Tuesday 30 April 2013

My ediction continues...

Remember a while ago, when I told you about my addiction to buying different editions of the Provincial Lady series by E.M. Delafield?  This was cleverly nicknamed an 'ediction' by Susan - and fed by lovely Agnieszka!  This arrived in the post the other day...

Agnieszka, you are very wicked for being my enabler - but very kind as well!  Thank you so much - my edillection (can you work out what that is?) is a step nearer completion...

Monday 29 April 2013

One place; many Simons

I find the importance of places very interesting - as I'm sure we all do.  In literature, I am particularly fascinated by the resonances of houses.  I will rush towards any novel where a house is significant for itself, especially if staircases are involved (don't ask me why I love staircases so much, I have no idea.)  But recently I've been pondering about places which are neither very familiar nor unfamiliar - the sorts of places I go a dozen times over the years, but couldn't be considered a home, and how they may thus witness different stages of life, quite coincidentally.

There are lots of places in Oxford which act as a metaphorical palimpsest in this manner, but I've picked Wellington Square Garden - tucked away parallel to St. Giles, it's a neat, sweet little park - often filled with office workers enjoying their lunch in summer, or ice cream eaters on a Saturday - but, foolishly, with only one bench.

The first time I went to it would have been before I went up to Oxford as an undergraduate.  Wellington Square is right next to Kellogg College, which runs courses and lecture days for non-students.  As a sixth-former, I sometimes stumped up £30 to spend a day with my Mum and our friend Barbara, listening to lectures on various English literature topics - it's how I first heard about my beloved Katherine Mansfield, for instance.  It was an early sign of how much I loved studying literature - and my introduction to Wellington Square gardens, where we wandered in between lectures.

I've witnessed many strange and eccentric things while in Oxford, and probably done a fair few myself, so it's only one example from many that I could mention (and the only one which happened in this park.)  A pirate asked me to take his photo.  Well, a man dressed as a pirate, I assume... but, still.  I was innocently reading a book on the bench, and was approached... I expected to be asked to give money to a charity but, no, just the photograph, and... they went on their way.

Wellington Square Garden does have a literary connection for me, too - well, that is, I read a much-loved book there for the first time.  Just around the corner, on Little Clarendon Street, there is a charity shop (I forget which.)  In the basement, they have a selection of books - and in 2007 I decided to buy the slim Virago Modern Classic I picked up, because the synopsis sounded interesting and it was only about 50p.  I toddled round to Wellington Square Garden and, since it was a nice day, lay down on the grass to read it... and was instantly in love.  The novel was The Love-Child by Edith Olivier, which I have read many times since - and written about at length in my doctoral thesis, as well as putting it on my 50 Books You Must Read.

Most recently, a little over a year ago, I came here after I'd been told that the first test I'd done was positive, and I'd have to be tested for cancer.  Everything turned out to be fine, but it was a terrifying and frustrating time.  I walked from the GP down St. John Street to this park, sat on the bench and cried and cried.  And then I mopped myself up and went to work, because it was 8am and I hadn't taken the day off.

So, Wellington Square has seen quite a lot of disparate emotions and memories - and it's still one of my favourite places in Oxford.  Who knows what it'll see in the future?

This isn't the easiest meme to transfer to your own blogs, because it requires a bit of thought and memory - but I'd love to see other people picking a spot which has proved significant over their lives, but still not home or deeply familiar.  Just a place you sometimes go, which has coincidentally been the site for different moods and different events.  There's your challenge - pop a link in the comments if you take it up.

Friday 26 April 2013

A couple of quick things...

I've never used a blog reader, but I know a lot of you do - and are probably aware that Google Reader will be shutting down soon.  Well, I've seen a few bloggers link to Bloglovin', which apparently does the same sort of thing (and you can import to it from Google Reader.)  If you'd like to add my blog to a Bloglovin' account, you can do so here.

[cartoon by John Taylor, borrowed from OxfordDictionaries.com]

The other link is from work - I put together a quiz called Bible or Bard?  As you might be able to gather, you have to work out whether a quotation is from the King James Bible or the works of Shakespeare.  I had great fun putting it together - and it's pretty difficult, I have to say!  There are 30 quotations to test you... have a go here, and let me know how you do.

[Oops, link was to the wrong site - have fixed it now!]

I'm off home for the weekend, so I'll be back blogging next week! (And that's when I'll reply to your lovely comments too - sorry I've left it for a while...)

Thursday 25 April 2013

Ring of Bright Water - Gavin Maxwell

You know how I don't shut up about Miss Hargreaves?  (Have you read it?  It's great.)  Well, Hayley is (in a rather better mannered way) equally enthusiastic about Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water.  Since Hayley and I often enjoy the same books, I've been intending to read it for ages - but every copy I've stumbled across in charity shops has been rather ugly.  I wish I'd seen the beautiful cover pictured.  When Hayley lent me her copy (as part of a postal book group we're both in) I was excited finally to read it.

Well, I say 'excited'.  There was a part of me that was nervous - because I rarely read non-fiction when it's not about literature, and I have no particular interest in wildlife rearing.  If it didn't come with such a strong recommendation from Hayley, I doubt that I'd ever have considered reading it.  And I would have missed out.

Gavin Maxwell doesn't really structure Ring of Bright Water in a traditional beginning-middle-end sort of way, which I imagine the film adaptation probably does - it isn't encircled by the life of any single animal, or his occupancy of his remote Scottish home, but instead meanders through many of Maxwell's countryside adventures.

I'm going to concentrate on the ones which made Ring of Bright Water famous - the otters - although (cover aside) you wouldn't have much of a clue that they were coming for the first section of the book, which looks at the flora and fauna of the middle of nowhere in Scotland, and such matters as whale fishing (Maxwell is strongly against, despite having run a shark fishery - there is a constant paradox between his love of his animals and his killing of animals).  The only cohesion (and it is quite enough) is that it's Maxwell's opinions and voice, and connected with marine and rural life.

