails from a bridge, and sinks through the ice to the depths of an enormous lake, drowning everyone on board and hiding their bodies from rescue.

Even this dramatic event, which reverberates slowly through the whole novel - (The derailment, though too bizarre in itself to have either significance or consequence, was nevertheless the most striking event in the town's history, and as such was prized.  Those who were in any way associated with it were somewhat revered.) - is depicted almost quietly.  There were no proper witnesses, and Robinson does not take on the mantle of omniscience - instead, this tragic and would-be grandiose event is presented through veils of supposition and uncertainty.  I don't think Robinson could be over-the-top if she tried.  See how calmly she depicts the aftermath, when describing the widow with her daughters (later to be Ruth's mother and aunts):
She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace.  She knew a thousand songs.  Her bread was tender and her jelly was tart, and on rainy days she made cookies and applesauce.  In the summer she kept roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripened and the petals fell, she putt hem in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon.  Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind.  Of course they pressed her and touched her as if she had just returned after an absence.  Not because they were afraid she would vanish as their father had done, but because his sudden vanishing had made them aware of her.
Occasionally there are moments of plot in Housekeeping, and they can be quite significant moments, but nobody could call this a plot-driven novel.  No, it is certainly character-driven - and the central character is Ruth.  Robinson doesn't capture her voice in quite the mesmeric way she captures John Ames's in Gilead - but that is a feat I consider unmatched by any recent novelist, so she shouldn't be judged too harshly on that.  We see the bleak, plain experience of young life through Ruth's eyes - as her sister Lucille grows apart from her, as she looks back on their mother's abandonment of them, as she tries to understand her increasingly eccentric aunt.  But mostly as she watches the world pass, and attempts to find her place in it.  There are certainly humorous elements to her observations, but perhaps the dominant note is poignancy: 'That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different.'

I am usually left unaffected by depictions of place and landscape in literature (it's probably the reason that I loathed Return of the Native, for instance) but even I found Robinson's depiction of Fingerbone - the atmospherically named small town - entirely consuming and impressive.  Whoever designed the cover for this edition did an exceptional job.  Maybe it's cold, vast places which affect me, since I felt the same about Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves.
Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.
At book group, someone mentioned that Housekeeping couldn't have been set in the UK - we just don't have that sort of isolated vastness anywhere.  Having the enormous lake, holding unfindable bodies and untraceable secrets, and the equally enormous railway bridge running over it - it is such a clever way to create a dramatic, memorable landscape, and define the town in an unsettling manner.  A trainline should signify connection and communication, but here it just seems to connote distance and almost terrifying grandeur. And the bridge comes back into play at the end of the novel, encircling the narrative with the same all-encompassing dominance that the bridge and lake have over Fingerbone.

I've not mentioned much of the plot, because (as I said) it is pretty immaterial to the chief pleasure of reading Housekeeping.  The novel is really like a very long poem.  It meanders, in the best possible way; it is impossible to speed-read, or at least it would be an exercise in wasted time to do so.  Instead, one ought to wallow and wander through Robinson's prose.  Traditional storytelling has no place in Housekeeping - instead, a patchwork of moments is sewn together, creating a fabric which is unusual but beautifully captivating.

Monday 25 March 2013

Maguel on... the printed page

Last July I mentioned that I was starting an ongoing series on excerpts from Alberto Manguel's The Library At Night. Well, better late than never, here is the second instalment!  And it's a cheeky riposte to the rise of e-readers, which have (to my mind, rather inexplicably) exploded in popularity since this book was published in 2006.

Restaurant Car (c.1935) by Leonard Campbell Taylor

"Even the newer electronic technologies cannot approach the experience of handling an original publication.  As any reader knows, a printed page creates its own reading space, its own physical landscape in which the texture of the page, the colour of the ink, the view of the whole ensemble acquire in the reader's hands specific meanings that lend tone and context to the words.  (Columbia University's librarian Patricia Battin, a fierce advocate for the microfilming of books, disagreed with this notion.  "The value," she wrote, "in intellectual terms, of the proximity of the book to the user has never been satisfactorily established."  There speaks a dolt, someone utterly insensitive, in intellectual or any other terms, to the experience of reading."*

--- Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, pp.74f

*[I would point out that, reading Patricia Battin's Wikipedia page, she is far from a dolt - and has even done a lot for the preservation of physical books, but I still agree with Manguel that what she says here is, to my mind, unsatisfactory.]

Saturday 23 March 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hopefully I'm going to see some crocodiles this weekend... I'll keep you posted, either on here or, more likely, on Twitter - where I'm @stuck_inabook, donchaknow.  I'm afraid I'm just as likely to talk about Neighbours or cats as I am books, but...

1.) The books - you know me, I love reprints - so it's always exciting to unwrap an unsolicited publisher package and discover that it's got reprints.  Even better, they're by an author I like, and they're books I don't own - soon I'll be trying The Boat and A Perfect Woman by L.P. Hartley (best known for the very good The Go-Between), courtesy of John Murray.  Click on the images for more info.

2.) The links - time for an update about OxfordWords blog posts, sneakily put in the 'links' section!  I've been calling in favours from the blogosphere, and a couple of posts appeared over the past weeks from names you'll recognise... here are some of my favourite recent articles:

Harriet wrote about Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Rachel wrote about Vita Sackville-West
Andrew Motion wrote about poetry and memory
My lovely boss Malie wrote about My Fair Lady
I wrote about pronunciations of 'scone'.
Our 'baby names generator' proved very popular!

3.) The blog post - do check out Karyn's posts about her travels - especially if piles of Penguins get you all tingly.

Friday 22 March 2013

Going Underground

Look what arrived in the post the other day!

