Sunday 30 June 2013

Win a copy of Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock

It's been ages... sorry; I'll make it up to you with a lovely little giveaway... from me, not from a publisher or company. And it's inadvertently to celebrate Canada Day (which I didn't even know was happening; thanks for telling me, Elizabeth!)

The other day I found a cheap copy of a book I adore, Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock - and I thought it would be a shame to leave it neglected on a bookshelf when I could be sending it somewhere around the world.  As you can see in my right-hand sidebar, it's one of my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.  It was a fairly unthorough review, but I still believe it to be a wonderful book.

Everyone in Canada has heard of Stephen Leacock, I am led to believe, but almost nobody outside of Canada has had the pleasure.  I was very lucky that my Aunt Jacq put me onto him - I read a lot in 2002 and 2003, but haven't read one for, gosh, probably a decade.  Must rectify soon.  But, for now, I'll spread the joy.

Leacock was (among other things) a humorist, and Literary Lapses is a collection of humorous sketches and silliness, but with an intelligent and wry tone.  I think any fan of A.A. Milne's humour, or P.G. Wodehouse's novels, would find this hilarious... and so I'll send it off worldwide.

Actually, proviso.  I'll send this anywhere except Canada.  Sorry, Canadians, you have easy access to Leacock, and don't need me to tell you he's great!

To be in with a chance of winning, simply put your favourite Canadian thing, or person, or your favourite thing about Canada, in the comments - I'll do a draw later in the week.  And I'll start the ball rolling.  My favourite Canadian person is Alanis Morissete (once I've taken my favourite Canadian bloggers out of the equation!)  Over to you...

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Simon into fox

A quick post (and sorry for the sparsity of updates this week) to say that I have an exciting piece of news to share - I have become a fox!

Yes, the lovely folk at Vulpes Libris have asked me to become one of their number - and I didn't even know I was under consideration!  You might have spotted the guest posts I've done for them over the past few months (on my favourite books, foxes in literature, and failing with poetry) and I've loved it, so I'm thrilled to be one of their number!  They'll be making mention of it soon, but I thought I'd give you guys advance notice.

In practical terms, I will probably still be posting around once a month there, but in a more official capacity.  Thanks for having me, foxes!

Sunday 23 June 2013

Winifred and Virginia

I'm sure that most of us have authors who follow us around - not literally, you understand, although I swear Ian McEwan keeps getting on the same bus as me and the authorities have been notified.  No, I mean the authors we keep seeing mentioned, or on the shelves of bookshops, or recommended to us, and we're sure that we'll love them, only... we never quite get around to reading them.

Well, Winifred Holtby is one such author for me.  I've known about South Riding for about as long as I've been reading novels, and it used to be in more or less every bookshop I visited.  Eventually I took the hint, and bought it.  And, of course, there has been the recent television series, not to mention the beautiful Virago reprints.  So... I read her book about Virginia Woolf.

Yep, I've still not read any Holtby fiction, even though my shelves are full of the stuff, but I have read Virginia Woolf (1932), which my friend Lucy gave me back in 2010.  Oh, and having mentioned in my Felixstowe talk that I sometimes put sketches on SiaB, I realised that (a) I still need to make my Year Six Sketches post, and (b) I haven't put up a sketch for ages.  So there's one of an early draft of the cover for Holtby's book...

You've got to admire Winifred Holtby's guts for writing about Virginia Woolf in the early 1930s.  Not only was Virginia Woolf alive, but their respective reputations were even further apart than they are now - Holtby was a respected writer on women's issues, but as a novelist, she was realms away from Woolf.  In a literary society more firmly divided into highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow than we would now recognise, it was audacious (to say the least) for Holtby to dare to write critically about Virginia Woolf.  I use the word 'critically' in its neutral sense - that is, an assessment.  Holtby subtitled this 'a critical memoir', and it is far closer to an analysis and critique than it is a memoir - indeed, let's call a spade a spade.  For much of the time, Virginia Woolf is an appreciation.  And that suits me down to the ground.  Reading Holtby's book reminded me that Woolf is, in my opinion, the greatest writer of the 20th century.