And then the otters come along.

The first otter only lives for a day or two, but after that comes Mij.  He is really the star of Ring of Bright Water, and the high point in Maxwell's affections.  I can't give any higher praise than to say that someone like me, interested in the animal kingdom chiefly when it concerns kittens, was entirely enamoured and captivated, and briefly considered whether it would be practical to get a pet otter.
Otters are extremely bad at doing nothing.  That is to say that they cannot, as a dog does, lie still and awake; they are either asleep or entirely absorbed in play or other activity.  If there is no acceptable toy, or if they are in a mood of frustration, they will, apparently with the utmost good humour, set about laying the land waste.  There is, I am convinced, something positively provoking to an otter about order and tidiness in any form, and the greater the state of confusion that they can create about them the more contented they feel.
Er, maybe not.  Maxwell sets out to tell you how incomparable the otter is as a pet - cheerful, companionable, spirited - and only slowly does he reveal that they are completely untameable, very destructive, and occasionally (if repentingly) violent.

But Mij is still a wonder - or, rather, Maxwell is a wonder for the way he tells his story.  He is certainly a gifted and natural storyteller, and the reader is easily lulled into similar levels of affection towards Mij, and a complicit sympathy with Maxwell (and never for a moment what a novelist would subtly ask - that we would pity the loner, or wonder at his isolation.)

I don't want to spoil the high-jinks (yes, high-jinks - and tomfoolery, mark you) of the book, and I don't think I can capture Maxwell's tone - so I will give my usual proviso for books I didn't expect to enjoy so much: read it even if you don't think you'll like it!  (And if David Attenborough is your bag, then you'll probably love it even more.)

It is a beautiful book, for the rhythm and balance of its prose alone, quite apart from the topic or the setting.  I'm really pleased that, years down the line, I've finally taken up Hayley's recommendation - even if she had to lend Ring of Bright Water to me to make that happen.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

A few more poems about authors...

the photo isn't relevant... I just like the colours...

I had great fun writing these before, and really appreciated the comments people left.  I've spent a bit less time constructing these, but... well, I had fun!  I hope to make this a bit of a series.  Let me know if you have any ideas for others, or authors you'd like to see...

What the dickens?
Oh Charles, you saw
The humble poor
In such disarming detail -
But somehow missed
In all of this
A single real female.

Mary, Mary
For dangerous and wild men you had a predilection.
You may have written Frankenstein, but - truth's stranger than fiction.

Dear Aunt Jane
"Sweet, ineffectual Jane, the dear!"
Of all misreadings, wrongest.
Her barbs will last two hundred years;
Her laughs, both loud and longest.

If reading should be nourishment,
Your book's not worth our time:
An awful lot of punishment
And hardly any crime.

*I have to admit that I've never read it...

Sunday 21 April 2013

Great British Sewing Bee

It's no secret that I loved the BBC's The Great British Bake Off - indeed, I've loved it since the first episode of series one - and my irreverent recaps proved surprisingly popular here last year.  I was a little more dubious about The Great British Sewing Bee, but I decided to give it a whirl... and got hooked.

It's already three episodes into a four episode series, so there's not much time to get on board - but those of you in the UK can catch up on BBC iPlayer.  I won't be doing proper recaps of the episodes, but I felt that it warranted at least one post.

So, why was I dubious?  Well, for a start I don't know the first thing about sewing.  I can sew on a button, but that's it.  With baking, I know my croquemboche from my croque monsieur, and my Bakewell from my baking beans.  The finer points of French stitching, however, are a total mystery.  Would I find it interesting to watch people do something I couldn't objectively assess, and had no interest in doing myself?

Turns out, yes.  Because any reality competition of this sort stands or falls based on the people, not the activity.  And the people, of course, fall into three categories: the presenter, the judges, and the contestants.

Claudia Winkleman is the heavily-fringed presenter - she has spent more than a decade bobbing around the lesser-watched BBC shows and second-channel spin-offs (what a lot of hyphens for one sentence) and more or less copies the presenting style of Mel & Sue from the Great British Bake Off - which is fair enough, since almost every other element, from the title to the opening titles, are shamelessly copied too.  Claudia is shunned and giggled with in equal measures, again much like Mel & Sue - but manages to hold her own rather well.

The judges buck the usual trend of gruff man and lovable woman, by having a woman (May Martin) who looks like a sullen Delia Smith and is apparently the 'country's best sewing teacher', although I don't remember being polled, and Savile Row's Patrick Grant, who is quite sweet (although his beard makes him look as though he's been hurried into a witness protection programme).  Both are rather unduly critical, and don't have close to the same chemistry that Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have, and May Martin is ruthlessly unhumorous, but perhaps they'll improve if this gets another series.  They have potential.

Before I get onto the contestants, I should explain what they do.  The first challenge is always creating something from a pattern (a child's dress; an A-line skirt), the second is adorning or transforming a plain high street item (blue shapeless dress; white blouse), and the third is creating something more complicated for a specific model, rather than a mannequin.

What's quite curious is that they are never judged on their taste, or the success of their design - just their sewing ability.  Yes, that's what it should be about primarily - but The Great British Bake Off is always about the choice of flavours and the appearance of the product too, rather than simply baking skills.  So Sandra's madly dated designs do ok, because she is an adept seamstress, whereas Michelle (say) gets little credit for having stylish ideas.

Yes, the contestants.  There's a few who are clearly there as characters - and, let's not forget, having a regional accent is enough for a BBC reality show to consider you a wacky character.  So we have Lauren, who would fall into the Danny-school-of-boring if she weren't lucky enough to be Scottish; Sandra, with a broad Brummie accent, lots of laughter, and the general appearance and personality of everyone's favourite dinner lady. She's great fun.  Michelle and Jane rather blend into the background (I don't even remember who Jane is, actually) and Tilly thinks she lives in the 1940s, but with a bit of a temper.  Oh, and Mark is the token men-with-piercings-can-do-domestic-things-too man.  Except his sewing is all for historical reenactments and Steampunk days, which has little bearing on the creation of an A-line skirt.  As he points out, the eighteenth-century didn't have zips.