That was a very pleasant surprise - Penguin kindly sent me the Penguin Lines collection - a series of stories celebrating 150 years of the London Underground, each (as you see) the colour of a tube line.  The British Transport Museum, incidentally, offers milkshakes in every colour of the tube map - which sounds like a lovely idea until you realise that one of them will have to be grey.

It's no secret here that I don't much like London, and I certainly don't any fondness for the Underground - but I *do* have a huge fondness for any Penguin series, and have their Great Loves and English Journeys boxsets.  My collecting instinct and love of sets, not to mention my love of colour, makes me already fall in love with this set, even though I've only actually heard of one of these authors (John Lanchester).

All the book and author info is here - perhaps you can advise me where to start?

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Old and young writers

photo source

After reading The Easter Party by Vita Sackville-West (see previous post), which included a little section where Lady Quarles propounds her thoughts on philosophy and theology - a little overdramatic, and seemingly Vita's own views put into a character who, for a page or two, became a puppet - it got me thinking.

It is a truism that the very young proclaim their beliefs most assertively, and that the old have been humbled by their experience of life into an unprovocative wisdom.  That isn't my experience of reading novels.  Yes, young writers often throw forth their theories with earnest abandon- but also, it seems to me, with a sly awareness of their own audacity.  Novelists at the end of their careers (and, at 61, Vita Sackville-West was not exactly old when writing The Easter Party, but she was nearer old than young) seem to dismiss all other theories as the babblings of youth, and put forward their own (however subjective) theories as some sort of obvious truth.

Does this tally with your reading?  Any thoughts?

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The Easter Party - Vita Sackville-West

Hayley has a good track record of giving me books that she hasn't hugely enjoyed, which I end up loving. First off was Marghanita Laski's Love on the Supertax (which remains my favourite of her novels, although I've only read three); now is Vita Sackville-West's The Easter Party (1953). I couldn't get a good photograph in the light, so I played around with the image instead.

It certainly isn't an unflawed novel.  It is melodramatic and improbable.  But, with the odd reservation or two, I loved it.

The Easter party in question is a gathering at Anstey, the beautiful country home of Walter and Rose Mortibois.  In the party is Rose's dowdy, contented sister Lucy, with her husband Dick and 22 year old son Robin; eccentric, flirtatious Lady Quarles, and Walter's witty, intelligent brother Gilbert.  It is a curious group of people, all a little wary of the situation, each with their own private or public anxieties.  Which sounds a very trite way to describe the scenario - and, truth be told, Vita Sackville-West doesn't wander too far from the trite, at times.

This is especially true in the comparison of Rose and Lucy.  Rose is in a loveless marriage - or, rather, an unloved partner in a marriage, for she devotedly loves Walter.  He, however, never made any bones about what he was offering her.  He prefixes his proposal with "I will not pretend to be in love with you," which is, of course, what every little girl dreams of happening.  By contrast, Lucy and Dick have a delightful marriage.  It is very rare to come across a lovely, loving couple in fiction, and Vita S-W has to be congratulated for creating a pair who, in middle-age, still call each other 'Pudding', and are adorable rather than nauseating.

So, yes, we have the rich, unhappy woman and her poor, happy woman.  (By 'poor' I mean, naturally, 'only has one bathroom' - they're not on the streets.)  It's not the most original set-up, and I did wonder whether Vita was writing this in a rush - it was her penultimate novel, and I already knew that I hadn't been much of a fan of her final one.  But this turns out to be more than a collection of amusing, exaggerated characters and well-worn, inevitable moral lessons.  Vita Sackville-West weaves something rather wonderful from this material.  For starters, it is amusing - here is Gilbert's faux-horror at the idea of meeting Lady Quarles:
Are you trying to tell me that Lady Quarles is cosy?  If so, I don't believe it.  Nothing that I have ever heard of her indicates anything of the sort.  It is true that my cognizance of her is limited to the piles of illustrated papers, all out of date, which I contemplate only when I visit, in a state of the greatest apprehension, my dentist or my doctor.  I am perhaps then not in the best of moods to appreciate the charm of irresistible, lovable ladies propped on a shooting-stick in tweeds or entering a theatre by flashlight in an ermine cloak, but on the whole I think I had better not risk transferring my acquaintance with Lady Quarles from the printed page to the flesh.  I might be disillusioned.
She is a wonderful character when she arrives - garrulous, excitable, somehow loved by all despite being an almighty nuisance.  I found her a little less tolerable when she started bearing her soul - because she started declaiming things in a very third-act-Ibsen way.  Thinking of The Easter Party in dramatic terms was very helpful for these segments...

It is, however, with the host and hostess that The Easter Party gets more interesting and original - and stand above similar novels.  I don't know about you, but I find passion between humans in novels rather dull to read about - it's so apt, if not done perfectly, to smack of the third-rate melodrama.  Perhaps it's my diet of soap operas which has made me so intolerant of these unconvincing sounding conversations.  But what I will run towards, eagerly, are novels where a human is has a passionate love for something non-human.  I was going to say inanimate, but that's not true for the central passions in The Easter Party.