Let's set the scene.  When Holtby was writing this, Woolf had recently published The Waves, easily her most experimental book.  (I imagine few people would have guessed that her final two novels [The Years and Between the Acts] would be a return to more traditional narratives; until that point, her writing had got steadily more and more experimental with prose style).  So she had certainly done enough to establish her place as one of the best and most important writers alive, with Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves (sometimes known as The Big Four, possibly only by me) under her belt - but, of course, none of her diaries or letters had been published.  It is very intriguing to read an account by a woman who knew her tangentially, and had met and corresponded with her, and yet knew so much less of her internal life than has been revealed now to anybody who buys a copy of A Writer's Diary (which is exceptionally brilliant) or flicks through the six volumes of her letters.

But Holtby can do what none of us can do, and give a firsthand impression of Woolf:
Tall, graceful, exceedingly slender, she creates an impression of curbed but indestructible vitality.  An artist, sitting near her during a series of concerts given by the Léner quartette, said afterwards, "She makes me think of a frozen falcon; she is so still, and so alert."  The description does in some measure suggest her elegance veiling such intellectual decision, her shyness lit by such irony.  Meeting all contacts with the world lightly yet courageously; withdrawn, but not disdainful; in love with experience yet exceedingly fastidious; detached, yet keenly, almost passionately interested; she watches the strange postures and pretences of humanity, preserving beneath her formidable dignity and restraint a generosity, a belief, and a radiant acceptance of life unsurprised by any living writer.
The biographical section of Virginia Woolf focuses chiefly on what it would be like to grow up with Leslie Stephen for a father - a man of letters, known for his work on the Dictionary of National Biography - and doesn't look much at her adulthood, marriage, or the Bloomsbury group.  Perhaps that is to be expected, knowing that Woolf would read it (and not being a prurient person - what halcyon days those must have been!)  So, instead, she turns her attention to Woolf's writing.

I have to say, I was really surprised by how modern Holtby's criticism felt. I knew that Woolf was much admired during her lifetime, but so much of Holtby's critique was so adroit, and covered arguments I'd assumed were rather more recent (such as comparing Jacob's Room to filmmaking, or noting the importance of time in Mrs Dalloway.)  Even her assessment of Woolf's greatest and least achievements seemed to me completely to reflect decades of later discussion - with Night and Day at the bottom, and The Waves at the top.  Comments like this one were illuminating:
She has never understood the stupid.  Whenever she tries to draw a character like Betty Flanders or Mrs. Denham, she loses her way.  They are more foreign to her than princes were to Jane Austen. Her imagination falters on the threshold of stupidity.
How beautifully phrased, too!  As I say, I've not read any of Holtby's fiction - I have read part of Women and the odd essay - but it seems that something of the precision and beauty of Woolf's writing has been picked up by Holtby, and seems to lace her sentences here.  And that mention of Jane Austen reminds me - Holtby names a chapter 'Virginia Woolf is not Jane Austen'.  Curious that the distinction was felt necessary, but I think Holtby puts forth an excellent point when she says that Night and Day is a somewhat failed attempt to write in the Austen school of fiction.  One of the reasons it doesn't work is explained by Holtby:
The events of a novel must appear important.  Trivial though they may be, they must create the illusion that they fill the universe.  Jane Austen was able to create the illusion that a delayed proposal or an invitation to a ball could fill the universe, because, so far as her little world was concerned, it did.  But in England during the twentieth-century war no single domestic activity was without reference to that tremendous, undomestic violence.  At any moment a telegram might arrive; the sirens might signal an approaching air-raid; somebody might come unexpectedly home on leave.  The interest of every occupation, from buying groceries to writing a love-letter, was in some measure deflected to France, Egypt or Gallipoli.
But reading about Woolf's early, non-experimental fiction probably isn't why anybody would pick up a critical memoir.  Instead, I was keen to find out how her characteristic, Modernist prose struck Holtby.  Woolf is now famous for distorting the sentence, for stream of consciousness writing and playing with the conventions of prose.  She is not alone in doing this, of course, but she is perhaps the best.  Well, Holtby writes brilliantly about that too.  This paragraph describes the earliest of Woolf's experimental novels, Jacob's Room, and the segue from that to her Big Four:
She had thrown overboard much that had been commonly considered indispensable to the novel: descriptions of places and families, explanations of environment, a plot of external action, dramatic scenes, climaxes, conclusions, and almost all those link-sentences which bind one episode to the next.  But much remained to her.  She had retained her preoccupation with life and death, with character, and with the effect of characters grouped and inter-acting.  She had kept her consciousness of time and movement.  She knew how present and past are interwoven, and how to-day depends so much upon knowledge and memory of yesterday, and fear for or confidence in to-morrow.  She was still preoccupied with moral values; she was immensely excited about form and the way in which the patterns of life grow more and more complex as one regards them.  And she was more sure now both of herself and of her public.  She dared take greater risks with them, confident that they would not let her down.
Yes, Winifred, yes!  What an excellent understanding of the elements of the traditional novel that Woolf kept, and those that she left behind her.  Which does beg the question - if she was able to identify Woolf's genius so perfectly, and analyse the techniques she used, why did Holtby herself not try them?  (Or at least, I have always assumed her novels followed a more traditional format.)  To some is given the gift of being at the forefront of literature; to others, the ability to recognise it.  Each needs the other.