So that leaves my two favourite contestants (or 'sewers' as they're called on the show - a word which doesn't work so well when written.)  Stuart is a giggly man who was born to give witty soundbites on reality shows.  He burbles nonsense about being nervous or having cut his fabric the wrong way, but will wrap it up with an intonation which sounds as though he's made a helpful and pertinent summation of the situation.  He's a step away from Brendon on Coach Trip, and the expert flounce from camera.

Which leads, head and shoulders above the rest (in my affections), the wonderful Ann.  I have such a fondness for old women with spirit - and Ann provides.  She's in her 80s, ridiculously pleased to be there, and very affectionate towards everyone.  The show seems to think she's been alive for centuries - I half expect her to lean over and advise Stuart on what people really wore in 1807 - and she cheerfully gets on with it while Claudia and the judges mumble about her Life Experience in the corner.  She's a wonder.

So, has that sold the show to you?  They hope to get the nation sewing - well, I'm not a stitch nearer sewing than I was before I started watching, but I'm certainly entertained.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Stet goes to...


Congratulations, Belle - email me your address to simondavidthomas[at]yahoo.co.uk, and I'll get Stet off to you soon.

Thursday 18 April 2013

The Foolish Immortals - Paul Gallico

I don't think I've read any author whose work is as disparate as Paul Gallico (and I probably start all my reviews of his books by saying that.)  I started with the novel I still consider his best, of the ones I've read: the dark fairy-tale Love of Seven Dolls.  Then there is the whimsical (Jennie), the amusing and eccentric (the Mrs. Harris series), the adventure story (although I've not read it, The Poseidon Adventure surely falls into this category.)

I started The Foolish Immortals (1953) hoping that it would be in one category, it shifted into another, and then it revealed a whole new facet of Gallico's writing arsenal.  Confused?  I'll try to explain...

The concept of The Foolish Immortals immediately appealed to me, because it sounded like the sort of topic which could easily be given the Love of Seven Dolls treatment, revolving (as it did) around manipulation, wilful delusion, and a touch of distorted fairy-tale - the last of which seems to be the ingredient which appears, in some form or other, in all the Gallico novels I've read.

Hannah Bascombe is rich, old, American heiress, who has successfully invested the money her business man father left her to make herself one of the richest people in the world.  There is only one aspect of her life over which she does not have ultimate control - and that is its span.  She has, she notes, reached her three-score-and-ten, and cannot have many decades left to live.  And yet... and yet, she hopes that money and power might be able to secure her immortality.

Enter, stage-left, Joe Sears.  He is a poor man and a chancer, clever and manipulative, and sees an opportunity.  Having enlisted the dubious help of a young (but visually ageless) ex-soldier called Ben-Isaac (in case Gallico didn't signpost it well enough, he's Jewish), Sears manages to get an appointment with Hannah Bascombe.  To do so, he has to get past her beautiful, utterly dependent niece Clary - but, having manoeuvred his way to Hannah, he recognises her vulnerability, and thinks that it could be a good way to make himself some money...
"What if you were able to duplicate their years?  Supposing you were able to outwit the Philistines waiting to trample your vineyards by outliving them, like Mahlalaleel, Cainan, Jared and Enoch, generation after generation down through the centuries until no living man would remember when you were born and not even unborn generations of the future could hope to be alive when you died?"
He offers Hannah this possibility, based on the ages to which people are described as living in the Old Testament (often many centuries) - suggesting that he knows where they can find a food which will give Hannah the same longevity.  And it's in Israel.

A bit of persuasion later, and they're off.  Nobody really trusts anybody else on this venture, and everybody is out for themselves.  Things grow even trickier to decipher (for the reader too) when they stumble across a man purported to be Ben-Isaac's missing, much-beloved uncle - a much-lauded academic who is, it turns out, working on the land.  Sears is, naturally, suspicious of this stranger, particularly when he takes over and Hannah appoints him the leader of their venture.  Who is scamming whom?

And this is where Gallico's other genres come into play.  There is a sizeable amount of what I admired in Love of Seven Dolls, but Sears is never quite as credible a villain as Monsieur Nicholas - in neither a fairytale nor a realistic way - simply because Sears is quite an inconsistent character.  Which matches the change in genres - in Israel, things turn rather 'adventure novel' for a while, as they caught up in a shoot-out.  I know this sort of thing is supposed to be very exciting, but I find it unutterably tedious, and ended up skipping most of that section.

So we come onto the genre I'd yet to encounter in Gallico's novels - the spiritual or religious theme.  As you might know, I am a Christian, but I don't often read novels which feature faith - and, I have to say, I was a bit nervous to see how skilfully Gallico would handle it.  And, I've got to say, I was quite impressed - both the Jewish and Christian characters experience direct or indirect encounters with God while travelling through Israel, and these sections were moving (although, it must be conceded, entirely out of kilter with the rest of the novel.)

There are a few more twists and turns, a few more rugs pulled from under feet, and The Foolish Immortals concludes.  It is a very interesting, but maddeningly inconsistent novel.  Not inconsistent in quality (perhaps), but in style and tone.  It's as though Gallico wanted to write a novel which took place in Israel, and couldn't decide whether it should be about faith, boyish adventure, or unsettling manipulation - and so threw all of them in together.