For Rose, it is (besides her cold husband) Anstey and its gardens.  In Vita Sackville-West's exceptionally brilliant novella The Heir, a man develops a loving obsession with the house he inherited.  Thirty years later, Vita Sackville-West is still exploring the relationship between person and property.  She, of course, had this deep bond with her family home Knole (and was justifiably pained and outraged that the laws of primogeniture meant her gender precluded her inheriting it.)  This affection, along with her expertise as a gardener, enables her to write beautifully and movingly about Anstey and its grounds:
The beauty of the renowned Anstey gardens!  Rose stood amazed.  Svend [the dog] brought one of his little sticks and dropped it at her feet and stood looking up, waiting for her to throw it, but she could take no notice.  She was gazing across the lake, with the great amphitheatre of trees piling up behind it, and the classical temples standing at intervals along its shores.  It was one of the most famous landscape gardens in England, laid out in the eighteenth century, far too big for the house it belonged to.  The house, however, was not visible from here, and, but for the temples, the garden might not have been a thing of artifice at all, but part of the natural scenery of woods and water, stretching away indefinitely into the countryside, untended by the hand of man.  Already the legions of wild daffodils were yellowing the grassy slopes, and a flight of duck rose from the lake which they frequented of their own accord.  The air was soft with the first warmth of spring, which is so different from the last warmth of autumn; the difference between the beginning and the end, between arrival and departure.
But this is familiar Vita territory; I was not surprised to encounter it.  A more unexpected, and unexpectedly moving, passion was the relationship Walter has with his Alsatian Svend.  (And in case you're worrying, based on my previous reading of Lady into Fox and His Monkey Wife, fear not - their relationship is entirely unsuspect.)  Walter, who cannot express affection for any human, including his wife, is devoted to his dog.  The scenes describing their companionship and mutual trust could have felt like a mawkishly over-sentimental Marley and Me intrusion, but are done so cleverly and touchingly, that I doubt anybody could censor them.  And that's coming from a cat person.  Svend even becomes an important plot pivot...

There are enough lingering secrets and unlikely speeches to make The Easter Party feel like a throwback to theatrical melodrama, but Vita Sackville-West combines these with gorgeous description, genuine pathos, and a web of delicate writing which bewitches the reader.  It's a heady mixture, and one I doubt many authors could pull off - but I loved it.  Vita Sackville-West will never be in the same stable as Virginia Woolf, the author with whom she is still most often mentioned.  She wasn't trying to be.  She was a talented writer, crafting something unusual - somehow both willfully derivative and original, and (for me, at least) an absorbing, delightful, occasionally tragic, read.  Thank you, Hayley!

Sunday 17 March 2013

A lovely Penguiny find

Despite having a whole weekend doing basically nothing, I have still failed to put together a review - or even read very much, actually - so instead I shall show off a recent find!  I don't think it's especially rare or anything, but I think it's a fantastic example of Penguin cover design in its heyday.  And it cost 30p.  I didn't know there were still places where you could get books for 30p! Turns out the charity shops of Headington are rather cheaper than the charity shops of Oxford.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunn (a blog post with a twist)

About 15 months ago, I got a gift from a lady at my book group: Ella Minnow Pea (2001) by Mark Dunn. Fast forward a bit, and I finally got around to it, and found it a surprisingly brilliant small book.

I did know Ella Minnow Pea's main, and most original, 'gimmick', if you will - that Mark Dunn gradually lost a, b, c, so on and so forth, throughout his book - and had thought that it was simply a witty structuring and a prolonging of a trick. It had a possibility of growing a touch dull or awkward (thought I) but was still worth trying out.

And, it turns out, my worry was wholly without basis.  Ella Minnow Pea is a fairly brilliant out-working of a good trick - but it is also dark and disturbing, on occasion, and not at all a throwaway, whimsical sort of book. I hadn't thought it would turn out so dark...

Dunn's story all occurs on an island known as Nollop, in honour of Mr. Nollop, famous for composing an important pangram - which you might know (follow this link.)  I don't know if Nollop is fictitious or not - Wiki is willfully ignoring him, if not - but Nollop is akin to a god for folk on his island.  So much so, that Town Councillors await his laws from on high - although Nollop is, sadly, long lost to this mortal world.  His command is, (so Councillors say), shown by Nollop Island's local bust of his body - or, particularly, wording put by a sculptor on it, of Mr. Nollop's pangram.  As parts of its wording fall off, Councillors claim that it is a dictat from Mr. Nollop, that island inhabitants must drop that part of vocabulary - by mouth or by writing.  If inhabitants do not comply: a warning for a first infraction, whipping for an additional slip, and banishing from Nollop for a third.

At first, as 'z' falls from Nollop's famous pangram, nobody thinks much about it.  It will not significantly adjust island inhabitants' communication - for how much do folk say 'z' anyway?

As 'q' follows 'z', and 'j' follows 'q', things start to grow in difficulty - and angst among inhabitants, many of whom unwittingly infract Nollop's laws, with postliminary warning, whipping - or having to sail away from Nollop for good.  Many Nollopians opt to abandon an unhappy island voluntarily...

Fourth to go is 'd', which brings with it appalling frustration.  Ella Minnow Pea all consists of writing from inhabitant to inhabitant, mum to child, aunt to young girl - scrawlings which Councillors scan for contraband words, but nothing apart from that, so this lady's inclusion of painful or incautious topics won't occasion Councillors burning or taking a communication:
My sweet Mittie, it is strange, so terribly strange how taxing it has become for me to speak, to write without these four illegal letters, but especially without the fourth.  I cannot see how, given the loss of one letter more, I will be able to remain among those I love, for surely I will misstep.  So I have chosen to stop talking, to stop writing altogether.
I found it a tiny bit difficult to work out who was who (or whom was whom, mayhap) always, but Ella Minnow Pea is primarily about a girl with that lmnop-sounding alias, maintaining a campaign against Nollop's Councillors - trying (with similarly stubborn island folk) to craft a rival to Nollop's pangram, which will (curiously) abolish Nollop Island's Town Council's dominant control of vocabulary.

It was surprisingly moving, actually. I think Dunn might aim for Ella Minnow Pea to imply an analogy with a Fascist nation, or any sort of dictatorship which bans individual autonomy. It was chilling, as inhabitants of Nollop lost rights, all books in Nollop's library - burnt, straightaway, for invariably having 'z' - and, following from that, inhabitants lost all availability for articulation.

As I said at this post's start - Ella Minnow Pea is surprisingly dark - but not gratuitously so at all.