Not that Woolf seems to have been particularly grateful.  Marion Shaw's introduction (in the edition I have, pictured) is useful on the myriad mentions Woolf makes of the biography in her letters and diaries.  I shan't go into detail, but essentially Woolf was rather patronising and contradictory - par for the course for a woman who wrote wonderfully, but would have been rather a nightmare to know, particularly if one happened to be poorer or younger than her (and she'd have hated me for being a Christian).  Would Holtby have minded about this reception?  I rather think she might - she clearly puts Woolf-the-writer on a pedestal, and probably wanted to please Woolf-the-woman too.  Or, who knows, maybe Holtby would have been satisfied with having paid homage to the novels, and not worried too much about the author?

The only biography I've read of Virginia Woolf before this one was Hermione Lee's exhaustive tome - and, my goodness, it was exhausting too.  Very scholarly, incredibly thorough, and quite a chore to read.  For my money, Winifred Holtby's is much more worthwhile for the average reader - a unique perspective on one of Britain's greatest writers, by one whose fiction I now really must read...

Song for a Sunday

Not obscure at all, as 145 million views attest, but... oh, P!nk does sing some very catchy songs.  She might even write them... not sure, pass.  Happy Sunday!

Saturday 22 June 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

It's been a little while since I did one of these... and this one's going to be brief, because the painkillers I'm on for endless headaches have made me very sleepy!  (They're not especially heavy-duty painkillers, but... well, maybe I have a predisposition to sleepiness. It's been noted before.)

1.) The book - is The Matriarch by G.B. Stern, which Daunt Books sent me a day or two ago - I've been wanting to read some of her fiction for ages, and this is a great opportunity in a lovely edition.

2.) The link - oh, just Buzzfeed. I spend my life there now.

3.) The blog post - Washington Wife has put up another two hilarious posts - read 'em here and here.

Friday 21 June 2013

Lucia on Holiday

Many of us sigh despondently when we reach the end of a much-loved book or series of books.  It seems unfair, somehow, that there is no third book in the Winnie the Pooh series, or that Jane Austen wrote no sequel to Pride and Prejudice, or that E.F. Benson, despite being incredibly prolific, only wrote six books in the Mapp and Lucia series - and only three featuring both heroines together.

In each of these cases, other authors have stepped into the authors' shoes.  I wrote about David Benedictus's Return to the Hundred Acre Wood earlier in the year, and of the writing of Jane Austen sequels there is no end.  Some are brilliant (Diana Birchall's Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma, for instance) and some are decidedly not.  Our eagerness for more of our favourite characters is matched only be our wariness and trepidation that usurping authors will have made a mess of things.  Thank goodness, then, for Guy Fraser-Sampson.

I adore the sniping, gloriously funny world of Mapp and Lucia, and I know I will read and re-read Benson's books throughout my life. But it's also wonderful to know that there are others to read when the series is complete.  I've not tried Tom Holt's two sequels, although they are waiting on my shelves, but I love and adore Major Benjy and (now) Lucia on Holiday by Guy F-S.

The reason they are so delicious is that Guy 'gets' the voice of Benson so perfectly.  I can honestly say that, while reading Lucia on Holiday, I kept forgetting that it wasn't Benson's pen which had written it - and what higher compliment could possibly be paid?

Lucia on Holiday takes place after Mapp and Lucia, but it is not made clear exactly when in the chronology the story takes place. The ambiguity is bashfully explained in the introduction - because there is an event in the novel which dates it very precisely, but which would make it a touch out of kilter with the publication history of the original series - but, as Guy says in this introduction, since Benson moved his principal village from one county to another, he'd be very forgiving.  It does not, in the end, much matter - Mapp and Lucia et al behave precisely as they would at any point in their history.