Yet again, this is a book I'm criticising for not being written in the way I'd hoped it would be - but with, I think, greater justification than with yesterday's post on Consider the Years, because in the case of The Foolish Immortals, it started off in the way I'd expected.  With this ingenious idea, Gallico could have written one of my favourite novels.  As it turns out, he's written a good book, which I find quite intriguing, a little bewildering, and not insignificantly disappointing.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Consider the Years - Virginia Graham

You'll see that I've tagged this as post as 'Persephone', for this Consider the Years (1946) by Virginia Graham is available in a dove grey volume - but my copy is the beautiful one you see below (and the gorgeous bookmark was made by my friend Sherry):

Having read, and loved, Virginia Graham's hilarious spoof etiquette and 'how to' books Say Please and Here's How (click on those titles to read my reviews - or here for an excerpt from the latter on 'How to sing'), I thought I'd branch out and read some of her poems.  Consider the Years is a collection of poems which were written between 1938 and 1946 and so, of course, primarily concern the Second World War.

Dear reader, what we have is a case of frustrated expectations.  Having read Graham in fine comic mode, I was hoping that Consider the Years would be a collection of comic verse.  And, goodness knows, many authors have found much to laugh at amidst the horrors of wartime.  Unfair as it is to judge an author by standards which they they didn't agree to, the only poems I really loved in this collection were those that were funny.  Here, for example, is one called 'Losing Face':

This is my doodle-bug face.  Do you like it?
It's supposed to look dreadfully brave.
Not jolly of course - that would hardly be tactful,
But... well, sort of loving and grave.

You are meant to believe that I simply don't care
And am filled with a knowledge superal,
Oh, well... about spiritual things, don't you know,
Such as man being frightfully eternal.

This is my doodle-bug voice.  Can you hear it?
It's thrillingly vibrant, yet calm.
If we weren't in the office, which isn't the place,
I'd read you a suitable psalm.

This is my doodle-bug place.  Can you see me?
It's really amazingly snug
Lying under the desk with my doodle-bug face
And my doodle-bug voice in the rug.
Would that the whole collection had been along these lines!  And I mean that both in tone and metre.  I know it's a terribly unscholarly thing to say, but I have to confess a fondness for poems with rhyme and scan.  (This is why I have only studied prose at graduate level, I suspect.)

When Graham wanders into free verse, or to scanning verse that doesn't rhyme (or, sometimes, rhyming verse that doesn't scan), I lose interest.  Her poems are never particularly experimental, I should add - her free verse isn't unduly free - but I, with my reluctance to read poetry, had come hoping for pages of poems like 'Losing Face', and Graham does not intend to provide that.

But... it's is a beautiful little book, isn't it?

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Diana Athill... on two types of readers

I couldn't find an apt place to include this quotation in my review of Diana Athill's Stet yesterday, but it's so wonderful a quotation that I had to put it up somewhere:
People who buy books, not counting useful how-to-do-it books, are of two kinds. There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading, if not for ever, then for as long as one can foresee. The second group has to be courted. It is the second which makes the best-seller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publishers’ headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting.
How simply this clears up my confusion over 'Why did that become a bestseller?' - or even the concept of the bestseller at all.  The second group, as she details later in Stet, would just as happily turn to music or television or cinema for their entertainment.  Those of us in the first group (though of course we might well enjoy music, television, and cinema) cannot imagine a substitute for books.  Nothing comes close.

Monday 15 April 2013

year seven: book reviews

Athill, Diana - Stet 
Athill, Diana - Somewhere Towards the End 
Athill, Diana - Midsummer Night at the Workhouse
Ayckbourn, Alan - The Crafty Art of Playmaking
Ayckbourn, Alan - Relatively Speaking  
Bawden, Nina - A Woman of My Age
Beauman, Ned - The Teleportation Accident 
Benson, Stella - I Pose 
Birchall, Diana - The Compleat Mrs. Elton 
Bonnet, Jacques - Phantoms on the Bookshelf
Brosh, Allie - Hyperbole and a Half
Christie, Agatha - DumbWitness  
Christie, Agatha - Five Little Pigs 
Constanduros, Denis - My Grandfather and Father, Dear Father
Delafield, E.M. - The Suburban Young Man 
Douglas, O. - Pink Sugar
Elinger, John & Kathy Shock - That Sweet City: Visions of Oxford  
Essex, Mary - Six Fools and a Fairy  
Faulks, Sebastian - Faulks on Fiction 
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier
Fraser, Ronald - The Flying Draper  
Fraser-Sampson, Guy - Lucia on Holiday  
Gallico, Paul - The Foolish Immortals
Gibbons, Stella - Bassett  
Gibbons, Stella - Here Be Dragons 
Graham, Virginia - Consider The Years  
Green, John - The Fault in Our Stars   
Greene, Graham - The End of the Affair 
Haddon, Mark - The Red House  
Hill, Susan - Black Sheep
Hillyer, Richard - Country Boy 
Holtby, Winifred - Virginia Woolf 
Ivey, Eowyn - The Snow Child 
Jenkins, Michael - A House in Flanders 
Keane, Molly - Young Entry  
Kennedy, A.L. - On Writing 
Kennedy, Margaret - Together and Apart
Kosztolányi, Dezső - Skylark 
Leighton, Clare - Four Hedges 
Logan, John - Peter and Alice 
MacDonald, Betty - The Egg and I  
Maclaren-Ross, Julian - Of Love and Hunger 
Manguel, Alberto - The Library at Night  
Manguel, Alberto - A Reader on Reading
Marquis, Don - The Best of Archy and Mehitabel
Maxtone Graham, Ysenda - Mr. Tibbits's Catholic School 
Maxwell, Gavin - Ring of Bright Water  
Maxwell, William - Time Will Darken It
Mercer, Jeremy - Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs 
Mills, Magnus - The Restraint of Beasts 
Murnighan, Jack - Beowulf on the Beach  
Nabokov, Vladimir - Lolita 
Olivier, Edith - The Underground River
Pym, Barbara - Some Tame Gazelle 
Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front  
Rice, Eva - The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp
Robertson, E. Arnot - Cullum
Sedaris, David - Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim 
Spark, Muriel - Symposium  
Sprigge, Elizabeth - The Life of Ivy Compton-Burnett 
Stern, G.B. - Ten Days of Christmas
Stockett, Kathryn - The Help 
Thomas, Edward - Oxford 
Townsend, Sue - The Queen and I  
Trillin, Calvin - Floater
von Arnim, Elizabeth - Mr. Skeffington  
Waugh, Evelyn - Scoop 
West, Elizabeth - Hovel in the Hills
Wilson, Ethel - Hetty Dorval
Woolf, Virginia - Jacob's Room

Stet - Diana Athill (and a giveaway)

42. Stet - Diana Athill

I've been savouring the all-too-few pages of Stet (2000) by Diana Athill, and now it's going into my 50 Books You Must Read - and it was so good that I had to go and buy another copy to offer as a giveaway (to anywhere in the world.) Just pop your name in the comments, along with the author you most wish you'd been able to edit. (You can interpret that in a positive way - how wonderful to get to see their drafts! - or a negative way - my GOODNESS they needed editing!)  I'll do the draw next weekend on 20th April.