Mark Dunn isn't original in writing a book which avoids using a particular part of A-Z - in fact, a book using this cunning trick is known as a 'lipogram' (Dunn's book is, if you will, lipogrammatic) - but not many authors could discard so many words and still craft a story so brilliant, almost as though this linguistic loss had no ability to limit his writing or imagination.  Only Dunn could craft a book so moving and full of wisdom, with this handicap - thank you so much, Ruth, for giving it to Simon's Book Gift Mountain.

And now, that twist - did you spot that this blog post - I think! - was built (apart from citations and quoting 'Ella Minnow Pea' in full), without using any 'e's at all...?  Not with Dunn's brilliant cunning at doing so, although I must admit that it was oddly tiring!

Congratulations, if you did spot that!

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Poorly Drawn Lines

I have finished a couple of really good books this week, very different from each other, and I'll be getting to those soon - but for today I wanted to share a fun cartoon website I discovered a few days ago.  The webpage makes it clear that it's ok to reproduce his cartoons, so long as you link back to the page - so I have handpicked a few that I love.  The page is called Poorly Drawn Lines, and the cartoons are often a tiny bit dark or subversive, but in a funny, colourful, non-scary way.  Here are some of my favourites, from a recent scroll-through (clicking on them takes you back to the relevant page of Poorly Drawn Lines):


New Moustache



Go and have a browse!

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Some photos from my week...

I don't take that many photos nowadays - in 2011 I took a photo everyday, and it was a really fun way to document the year, but I think maybe I reached saturation point. Still, I should take more... and in the spirit of that, here are a few I've taken on a couple of recent occasions:

Although I'm still working the odd Saturday at the Bodleian, my job at OUP means that I've now finished my regular evening shifts (and casual daytime hours) there - quite a moving goodbye to people I've worked with, on and off, for five and a half years.  Most Reader Services staff signed a very jolly card, and Lovely Verity got me a Radcliffe Camera Goodbye Cake - thanks Verity!

My friend Lucy and I were in London on Monday night for the launch of The Real Mrs. Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham at Slightly Foxed. It was good fun, and the book looks absolutely stunning - my favourite colour, for starters. (These photos were taken on my 'phone, hence their lack of high quality.)

I should explain... this photo of Lucy is something of an in-joke, since I've been encouraging her for years to write a review for SiaB (since she knows loads about modern literature) and she demurs - so I said she could just hold and book and give a thumbs up. And now she has!

I must take more photos... it's fun sharing recent events in my life this way!

Monday 11 March 2013

Room at the Top (a pleasant surprise)

If you read my recent appearance on Danielle's blog, taking you on a tour around my bookshelves, you might have noticed this picture:

Being observant people, you will have spotted all sorts of things.  Half the Queen's head, on my breakfast tea mug, perhaps.  David's eye (David being the teddy bear), maybe?  A little bit of Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, if you're very astute.  But what you won't have missed is that book slap-bang in the front of the photo - one which scarcely seems to accord with my reading tastes.  It was, in case you hadn't guessed, a choice for my book group.

Could there be a less promising cover?  A louche man in a trench coat; a cover design which combines the worst excesses of ClipArt with the block capitals of a child learning to write; worst of all, the tagline (which mercifully you wouldn't have been able to read on Dani's post): 'The famous novel of the drivingly ambitious, sexually ruthless Joe Lampton, hero of our time.'

It sounds absolutely ghastly, doesn't it?

It's fair to say, dear reader, that I approached Room at the Top with some trepidation.  Yes, it was given to me (so it's on the Reading Presently list) but by a man who, inexplicably, had about two dozen copies in his garage, and I don't think had read it.

But - but - as with A Confederacy of Dunces, another book group choice, I misjudged it.  Although Room at the Top isn't in the same league as John Kennedy Toole's superb novel, every moment of which I relished, it's certainly much, much better than I'd dreaded from the cover, tagline, blurb...

I think Room at the Top compares interestingly with Francoise Sagan's Sunlight on Cold Water, which I savaged recently.  Both novels are about men sleeping with various women, falling in and out of love at the drop of a hat, and trying to discover their futures - but somehow Braine's was engaging, while Sagan's was an overly-introspective bore.  If I were to describe the plot of Room at the Top in detail, I really don't think it would appeal to many of my readers.  A recently demobilised soldier works his way through fairly menial financial jobs, feeling bitter about the rich and lustful about their daughters.  He falls in love; he falls out of it.  He seeks parent-replacements.  And he has a fair bit of sex.

So why did I like it?

Basically because John Braine can write well.  He's in that school of writing which I always think of as the Orwell-school, simply because he was the first author I read from that stable.  The similarities aren't in topic or genre, but in the use of language.  Orwell has a prose style that is somehow both beautiful and plain.  Sentence by sentence, it seems serviceable, even a little utilitarian, but it builds up into a richness which is hard to pinpoint.  At its best, every word is just right - without the elaborate tapestry of a Woolf or even an Elizabeth Taylor, or the entrenched humour of a von Arnim or Austen.  Of course, the only excerpt I noted down is rather more ornamental than most of Room at the Top, but... well, here it is.  Lampton is visiting the bombed-out house where he and his parents had lived:
I stepped forward into the bareness which had been the living-room.  I was sure about the cream valance, the red velvet curtains, the big photograph of myself as a child which had hung over the mantelshelf; but I couldn't be quite certain about the location of the oak dining-table.  I closed my eyes for a moment and it came into focus by the far wall with three Windsor chairs round it. [...]

The walls had been decorated half in fawn and orange paper and half in imitation oak panelling.  The paper was reduced to a few shreds now, the imitation oak panelling was pulped with dust and smoke and weather.  There had been a pattern of raised beads; I struck a match and held it close to the wall and I could still see some of the little marks where as a child I'd picked the beads off with my fingernails.  I felt a sharp guilt at the memory; the house should have been inviolate from minor indignities.