As you may guess from the title, Lucia is on holiday - she cashes in some clever (if risky) investments, and heads off to Italy with husband Georgie in tow.  But Elizabeth Mapp isn't having that, of course - not for she to be gloried over forever in Tilling society.  Luckily, her friendly Maharajah wishes his son to be accompanied on holiday to Europe... and Mapp decides that precisely Lucia's hotel would be the best place.  Mr and Mrs Wyse also turn up, as does my favourite character, insouciant opera singer Olga Bracely, so (with a few Bensonian coincidences) we have a microcosm of Tilling society gathered.  If we miss Quaint Irene and Diva Plaistow, then, well, we've coped without Daisy Quantock for several books, and both ladies are much present in recollection and quotation.

What ensues certainly has a plot, and goes nearer the knuckle than Benson could possibly have done in the 1920s and 1930s (c.f. Georgie and his handsome valet), but is chiefly joyful for the constant oneupmanship and subtle bitchery between our heroines.  Anyone who has read the original series will be familiar with the sort of thing - neither ever makes an outright insult (or, if they do, it is in an unguarded moment) - but there are plenty that hide behind the thinnest of veils.  Lucia delights, for example, in making subtle references to occasions on which Mapp sabotaged someone else's cake, and Mapp... well, Mapp, as always (sadly!) so rarely gets the overhand.  And, as always, I cheer her on, hoping that Lucia will be smited just once.

As I say, Guy F-S has understood and echoed Benson's tone so wonderfully - I especially like his moments of narrative bitching, exposing the self-delusion of the grande dames.  This excerpt, early in the novel, was the moment I cheerfully knew I was in safe hands - it is perfect as a depiction of how ridiculous Mapp is, and how delusional:
"Benjy!" she gasped, clasping her hands together in what she felt sure was girlish glee. "But of course - that's brilliant!"
My only reservations in characterisation were that things are pushed that tiniest bit too far for my liking.  Georgie seems genuinely to hate Lucia much of the time, without the constant, grudging admiration and love he feels in the original series (although this does come out eventually in Lucia on Holiday).  Mapp is a shade too monstrous, and Major Benjy a shade too lascivious - but these are only shades, and the fact that it comes down to tiny details is itself astonishing.

Of course, you must start with the originals.  If you haven't read them, do start with Queen Lucia (not Mapp and Lucia itself, which is the fourth in the series) - you may have to struggle past the baby talk, which is mercifully scarce in Guy F-S's book, but it's worth it.  Once you've read and relished them - you can be overjoyed to know that these will be waiting.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Peter and Alice

One or two of you (*cough* Samara *cough*) have been asking when I'll get around to writing about seeing Judi Dench in Peter and Alice and, truth be told, it's been on my conscience for a bit.  Considering I spent my undergraduate years writing theatre reviews for the student newspaper, and being drama editor for a couple of terms, this should really be right up my street, shouldn't it?  But I find student theatre rather easier to analyse and critique than theatre of this calibre - so this won't be a review per se, but more a blog about an experience.

My friend Andrea and I have similar tastes in film and theatre, and have seen quite a few plays together (before the days of easy online booking, in our undergraduate days, we used to squabble over who would have phone the theatre company) and now we have a two-person film club where we watch plenty of older films - remind me to write about the fantastically funny 1944 film On Approval.  Indeed, the only real fault Andrea has is that she (wrongly) believes that Maggie Smith is superior to Judi Dench.  What nonsense.  Dame J is obviously the best.

Well, to persuade Andrea to see the error of her ways (ahem) we went off to see Peter and Alice. A colleague at the Bodleian told me about it, and I couldn't believe quite how perfect it sounded.  Not only was Judi Dench in it (did I mention?) but it combined one of my favourite books (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) with one I very much like (Peter Pan).  Even better, the playwright - John Logan - didn't pick these names out of nowhere.  Did you know that the woman who inspired Alice once met the man who inspired Peter? 'Tis true - it happened at a bookshop, as they were preparing to speak at an event.

And this is where the stage is set as the play begins - with a fantastic bookshop set, high shelves, ladders, and all. It'll come as no surprise to you to know that I loved that.  Note to all set designers everywhere: nothing is more captivating than books on stage.  Correction: nothing except Judi Dench - for she soon enters, to meet the ambling, nervous Peter Davies (played by Ben Whishaw, of Q fame).  Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell) is quite the opposite - confident, rather brusque, and with that wonderful spirit with which Judi Dench so often infuses her characters.