Right, now I'll write my review and tell you why I think you should enter to win! I bought Stet a year ago, adding it to my little pile of unread Diana Athill memoirs, knowing that at some point I would read it and love it.  What's not to like about a memoir by one of the most famous editors in the world?  I was saving it as a treat, when I saw that various bloggers were posting reviews, since the Slaves of Golconda were reading it (there's a sampling of those reviews at the end of mine.)  What better excuse to dig out my copy, and indulge?

Although Diana Athill now seems famously chiefly for being old (she is 95), she is also recognised as one of the country's best editors, having worked as one for five decades under the auspices of André Deutsch.  Her reason for writing Stet also explains it's title, so I'll hand over to Athill to explain:
Why am I going to write it?  Not because I want to provide a history of British publishing in the second half of the twentieth century, but because I shall not be alive for much longer, and when I am gone all the experiences stored in my head will be gone too - they will be deleted with one swipe of the great eraser, and something in my squeaks "Oh no - let at least some of it be rescued!!".  It seems to be an instinctive twitch rather than a rational intention, but no less compelling for that.  By a long-established printer's convention, a copy-editor wanting to rescue a deletion puts a row of dots under it and writes 'Stet' (let it stand) in the margin.  This book is an attempt to 'Stet' some part of my experience in its original form.
This explanation, though both moving and understandable, is also an example of the extraordinary modesty which Athill demonstrates.  Not a false modesty, or even a polite modesty, but a genuine refusal to believe how brilliant she is.  She occasionally quotes people's praise of her - which is not (in this instance) the action of the immodest, but the grateful incredulity of the humble.

Stet is divided into two sections.  The second, which I will come onto, looks in detail at her relationships with various authors whom she edited.  The first deals with her career in publishing in a fairly fast-paced manner (she covers 50 years in 128 pages - that's a few months per page, folks) and has a great deal of common sense to say about the practice of editing, as well as lovely gossip about what a controlling - though somehow lovable - monster André Deutsch was, and various illuminating revelations about how scattergun their policy for accepting submissions was in the early days.  Basically, everything they liked was accepted - from cookbooks to travel books to experimental short stories to children's books.  Quite how they described their list, I can't imagine.

Anybody interested in the process of how a book goes (or went) from a manuscript clutched in an author's hand to a copy on Foyles' shelves will inevitably find Stet interesting, but what carries it from being an interesting discussion of 'an editor's life' (the subtitle) is Athill's wisdom, warmth, and wit.  As an example of the latter, here's her brief account of working with an author on a book about Tahiti which was interesting but appallingly written:
I doubt if there was a sentence - certainly there was not a paragraph - that I did not alter and often have to retype, sending it chapter by chapter to the author for his approval which - although he was naturally grouchy - he always gave.  I enjoyed the work.  It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained (a good deal more satisfying than the minor tinkering involved when editing a competent writer).  Soon after the book's publication it was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement: an excellent book, said the reviewer, scholarly and full of fascinating detail, and beautifully written into the bargain.  The author promptly sent me a clipping of this review, pinned to a short note.  "How nice of him," I thought, "he's going to say thank you!"  What he said in fact was: "You will observe the comment about the writing which confirms what i have thought all along, that none of that fuss about it was necessary."  When I had stopped laughing I accepted the message: an editor must never expect thanks (sometimes they come, but they must always be seen as a bonus).  We must always remember that we are only midwives - if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.
(Which, of course, is what Athill has done.)  Although Athill admits that editing the competent writer is a less interesting activity, what I admire about her editorial eye is the willingness, often expressed in Stet, to do minimal work.  It takes a humble and wise editor to resist using her own taste as a benchmark, and looking, instead, for ways in which the author can express theirs.

The first half of Stet is filled with lively and observant accounts of her colleagues and friends, and is certainly very far from dry - but the second half is more overtly about the characters she met.  I shan't go into depth about this section; I'll just let you know the people to whom chapters are devoted: Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, V.S. Naipaul, Molly Keane, Alfred Chester.  I've only read two books by all these authors combined, but I still found her portraits touching, intelligent, and (above all) observant.  The length of these sections, and the accounts she gives of these authors' personal and professional lives, are perfectly judged.

Hopefully that is enough to tempt you to read Stet.  I've barely covered the second half of it, but that means there is even more to discover for yourself!  So... if you have been tempted, pop your name in the comments, and that author whom you wish you'd edited. Stat!

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"Athill is that very rare thing, a shrewdly selfish spectator. She’s quite unlike anyone I’ve met before, either in person or on the page." - Alex in Leeds

"I have this feeling that if you are lucky enough to be seated next to Athill at a dinner party, it would be an evening filled with sparkling conversation.  Reading Stet is (almost) the next best thing." - Danielle, A Work in Progress

"Athill has the gift of cutting through the complicated tangle to the simple heart of the issues that publishers face." - Victoria, Tales From The Reading Room

Sunday 14 April 2013

Song for a Sunday

First things first, I've been back and replied to comments from the past week or so - sorry it's taken me a while!