My predominant impression is that John Braine was too good a writer to write this sort of book.  He was one of the Angry Young Men, but the anger in Room at the Top feels rather tepid - and as though it has been put on for show, trying to join in with the big boys.  Lampton rails against the corporate system for a bit, and talks about 'zombies' in all areas of life - people from his despondent hometown who hopelessly go through the motions of living.  But I never really felt that his heart was in it.  What Braine chiefly wants to do, it feels, is write a good novel - regardless of the topic or the didactic rage of Angry Young Men.  Well, this was his first - I have no idea how his other novels turned out.  Perhaps he took the unassuming beauty of his prose and turned it to topics I'd find more palatable.  Perhaps not.  Either way, Room at the Top was a very pleasant surprise.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Song for a Sunday

I've been discovering Joni Mitchell properly over the past couple of days - better late than never, eh? - and wondered which songs y'all might suggest...

This one is justifiably famous, and completely beautiful: Both Sides Now.

Friday 8 March 2013

How The Heather Looks

This delightful book was part of my Reading Presently project, where I read books I've been given as presents, but... nobody knows who gave this to me!  I was sure it was my friend Clare, but she denies all knowledge... I know it was *somebody*, because it appears in my birthday present post here... so, if it was you, let me know!  Because I've read it now, and I love it.

The full title, which does the job of summarising the book for me, is How The Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books (1965) by Joan Bodger.  Even if the book had nothing else going for it, I was sold by the inclusion of 'joyous' in a subtitle.  Well done, Joan Bodger, you win my approval - and, when we look at the words surrounding it, thinks just keep improving. The title itself is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson:
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart was given.
What Bodger (excellent name) means by this is that, although she and her family have not visited the sites of these children's books, they are already deeply familiar with them through reading and re-reading, and loving, books steeped in the British countryside. And the book documents how they do visit them, coming all the way from America to do so.

How The Heather Looks, really, rests on a false premise: that the settings, houses, and landscapes of children's books must be based on actual places.  I'm a big advocate of the fiction-is-fiction line of thought, and feel rather disappointed if I find that an author has not been as inventive as I'd hoped - particularly with characters-based-on-people.  I'm much more willing to allow a building or tree copied from life, but I don't expect it in the way that Bodger and her family do.

Luckily for them, they're satisfied without conclusive proof - or, indeed, much more than fanciful detail.  A stray cat is, they're sure, the model for a decades-old children's book; a certain patch of river cannot be other than Ratty's favourite place to mess around in boats (there is, actually, a lovely story attached to that expression in How The Heather Looks, which I will leave it for you to discover.)  I suppose, if one has not seen much of the British countryside, then any of it will provide an illuminating backdrop for British rural literature.  And it is almost entirely rural, from Beatrix Potter to C.S. Lewis - via (for Joan Bodger is not averse to the odd nostalgic moment for adult literature) Daphne du Maurier:
Hour after hour we drove through mist or rain under lowering skies.  The children were too tired even for crankiness.  I remember the green hills giving way to great brown sweeps of moor and long stretches of roadside, where we saw almost no evidence of human habitation and only a few sheep, as wild as mountain goats.  Once in a while, when the rain lifted, I would see a high crag or tor in the distance, and sometimes, in the hollows, the gray glint of a tarn.  We were pleased to discover how easily a lifetime of reading ables one to fit the right words to the landscape.  We had climbed to what must have been almost the highest point on the road when I saw an inn, a large, low, rambling building with beetling roof and a board that creaked in the wind.  Glancing back, my heart missed a beat when I read the sign: Jamaica Inn.  The day before we might have stopped, but now we flew past as though a pack of smugglers were at our heels.  At least, I thought, we could not be far from the sea.
Notice how she does not tell you that it's connected with Daphne du Maurier - she trusts you to know.  That's a theme of How The Heather Looks, actually; not a lot of background info is explained, because Bodger takes it for granted that we all love and cherish the same books.  This rather threw me in the first chapter, on the unknown-to-me Randolph Caldecott, but after that I think I was fine.  Even her son Ian, 8 years old, seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British children's literature, and a photographic memory for it too.

I haven't mentioned the Bodger family properly, have I?  They're pretty fab - 'our family is incapable of passing even a shelf of books without pausing to take a look'.  (My family all enjoy reading, but wouldn't it be nice to have a whole family of unashamed biblioaddicts!)  There is Ian, who loves soldiers and adventure, and befriends children wherever they go; Lucy, aged 2, who seems (her mother suggests) to believe they have simply hopped into the landscape of one of her stories, and fully expects to meet Mrs. Tiggywinkle - and then there's husband John, a researcher, who is surprisingly absent from the page.  (This becomes less surprising when you realise that their marriage was ending while Joan Bodger wrote the book; only the tip of the ice-berg for a horrendous period of Bodger's life, with which I shan't colour this review.)

For there is nothing tragic about How The Heather Looks.  It truly is joyous.  The Thomas family once had a literary holiday, travelling along the South Coast to see various sites of literary importance (including Jane Austen's house and the area which inspired Winnie the Pooh) and it was, as I recall, an entirely splendid holiday.  We don't have the Americans' scorn of distance, willing to drive from Edinburgh to Cornwall to get a pint of milk, but we managed to cover a fair distance nonetheless - and see some wonderful sites, which stay with me.  I still have the photograph of A.A. Milne's house on my wall - it was taken illicitly, running down the driveway of a private residence... Not so, the Bodgers.  In (unsurprisingly) my favourite part of the book, they do for tea with Daphne Milne - A.A. Milne's widow - in his house.  So casually, she throws in that they wrote ahead and got the reply: "I am always happy to meet friends of dear Pooh."  Can you imagine that happening today?  In the same way, she finds out from affable locals where Arthur Ransome lives, and (although he foreswears interviews) charms him into submission!