(Can we take a moment, folks, to acknowledge how provoking it is to me that JUDI DENCH was on stage playing MRS HARGREAVES.  Do you know how close that it is - in my head, at least - to an adaptation of Miss Hargreaves, my favourite novel?  Oh, Lady Theatre, how you tease me so.)

At first, Alice doesn't know who Peter is - he does, after all, introduce himself as a publisher, asking about the possibility of her memoirs - and it is not until she says something along the lines of "You have no idea what it's like" that Peter reveals that he does, in fact, know exactly what it is like.

From there, Peter and Alice goes a bit mad - in the best possible way; in a way that is perfectly in keeping with Wonderland and Neverland.  The bookshop set is pulled up to the ceiling, and behind is a land with Tenniel and picaresque illustrations intermingled.  J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, Alice, and Peter (the fictional characters in these last two cases) all join the stage, and the dialogue whips back and forth among them all.  Childhood memories mix with retrospective reservations, which interweave with the excited shouts of the childish characters, or the justifications of the authors.  It should be confusing, but the excellent writing and acting mean that it is not.  So many tones come together - there are moments of nostalgia, and seeing Judi Dench take on the gait and manner of a young girl is quite breathtaking to see; there are moments of recrimination; of guilt; of confusion; of regret.

For all its joys and surrealism, there is certainly a strong feeling of sadness to the play.  I was worried that Logan would wander off into the (largely unsubstantiated) accusations of paedophilia towards Barrie and Carroll, but instead he focuses on the undeniable after-effects of being forever associated with fictional character - especially, as in Peter Davies's case, when the character was closer to his brother Michael anyway.  I cried.

Perhaps nothing new is revealed about these people in Logan's play - how could it, when it takes place chiefly in impossible lands, in an impossible amalgam of thoughts and memories? But it does bring together everything one has ever suspected about the lives of Alice and Peter, and a great deal that one would only know from biographies.  The midpath between nostalgic indulgence and Nihilistic noir has been expertly judged - and perfectly acted by a brilliant cast, led, of course, by Dench and Whishaw.

I have only been to two plays which received standing ovations, I believe.  One was the final performance of All My Sons, with David Suchet leading the cast, and which is the best thing I have ever seen on stage.  The second, as you will have guessed, is Peter and Alice.  Some of the reviews have been mixed, but I can't tell why.

I have only just gone to investigate dates, and seen that it closed shortly after I saw it.  I had hoped to send you all off to see it.  If it is ever revived, particularly if the cast is the same (does that ever happen?) make sure you are first in line.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Books from Felixstowe

As promised, here are the books I bought in Felixstowe... I intended to take a photo of them on the beach, but I forgot, so... here they all are at Felixstowe train station...

Almost all of these came from Treasure Chest Books (which was even more wonderful than I'd remembered - it looks like quite a small shop, but just keeps going on and on, room after room) but I'll start with the one that wasn't. I can't remember the name of the shop it came from, actually... a secondhand bookshop nearer the sea, anyway.  Having been to Guy's wonderful talk, I couldn't leave behind a copy of E.F. Benson's first book (and, during his life, his most successful) - Dodo.

Let's start at the top of the pile, shall we?

Patricia Brent, Spinster - Herbert Jenkins
Although the word 'spinster' in a book title is almost certain to make me want a copy on my shelves, this one comes with an even greater recommendation - or series of them, because several people from my online book list have been reading this one lately.

Virginia Woolf - E.M. Forster
You can barely see it in the picture, but there's a little pamphlet in the pile.  I love it when authors write about other authors, so E.M. Forster on Virginia Woolf sounds great - indeed, I have actually read it in the Bodleian, and now I get to have my own copy.

The Windfall - Christopher Milne
I do already own this, but I couldn't leave it behind when it was only £1... so I'll find someone to give this to at some point...

Magda - Meike Zeirvogel
Meike is better known to many of us as the doyenne of Peirene Press - I think I was actually offered a review copy of this, but knew I wouldn't be likely to have a chance to read it for a while, and this way I get to try it without the self-imposed time pressure!

Moving House - Katharine Moore
I love the idea of someone publishing their first novel in their 80s, and have previously enjoyed Moore's letters with Joyce Grenfell, and her novel Summer at the Haven.

Nothing Sacred - Angela Carter
I keep stocking up my Carter shelves, and I've still only read one book by her... but now I have another one!