Secondly - the Sunday Song.  I actually used to live in the same village as this artist, and I think we were in the local youth group at the same time - but I only discovered yesterday that she writes and sings really good folk songs.  Have a listen to Fade Away by Mae Bradbury:

Saturday 13 April 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, everyone! I'm feeling in a good mood as I write this on Friday night, because I went back to the first chapter of my DPhil thesis for the first time in 3 years, and I still felt inspired to see how I could edit and re-frame it!  It's been so long since I had time to work on my DPhil properly that I'd forgotten the thrill when planning goes right.  The only academic thing to compare is the thrill when archives turn up something wonderful.  There are plenty of downsides to spending four years earning very little money and working alongside very few people, but it has its upsides too.

So that's put me in a cheery frame of mind for sharing a book, a link, and a blog post!

1.) The book - is one I was offered by the author.  I know I won't have time to read it, so I haven't accepted the review copy, but I still think it sounds very intriguing. It's A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson, and the cover art is enough to catch my attention...

I like the quick synopsis Jasper put in an email to me: "Though it is (I hope) funny in parts, it's really about an ageing man, unable to get over the loss of his wife, crashing around rural Venezuela and getting into serious trouble."

2.) The blog post - was a very easy choice this week, as it's about a book I adored, but never wrote about: Economy Must Be Our Watchword by Joyce Dennys.  I didn't write about it, because it was impossible to find and I didn't want to fill people with hopeless desire to read this gem!  But I mentioned it when I took part in Lost in the Stacks over at A Work in Progress, and Danielle, marvellously, managed to find a copy through her library - and wrote a brilliant review here.  Go and check it out; it also includes lots of Dennys's brilliant illustrations.

3.) The link - this video had my office in fits of laughter this week:

Thursday 11 April 2013

Over with the foxes again

image source

In my birthday excitement yesterday (see below), I forgot to mention that my second monthly column for Vulpes Libris has been published - you can read my post about foxes in books here.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Interview with a new blogger (and happy birthday me)

On 10th April 2007, Stuck-in-a-Book was launched... I don't know whether or not I thought I'd still be blogging six years later, I hadn't really thought about it, but I certainly hadn't imagined that I'd meet so many wonderful people (online and offline) or have such fun.  Thank you for making my first six years so lovely!

I've done a few retrospectives, or thanking posts, at various anniversaries - so I'll do something a bit different today.  It seems appropriate, on a blog birthday of a longstanding blog (six years feels very longstanding in the blogosphere!) to welcome the recent arrival of another beautiful baby blog.  Also, although this is far from a unique-to-me quality, I hope that one of the dominant characteristics of Stuck-in-a-Book is an encouragement of community, and a celebration of other bloggers.  With that in mind, I have interviewed a new blogger - Washington Wife.

Washington Wife is one of my very dearest friends, and I'm thrilled that she has entered the blogging world.   Hers is not a book blog, but she loves books about as much as I do, so I'd be surprised if they don't make an appearance now and then.  Her reasons for starting blogging are below, so I shan't explain them for her.  (And, because she is a journalist, she is keeping herself anonymous on her blog - I will have to work hard to remember not to include her real name, and shall refer to her as Washington Wife, or WW.  In the interview below, I am ST - you can decide for yourself whether it's short for Stuck-in-a-Book or Simon Thomas.)  Oh, and do, of course, check out her blog and say hello - it's really brilliant so far, and I'm not just saying that as a close friend!

ST: So, what made you decide to start blogging, huh? HUH?

WW: Well, at the beginning of February, my husband got a job in Washington D.C, and we've just (at the end of March) moved there from Paris, where we've both spent three years as journalists. I'm sure there are innumerable 'new to the US' and even 'new to Washington' blogs (there were certainly lots of 'Brits abroad' ones in France) but I thought mine would be an interesting viewpoint given I'm comparing the US not only to my native land, the UK, but also my adopted homeland for the last three years, France.

I think it was also a combination of my wanting to record how I felt about living in such a talked-about country, about which everyone has an opinion, and the fact that it was a lot easier than sending dozens of separate emails to all the people who would want to know said thoughts. I was a bit scared to start though because I'm not always very good at seeing projects through... but I'm really enjoying it so far!

ST: What are your first impressions of living in America?

WW: Well - you'll have to look at my blog ;) Mainly though, everyone really is helpful and friendly (compared to Paris, where I was living before!) and everything is bigger. The roads are wider, the buildings are taller, the portions are larger, the billboards are higher, the packets in the supermarket are heavier... Paris, and even London, will feel miniature in comparison!

ST: Anything super-amazing-exciting happened to you yet?  Just a question out of the BLUE, not something I know about already, obvs.

WW: Well it's funny you should mention... but (again, see my blog for full account!) on Easter Sunday, my husband and I decided to try a little church not too far from our new flat in downtown D.C. The church is opposite the White House and the website said it has a pew reserved for the President. We thought that was rather sweet...but we arrived to find the whole building sealed off, secret service everywhere and the First Family on the way there! Amazingly, we managed to get in for the service, and, sitting in the gallery, had a wonderful view of Barack Obama, Michelle and the two girls. We even got within a foot of them when we went up to communion. Not bad for our first week in D.C!

ST: Do you have any thoughts about the direction in which you'd like your blog to go?

WW: Well, as I said, I was a bit nervous about beginning as I'm rather feeling the pressure to continue, but I keep finding, as I wend my merry and very uncertain way around Washington, that new ideas and thoughts for blogging keep occurring to me. I think it's made me a slightly better observer, so that's a positive thing I'd like to continue. I think eventually it may have to stop being about my perspective as a 'newcomer' (I don't know when you stop being one of those though - in English country villages, I think it takes about half a century) and be more about the city itself and - hopefully - the more unusual, off the beaten track things I'm discovering (if I do!) One thing I don't want it to be about is work - it's nice to do something separate from journalism!

ST: Could you pick one thing you miss about England, one thing you miss about France, and one thing you're loving about America?