How The Heather Looks feels a bit like a glorious dream.  Perhaps that is partly because Joan Bodger is looking with determinedly rose-tinted glasses at a halcyon summer from the vantage of a difficult period, but perhaps it is simply because she is a good writer, and the summer was halcyon.  I could call the book enchanted, I could call it a delight - but I think Joan Bodger picked the best description when she wrote her subtitle.  It really is, above all, joyous.

Now, if only I could remember who gave it to me...

Thursday 7 March 2013

World Book Day!

Happy World Book Day everyone!  We don't need much encouragement to celebrate books, but it's nice that the rest of the world has hopped on board too.  Before I hand you over to the company guest-posting for World Book Day, don't forget to go to the Book Aid International website and see how World Book Day is benefiting people in sub-Saharan African, sending over 500,000 new books to 2,000 libraries.

I don't normally do guest posts from companies, but a mixture of my busyness and their bookish enthusiasm means that today I'm handing over All Fancy Dress (who also provided the images), to talk to you about...

5 trends to look out for in children’s books for 2013

World Book Day is the perfect time of year for kids to try something new and immerse themselves in an exciting children’s book that captures their imagination and broadens their horizons.

With this in mind, one of the UK’s leading online World Book Day fancy dress retailers, went in search of the latest publishing trends for children’s books in 2013. In many cases book trends are driven by word of mouth, with its community of readers talking about their favourite books to friends and family, but we thought we would try and predict what’s going to be hot over the next 12 months.

Popular non-fiction

This year sees the publishing of a number of long-awaited biographical books that are designed with young readers in mind. Many focus on some of the most influential historical figures of the past, with Kadir Nelson’s Nelson Mandela expected to prove very popular. In terms of literary figures, Michael Rosen’s biography on successful children’s author, Roald Dahl is also expected to clear up at UK awards ceremonies in 2013.

Children’s bullying

An issue that many children are forced to encounter or witness at some point in their young development is bullying. Many children’s storybook writers appear to have pinpointed this as a big concern and are becoming increasingly clever at introducing bullying themes into their storylines for books as basic as picture-based through to young adult novels.

The ‘novel-in-cartoon’ genre

Perfectly suited to young or reluctant readers to engage them with reading and stories that are fun, the novel-in-cartoon genre is a fast-growing niche that offers genuine entertainment value. For parents looking for short reads to keep youngsters interested up-and-coming releases such as Chickenhare by Chris Grine and Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-Boxers are sure to catch the eye.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and this is almost certain to fuel an influx of historical titles for youngsters to read and learn. Teachers may also be able to take advantage of some of the many war-themed titles in 2013 as a supplement to classroom lesson topics.


Children enjoy being able to picture themselves in the situations and stories they read and publishers are readily seeking to encourage their readers to embrace individuality. Books that focus on cultural diversity will continue to be a hot topic particularly in the school classrooms with Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock likely to provoke plenty of discussion.

A home with plentiful fun reading materials is very important for youngsters to improve their vocabulary and reading comprehension. You never know, some of these new releases may just turn out to be their favourites that they will re-read and treasure for years!

Tuesday 5 March 2013

D-Day : Mollie Panter-Downes

Here is the rather stunning column that Mollie Panter-Downes wrote in London War Notes 1939-1945 about D Day:

(image source)

For the English, D Day might well have stood for Dunkirk Day.  The tremendous news that British soldiers were back on French soil seemed suddenly to reveal exactly how much it had rankled when they were beaten off it four years ago.  As the great fleets of planes roared toward the coast all day long, people glancing up at them said, "Now they'll know how our boys felt on the beaches of Dunkirk."  And as the people went soberly back to their jobs, they had a satisfied look, as though this return trip to France had in itself been worth waiting four impatient, interminable years for.  There was also a slightly bemused expression on most D Day faces, because the event wasn't working out quite the way anybody had expected.  Londoners seemed to imagine that there would be some immediate, miraculous change, that the heavens would open, that something like the last trumpet would sound.  What they definitely hadn't expected was that the greatest day of our times would be just the same old London day, with men and women going to the office, queuing up for fish, getting haircuts, and scrambling for lunch.

D Day sneaked up on people so quietly that half the crowds flocking to business on Tuesday morning didn't know it was anything but Tuesday, and then it fooled them by going right on being Tuesday.  The principal impression one got on the streets was that nobody was smiling.  The un-English urge to talk to strangers which came over Londoners during the blitzes, and in other recent times of crisis, was noticeably absent.  Everybody seemed to b existing wholly in a preoccupied silence of his own, a silence which had something almost frantic about it, as if the effort of punching bus tickets, or shopping for kitchen pans, or whatever the day's chore might be, was, in its quiet way, harder to bear than a bombardment.  Later in the day, the people who patiently waited in the queues at each newsstand for the vans to turn up with the latest editions were still enclosed in their individual silences.  In the queer hush, one could sense the strain of a city trying to project itself across the intervening English orchards and cornfields, across the strip of water, to the men already beginning to die in the French orchards and cornfields which once more had become "over there."  Flag sellers for a Red Cross drive were on the streets, and many people looked thoughtfully at the little red paper symbol before pinning it to their lapels, for it was yet another reminder of the personal loss which D Day was bringing closer for thousands of them.