Mr. Bridge - Evan Connell
There has been quite a lot of talk about this, and Mrs. Bridge, in the blogosphere lately - and Simon S's recent review of the latter made me want to give Connell a try.

My Father and Myself - J.R. Ackerley
There might be people in the world who can see a beautiful NYRB Classics edition of an author they've been intending to read - but I am not one of these people.  This comes as no surprise, does it?

Dodo - E.F. Benson
As mentioned above!

On The Side of the Angels - Betty Miller
See my comment about NYRB Classics, and transpose to Virago Modern Classics...

This is Sylvia - Sandy Wilson
A £1 sale means I give things like this a go... the memoirs of a cat! It could be very funny or it could be utterly mawkish. We'll see...

Autobiography - Enid Bagnold
This book wasn't in the £1 sale, but I couldn't resist buying it... once I saw that it was signed by Enid Bagnold, with a lovely inscription from her. One to treasure!

As always, do let me know if you've read any of these, or if any are tickling your reading fancies.
Over to you!

Sunday 16 June 2013

Felixstowe Book Festival: reporting back

Well, what a wonderful weekend!

Elaine and I in the lovely ex-stable venue

Felixstowe Book Festival may be in its first year, but you wouldn't have guessed it from the polished organisation, public enthusiasm, and general success of the weekend.  It certainly looks encouraging that there will be many more, and I would definitely like to go along to future years.

I should report back on my talk with Elaine - I'd decided that I would be happy if there were 6 people in the audience, so I was delighted with 14 - particularly since they were an incredibly friendly, engaged audience who seemed genuinely interested, and (what's more) laughed at our jokes - for example, Colin, you got a mention with your comment that you "read Stuck-in-a-Book, except for the bookish bits".

Our talk was about book blogging in general and particular - how it fits in with traditional media, how we got involved ourselves - and then onto the changing opinions of publishers towards bloggers (we especially cheered on the forward-thinking enthusiasm of Bloomsbury) and meeting people from the internet.  We were a bit nervous that we hadn't got enough material, but we needn't have worried - since Elaine and I have known each for so long, we were able to bounce off one another, and add in extra anecdotes and comments in turn.  All in all, I'm very pleased with how it went, and want to thank the audience for making it such a fun experience - and, of course, thank lovely Elaine for asking me to participate.

Elaine, me, Linda

In that audience were two online author friends, Guy Fraser-Sampson and Linda Gillard.  It was lovely to see Guy again, for the third time I think, and his talk on E.F. Benson's family and Mapp and Lucia was sublimely funny (as is the second Mapp & Lucia book Guy has written, Lucia on Holiday, which I read this weekend and will post about soon.)  And I finally got to meet Linda, having known her online for, gosh, the best part of a decade - and, of course, loving her novels. We had a lovely long chat, and it was an absolute delight.  It was a good weekend for meeting online friends, because I also met a lovely lady called Daphne, who has been an online friend for about as long as Linda, I believe - and is an absolute scream, I must add.

Daphne also asked me, after I'd spent a couple of hours browsing the two excellent secondhand bookshops in Felixstowe, whether I'd bought anything.  I think she probably knew the answer anyway.  Treasure Chest Books (the one I remembered from a trip to Felixstowe aged about 16) had a sale, so that most of their fiction was £1 each. I came away with quite a haul... all will be revealed in my next post!

Thursday 13 June 2013

Bookish weekend

Oh dear! I seem to have opened a can of worms with my comments on Dorothy L Sayers... I've read two (Strong Poison and Gaudy Night), wasn't hugely impressed by the former, and liked the latter even less... I shan't go into much detail, because I don't want to upset her fans, but suffice to say that Sayers and Lord Peter are not for me! To propitiate Sayers fans, here is a piece written by Diana on the OxfordWords blog today, commissioned by yours truly.

And another reminder that I'll be appearing (with Elaine) at the Felixstowe Book Festival on Saturday - I spent the evening putting together some notes for it, which has got me quite excited and looking forward to it.  My one hope is that people come, so if you live remotely near Felixstowe, please do come along and introduce yourself!  More details here.

The next few days are going to be really busy, so this might be my last post until Monday.  Have a fantastic few days, and I'll let you know how the talk went!

And PLEASE bully me until I write about seeing Judi Dench in Peter and Alice, and the excellently funny 1944 film I watched the other day.

In my absence... why not tell me what you're reading?  I'm just about to finish my first book by Winifred Holtby - but perhaps not one you'd expect to be my first...