WW: Hmmm... one thing in each category is difficult! I think I most miss English understatement and sarcasm (I missed it in France too!), because here everyone is very sincere and a bit earnest and sometimes I just long for a little putdown or self-mockery.

I rather miss the Paris metro - it smelt of wee, but it was very efficient and there was a train every 3 minutes most of the time. The other day here I had to wait 10 minutes for a metro train, and it took a bus I was on over an HOUR to get from downtown to the National Cathedral, a distance of about four miles, because of the ridiculous amount of traffic and lack of public transport options.

But one thing I am really enjoying about America is how convenient everything is (apart from public transport!) Everything's open all the time, the customer service people really do attempt to help you, the roads are easy to cross... everything is designed to make your life a little bit better. And that is refreshing.

ST: And, since Stuck-in-a-Book is a book blog, cards on the table: what are the best English novel, French novel, and American novel?

WW: Ooooh. Toughie. Best French and American novels are hard because I'm woefully under-read in those categories, and English because there are too many to choose from. I'd say that the novel that had me most gripped at a young age, and I always love re-reading, is Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. Stylistically, it might not be Middlemarch, but the plot is superb and the narrator compelling.

Regarding French novels, can I cheat? It's not really a novel, but when I was a child, my Godmother gave me one copy of Antoine de Saint Exupéry's book Le Petit Prince in French, and another in English. I loved the English version at the time, but, later on, was doubly delighted by its whimsy in French. But it's definitely not just for children!

As for American novels, although I loved The Great Gatsby and Lolita, and Little Women will always remain one of my favourite children's books (I especially remember my childish British puzzlement at some of the quaint American words and traditions!) I might have to pick one I know Simon hates... The Catcher in the Rye. It had a real effect on my writing style for a while after I read it - not necessarily for the better! - and Holden Caulfield continued to intrigue me long after I put the book down. But I also loved The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.

ST: Now choose one English author, one French author, and one American author that you're looking forward to trying out.

WW: Now this is easier! My 'to be read' list is huge.

In French, I always meant to try out Michel Houllebecq, in translation OR in the original... I just never got round to it. So I'd probably start with Les Particules Elémentaires (or Atomized, in English), which won several international awards.

As for American authors, there are so many! I have joined the local library here and browsing the shelves made me realise just how much I have to catch up on... For starters, I borrowed one Anne Tyler (Digging to America) and one Gore Vidal (appropriately enough, Washington, D.C  - I didn't realise he'd written a series of historical novels.) But also keen to start reading more Philip Roth (only ever read Portnoy's Complaint!) and Jonathan Franzen.

And an English author I don't yet know... Well, my policy when trying to cut down the number of books for shipping over here was mainly to bring ones I hadn't yet read. So there are plenty to choose from! Including A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton Burnett, an author much recommended by a certain friend who's always StuckInABook. So I'm hoping to start enjoying that one soon. Another book I'm really excited about - and this is cheating a bit - is by an author I already know and deeply love, Elizabeth Jane Howard. Apparently, the fifth volume in her series The Cazalets is coming out in the autumn; I can't wait!

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

WW: Well, slightly naughtily, given everything I wrote above, I'm reading an author who's neither French, nor English, nor yet American, but Israeli. It's a book I borrowed from the library near our new flat, called The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu, and it's about three Israeli girls who are conscripted into the army, and how they get on. Given that for much of the time, they are very bored, the book itself is quite a page turner, and very strangely and beautifully written. It certainly gives you an insight into the lives of Israeli teenagers.

The photo, by the way, shows the ONLY books we currently have on our new living room bookshelf (The People of Forever Are Not Afraid being upstairs!) This state of affairs won't last, once all our worldly goods arrive by ship from Paris via Bristol via New York City... I thought Simon would be pleased to note the stack of OUP Very Short Introductions as well... on offer in W.H Smith on the rue de Rivoli...

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Innocent cat grabbed in garden

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook will have seen these already, but I thought I'd share some pictures of me playing with Sherpa when I went home for Easter...  My hair, incidentally, is much shorter now.  I think Sherpy's is the same length.  (Photos taken by my brother Colin.  I deleted the ones he took of his feet.)

Sherpa 'runs into my arms'.

Revenge of the cat...
"I claim this land for cats!"
She's looking a wee bit drunken in this pic...
but I reckon it's just happiness :)
That's certainly what's lighting up my silly face!

I was going to write a film review tonight.  You got cat photos instead.  Who's to say which is better?  (Spoiler alert: you'll probably get the film review soon, too.)

Monday 8 April 2013

Some recent books...

I thought I'd do a little round-up of various books that I've bought and been given, because... well, why not?  You usually have something fun to say about them.

That Sweet City: Visions of Oxford - John Elinger and Katherine Shock
Kathy Shock is Our Vicar's Wife's dear friend from school days, and also lives in Oxford (my experience of Oxford for the first 18 years of my life was chiefly visiting Kathy and her family) - she is also a brilliant artist, and sent me a copy of That Sweet City.  It has poems by John Elinger and illustrations by Kathy (one of which you see in the photo above) - I'll write more about it in due course.

Zuleika Dobson - Max Beerbohm
Continuing the Oxford them - so many people have told me that I must read this (and been rather outraged when they discover that I haven't) that I'd better snap up this Penguin edition when I saw it.

The Teleportation Accident - Ned Beauman
I loved his first novel Boxer, Beetle (even though I didn't expect to at all), so I was excited to receive the paperback edition of this Booker-longlisted second novel.  And isn't it a fantastic cover? Thanks, Sceptre!

The Secrets of Bredon Hill - Fred Archer
I had to bring this home, when I saw it in a Headington charity shop, since it's about the year 1900 in Aston-under-Hill - which is the village in Worcestershire where I went to Bredon Hill Middle School for three years.  Quite a curious coincidence to find this in Oxford...