In Westminster Abbey, typists in summer dresses and the usual elderly visitors in country-looking clothes came in to pray beside the tomb of the last war's Unknown Soldier, or to gaze rather vacantly at the tattered colours and the marble heroes of battles which no longer seemed remote.  The top-hatted old warrior who is gatekeeper at Marlborough House, where King George V was born, pinned on all his medals in honour of the day, and hawkers selling cornflowers and red and white peonies had hastily concocted little patriotic floral arrangements, but there was no rush to put out flags, no cheers, no outward emotion.  In the shops, since people aren't specially interested in spending money when they are anxious, business was extremely bad.  Streets which normally are crowded had the deserted look of a small provincial town on a wet Sunday afternoon.  Taxi drivers, incredulously cruising about for customers, said it was their worst day in months.  Even after the King's broadcast was over, Londoners stayed home.  Everybody seemed to feel tat this was one night you wanted your own thoughts in your own chair.  Theatre and cinema receipts slumped, despite the movie houses' attempt to attract audiences by broadcasting the King's speech and the invasion bulletins.  Even the pubs didn't draw the usual cronies.  At midnight, London was utterly quiet, the Civil Defence people were standing by for a half-expected alert which didn't come, and D Day has passed into history.

It is in the country distracts just back of the sealed south coast that one gets a real and urgent sense of what is happening only a few minutes' flying time away.  Pheasants whirr their alarm at the distant rumble of guns, just as they did when Dunkirk's guns were booming.  On Tuesday evening, villagers hoeing weeds in the wheat fields watched the gliders passing in an almost unending string toward Normandy.  And always there are the planes.  When the big American bombers sail overhead, moving with a sinister drowsiness in their perfect formations, people who have not bothered to glance up at the familiar drone for months rush out of their houses to stare.  Everything is different, now that the second front has opened, and every truck on the road, every piece of gear on the railways, every jeep and half-track which is heading toward the front has become a thing of passionate concern.  The dry weather, which country folk a week ago were hoping would end, has now become a matter for worry the other way round.  Farmers who wanted grey skies for their hay's sake now want blue ones for the sake of their sons, fighting in the skies and on the earth across the Channel.  Finally, there are the trainloads of wounded, which are already beginning to pass through summer England, festooned with its dog roses and honeysuckle.  The red symbol which Londoners were pinning to their lapels on Tuesday now shines on the side of trains going past crossings where the waiting women, shopping baskets on their arms, don't know whether to wave or cheer or cry.  Sometimes they do all three.

Monday 4 March 2013

London War Notes - Mollie Panter-Downes

I've already teased you with one excerpt from Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes 1939-1945 (collected together in 1972) and now I'm going to do a terrible thing.  I'm going to tell you how wonderful this book is.  I'm going to throw around the word 'essential'.  And... it's pretty much impossible to buy, unless you have a fair bit of money to spend.  I don't even have a copy myself, mine's from the library in Oxford.  But someone (are you listening?) needs to reprint this.  It's the most useful book about the war that I've ever read.

There are plenty of books about World War Two.  There are even plenty of diaries, and some - like Nella Last's or Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg's - are exceptionally good.  But these sorts of diaries are, inevitably, extremely personal.  There is plenty of detail about the war, but primarily they record one person's response to the war - and any private emotions they are experiencing, relating to their marriage, children, or any other aspect of their lives.  Mollie Panter-Downes' objective is different - she is documenting the war experience for all of London.  (It is emphatically just London; she often refers to 'the British', but the rest of the country can more or less go hang, as far as she is concerned.)

Panter-Downes wrote these 'notes' for the New Yorker, but it is impressively difficult to tell this from the columns.  Even at the stages of the war where America was umming and aahing about fighting, she observes British feelings on the topic (essentially: "yes please, and get on with it") as though relating them to her next-door neighbour, rather than the country in question.  And, of course, Americans and Britons are two nations divided by a single language, as George Bernard Shaw (neither American nor British) once said.  This gives Mollie Panter-Downes the perfect 'voice' for a book which has stood the test of time.  Her audience will be aware of major events in the war, but the minutiae of everyday life - and London's response to the incremental developments of war - are related with the anthropologist's detail, to a sympathetic but alien readership.