The Crack in the Teacup - Joan Bodger
When I wrote about Bodger's brilliant account of touring literary sites in England, How The Heather Looks, the blogger at Leaves and Pages (sorry, can't find your real name, I feel bad about that) recommended that I try Bodger's autobiography - and I immediately ordered a copy.

C.S. Lewis: A Life - Alister McGrath
When Sophie at Hodder offered me a copy of a new C.S. Lewis and mentioned that she'd found my review of Lewis's beautiful book A Grief Observed, then I couldn't say no, could I?  I've seen Shadowlands, but I've never actually read a biography or autobiography of Lewis, some I'm excited to get my teeth into this one.

Any comments on any of these very welcome!  What is the latest book you've bought?

Sunday 7 April 2013

Song for a Sunday

A band I'm fond of, Texas, have come back with a new song I can't stop listening to - The Conversation:

Saturday 6 April 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, everyone.  It's finally starting to look a bit sunnier and - dare I say it - a touch less freezing here, so I'll be spending my Saturday... at work.  Oh well, it'll be nice to say hello to Bodleian people, and then I'm off to spend Saturday evening at my friend's house, watching The Voice.  Very classy, me.  You can treat yourself better, by reading a weekend miscellany.

1.) The blog post - check out Hayley's response to my recent On Not Knowing Art post, entitled On Knowing Art.

2.) The book - came courtesy of lovely Folio books, and is a beautiful copy of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque - which I've been intending to read for ages.  Has anyone read it? (Follow that link to see the details of the Folio edition I was kindly sent.)

3.) The link - is silly. It just is silly. But I love it. Click here to ask one of nature's great questions.

Friday 5 April 2013

Alberto Manguel on.... Reading Aloud

The Library of the Palais Lanckoronski, Vienna (1881) - Rudolph von Alt

"The humanist teacher Battista Guarino, son of the celebrated humanist Guarino Veronese, insisted that readers should not peruse the page silently "or mumble under their breath, for it so often happens that someone who can't hear himself will skip over numerous verses as though he were something else.  Reading out loud is of no small benefit to the understanding, since of course what sounds like a voice from outside makes our ears spur the mind sharply to attention."  According to Guarino, uttering the words even helps the reader's digestion, because it "increases heat and thins the blood, clean out all the veins and opens the arteries, and allows no unnecessary moisture to stand motionless in those vessels which take in and digest food."  Digestion of words as well; I often read aloud to myself in my writing corner in the library, where no one can hear me, for the sake of better savouring the text, so as to make it all the more mine."

--- Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, p.179

Thursday 4 April 2013

Leaves in the Wind - 'Alpha of the Plough'

Leticia gave me the very best kind of recommendation earlier in 2013, on this post - a recommendation for a book which I already owned, and was keen to read.  Perfect!  The book was Leaves in the Wind (1918), the author was 'Alpha of the Plough'.  Not, as you may imagine, the author's real name.  Alpha is, in fact, A.G. Gardiner (not E.V. Knox, as I thought at one point) - who chose the name when writing for The Star, as several contributors were named after stars. What a serendipitous recommendation, seeing as I'd bought the book out of (a) curiosity and (b) frustration at the lack of decent books in Dorchester's charity shops.  And I ended up doing rather well.

It's that variety of gem which doesn't really exist any more (and how many times have I lamented its demise in my posts here!) - the personal essay.  All sorts of wonderful people wrote them, from Rose Macaulay to J.B. Priestley, and there seemed to be no lack of audience for them in the first half of the 20th century - even (maybe especially) during the First World War.

Gardiner covers a great number of jovial topics - from his companions of a bus to giving up tobacco, from smiling in the mirror to famous conversationalists - but there is also a hefty portion of the book given over to soldiers and war.  Difficult to avoid during wartime, and perhaps it is only to the 21st-century reader that the combination of the frivolous and fatal seems incongruous.  Gardiner was nearly 50 when the First World War began, and did not see active service in it - but he is a kind, insightful observer of soldiers, blinded neither by patriotism nor cynicism:
A dozen youths march, two by two, on to the "up" platform.  They are in civilian dress, but behind them walks a sergeant who ejaculates "left - left - left" like the flick of a whip.  They are the latest trickle from this countryside to the great whirlpool, most of them mere boys.  They have the self-consciousness of obscure country youths who have suddenly been thrust into the public eye and are aware that all glances are turned critically upon their awkward movements.  They shamble along with a grotesque caricature of a dare-devil swagger, and laugh loud and vacantly to show how much they are at ease with themselves and the world.  It is hollow gaiety and suggests the animation of a trout with a hook in its throat.
A central thread of Leaves in the Wind is humanity in the midst of war - the minutiae amongst the vast and awful.  The collection would be worth hunting down for that alone.  But I don't want to give the wrong impression of Gardiner's tone - because Leaves in the Wind is very often an amusing book too, and wanders onto the sorts of topics in which A.A. Milne would have delighted in his pre-war sketch writing days.  Such as gentlemen's fashion:
I am not speaking with disrespect of the well-dressed man (I do not mean the over-dressed man:  he is an offence).  I would be well-dressed myself if I knew how, but I have no gift that way.  Like Squire Shallow, I am always in the rearward of the fashion.  I find that with rare exceptions I dislike new fashions.  They disturb my tranquillity.  They give me a nasty jolt.  I suspect that the explanation is that beneath my intellectual radicalism there lurks a temperamental conservatism, a love of sleepy hollows and quiet havens and the old grass-grown turnpikes of habit.
Quite frankly, I adore the idea of calling someone 'an offence', and will be putting it into practice asap.

This has been a speedy overview of a book which, though slim, is very varied - and, like almost all collections of personal essays, covers so many topics that an exhaustive review would be impossible, unless it was almost as long as the book.  Gardiner proves himself, in Leaves in the Wind, to have an impressive range of tone - from funny to solemn, and (more impressive still) sometimes both at once.

Thanks, Leticia, for pushing this to the top of my tbr pile - I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for any more furrows ploughed by this particular author.