And nobody could have judged the balance of these columns better than Panter-Downes.  The extraordinary writing she demonstrates in her fiction (her perfect novel One Fine Day, for instance) is equally on show here.  She offers facts and relates the comments of others, but she also calmly speaks of heroism and bravado, looks at humour and flippancy with an amused eye, and can be brought to moving heights of admiration.  The column she writes in response to D Day is astonishing, and it would do it an injustice to break it up at all - so I shall post the whole entry tomorrow.  This, to give you a taste, is how she describes the fall of France - or, rather, the reaction to this tragic news, in Britain:
June 22nd 1940: On Monday, June 17th - the tragic day on which Britain lost the ally with whom she had expected to fight to the bitter ed - London was as quiet as a village.  You could ave heard a pin drop in the curious, watchful hush.  A places where normally there is a noisy bustle of comings and goings, such as the big railway stations, there was the same extraordinary, preoccupied silence.  People stood about reading the papers; when a man finished one, he would hand it over to anybody who hadn't been lucky enough to get a copy, and walk soberly away. 
For once the cheerful cockney comeback of the average Londoner simply wasn't there.  The boy who sold you the fateful paper did it in silence; the bus conductor punched your ticket in silence.  The public seemed to react to the staggering news like people in a dream, who go through the most fantastic actions without a sound.  There was little discussion of events, because they were too bad for that.  With the house next door well ablaze and the flames coming closer, it was no time to discuss who or what was the cause and whether more valuables couldn't have been saved from the conflagration.
I've read quite a lot of books from the war, both fact and fiction, and have studied the period quite a bit, but there were still plenty of things I didn't know.  I hadn't realised, for instance, that boys were conscripted into mines at random, or that German planes dropped lots of bits of silvery paper (which children then collected) to disrupt radar equipment, or that in 1940 all foreigners in Britain - including the recently-invaded French - were banned from having cars, bicycles, or cameras.  More significantly, I had never got my head around the order in which things happened during the war.  I mean, I knew vaguely when various invasions happened, when America entered the war, when D-Day took place - but London War Notes offers a fortnight-by-fortnight outlook on the war.  We can see just which rations were in place, which fears were uppermost, and how public opinion shifted - particularly the public opinion concerning Winston Churchill.  Films made retrospectively tend to show him as much-adored war hero throughout, but London War Notes demonstrates how changeable people were regarding him and his policies - although there was a lot more approval for various politicians than is imaginable in Britain today, where they are all largely regarded as more or less scoundrels.  (Can you think of a politician with a very good general public approval? I can't.)  This is why I think the book is essential for anyone writing about life in England (or perhaps just London) during the war - Panter-Downes gives such an insight into the changing lives and conditions.  It also made me think about things from a perspective I hadn't previously.  I'd never really appreciated how devastating tiredness could be to a nation.
Sept. 29th 1940: Adjusting daily life to the disruption of nightly raids is naturally what Londoners are thinking and talking most about. For people with jobs to hold down, loss of sleep continues to be as menacing as bombs.  Those with enough money get away to the country on weekends and treat themselves to the luxury of a couple of nine-hour stretches. ("Fancy," said one of these weekenders dreamily, "going upstairs to bed instead of down.")  It is for the alleviation of the distress of the millions who can't afford to do anything but stay patiently put that the government has announced the distribution of free rubber earplugs to deaden the really appalling racket of the barrages.
One of the keynotes of London War Notes is Panter-Downes' admiration for the resilience and good-humour of the British people during war.  I'd always assumed this was something of a war film propaganda myth, but since Panter-Downes is more than happy to note when people grumble and complain, then I believe the more frequent reports of cheeriness and determination.  And, lest you think London War Notes is unremittingly bleak or wearyingly emotional, I should emphasise that Panter-Downes is often very amusing and wry.  An example, you ask?  Why, certainly:
Jan. 31st 1942: The Food Ministry has been flooded with letters, including one supposedly from a kitten, who plaintively announced that he caught mice for the government and hoped Lord Woolton would see his way clear to allowing him his little saucerful.  In the country, the milk shortage has brought about a boom in goats, which appeal to people who haven't got the space or the nerve necessary to tackle a cow but who trustingly imagine that a goat is a handy sort of animal which keeps the lawn neat and practically milks itself.
London War Notes isn't a book to speed-read, but to luxuriate in, and pace out.  Tricky, when it is borrowed from the library - which I'm afraid you'll probably have to do, unless someone decides to republish it.  I can't imagine a more useful, entertaining, moving, and thorough guide to the war, beautifully finding a middle path between objectivity and subjectivity.  One day I will own my own copy.  For now, I'm grateful to Oxford libraries for keeping something like this in their store.

And come back tomorrow for that whole entry about D-Day.  Bring tissues.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Slightly Foxed : 11 March : Launch Party

Is anybody else going to the subscribers' and friends' launch party of The Real Mrs. Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham?  It's the latest Slightly Foxed Edition - the series of memoirs that never put a foot wrong - and I'll be going!  It would be wonderful to see anybody I knew (or to meet any SIAB-readers I've yet to meet.)

It's 11th March, 6-8pm.  More info here...

Song for a Sunday

I spent a few days trying to remember any tiny snatch of this song, so I could work out what it was, and find it on Youtube.  And I couldn't remember the tune or the lyrics.  And then it came to me!  (That's not a great story, is it?  Well, enjoy the song... '74-'75 by The Connells.)

Saturday 2 March 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Ok, I lied last week.  I said I'd sneak my OxfordWords highlights in after the book, link, and blog post - but this week I can't resist devoting the post to two pieces over there which I think are really fantastic.  And one of them is partly by me, so I'm being a little bit egotistical...

1.) Baby Names Generator - go and find out what your baby should be called!  My colleague Rachel wrote great copy for it, but I mostly love it for the adorable pictures of babies...

2.) Dr. Seuss meet Dr. Murray - my colleague Malie and I wrote a poem about an imaginary meeting between a young Dr. Seuss and Dr. Murray, the famous Editor of the OED.  And a brilliant cartoonist called John Taylor drew Dr. Murray in his Scriptorium, in the style of Dr. Seuss.  It makes me so happy...

Have a great weekend, everyone!  I'll be at the Bodleian tomorrow, but hoping to get some reading done in the evening.  I only finished three books in MarchFebruary, y'all...

Friday 1 March 2013

Paintings: All the Fun of the Fair

Happy March, everyone!  I hope my March reading is substantially more than my February reading...

I enjoyed and valued your responses to my post On Not Knowing Art last week, and stored away your suggestions happily.  I also fell more and more in love with two of the paintings I'd chosen - the Francis Cadell, which many of you seemed to know, and Korhinta (1931) by Vilmos Aba-Novak, which none of you did - or, if you did, you kept quiet!  Here it is again...

(image source)

I can't stop looking at it. The colours, the energy, the clever presentation of figures... and the funfair.  I've realised that I am fascinated by the ways in which funfairs are depicted. I don't know exactly what it is about them that appeals - again, the colours, the energy, and the sense of the insane and unusual brought into close connection with the everyday - but I can't get enough.  So I thought I'd explore some more depictions of funfairs in art. The only ones I knew before were the Stanley Spencer, who is one of my favourite artists, and the Mark Gertler.  I would include literary examples, but I can't think of any (can you?) - only the odd circus or two. (Click on the links to take you to image sources.)

Helter Skelter (1937) by Stanley Spencer

The Fairground, Sydney (1944) by Herbert Badham

The Fairground (1930s) by L.S. Lowry

Nottingham Goose Fair (c.1910) by Noel Denholm Davis

photograph for sale on Etsy

Merry-Go-Round (1916) by Mark Gertler

Well, that'll do for now, on my hunt through Google Images... let me know if you think of any artistic or literary fairgrounds and funfairs!