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Folio & Agatha

photo source

For those of us who love the book as a physical, aesthetic object, the Folio Society is spoken of with breathless delight.  They are the antidote to the ebook or the mass market paperback - their beautiful hardbacks with slipcovers, with exquisite paper and specially commissioned illustrations, are joys on anybody's shelves.  Since they're at the pricier end of the book market, I don't have huge numbers, although I do prize the first one I ever owned - Selected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, given by my friend Barbara, which not only introduced me to one of my favourite writers, but to the beauty of Folio.  I'm under no obligations to say anything about them, I should mention, but they really are perfect gift books, and I aspire to having shelves full of them one day.

This became all the clearer when, yesterday evening, I sat in their members' room in Bloomsbury, shelves and tables filled with their beautiful books.  I managed not to shove any in my bag, you'll be pleased to know - except for the one they sent me home with in my goody bag, which was the Miss Marple Short Stories - because I was in London to hear a talk about Agatha Christie by her biographer Laura Thompson, in the company of various other bloggers.  I'd only actually met one before, and we just said hello across the room - most of those present seemed to be crime bloggers, and know each other, but I did get to chat to a lady from a fashion blog with a sideline in book blogs.  If a fashionista is going to like any books, they ought to be Folio books.

Anyway, there is nothing quite like hearing about Agatha Christie.  I think only Jane Austen unites so many diverse readers in eager agreement and enthusiasm - but, while most Austen fanatics have read all her novels (even if not her abbreviated novels, letters etc.) it's quite possible to love Agatha Christie without having read a very big percentage of her prolific output.  Take me, for instance - I love Dame Agatha.  Like many people, she was my transition from teenage reading to adult reading.  And yet I've only read (quick scurry to Wikipedia) 16 or 17 of her novels.  So many left to discover!

Thankfully Laura Thompson didn't assume we'd all have read everything by Christie, and so she didn't give away endings - or at least she didn't give away specific endings, so she mentioned that a murderer turned out to be a child, or every possible candidate, or a suicide - but didn't spoil which novels these endings belonged to.  (Please be similarly considerate in the comments!)

And, indeed, Laura Thompson's talk and Q&A afterwards was brilliant all round.  She was very personable, and obviously a big fan of Christie as well as a biographer (has anybody read her biography, incidentally?  I haven't, but want to now.)  Her favourite Christie novel is Five Little Pigs - she said that the plot movements and character movements work in sync beautifully, which makes me want to read that too - and, conversely, The Clocks is her least favourite.  My favourite comment she made was that Agatha Christie didn't feel the need to prove herself better than the detective novel genre.  She embraced it, and (as Thompson said too) although she thought a lot about what she did, she didn't analyse what she did.

My feelings are that Agatha Christie is such a perfect detective novelist that other authors don't only seem inferior, but seem failures.  They have wandered from the blueprint Christie excelled at - her plots are almost always breathtakingly flawless - and so people like Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham barely even qualify as detective novelists to me, however enjoyable they may be in other  qualities (and, for my money, Sayers is short of those too!)

I asked a question about Christie's romantic novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott - which I've never read - and turns out they were better reviewed than her main output!  Thompson adds that some are, indeed, very good.

All in all, a highly enjoyable (if swelteringly hot) evening, which has cemented my admiration for Folio books and my affection for Agatha Christie.  Thank you, Folio!

Monday 10 June 2013

Me, elsewhere...

Quick post today, pointing you in the direction of two posts I've written for other people!

Today I appear on Vulpes Libris as part of their Poetry Week - explaining why I struggle to get on with it!  (I also throw in some of those poems about authors I wrote recently.)

And last week I appeared on the OxfordWords blog, writing about Alanis Morissette. Great fun!

Saturday 8 June 2013

Some Tame Gazelle - postscript

Following on from my review of Some Tame Gazelle, below... I'm too late to enter Thomas's competition for designing your own Barbara Pym cover (it closed on 7 June) and nothing can compare to the beautiful Moyer Bell designs he posts here, but I couldn't resist giving it a go anyway.  And I only have MS Paint to work with...

Teacup image from here

Some Tame Gazelle - Barbara Pym

I wasn't intending to join in with Barbara Pym Reading Week, which I've seen everywhere around the blogosphere (well done Thomas and Amanda!) and, it seems, I might be late to the party - because I hadn't spotted that the week ended on a Saturday.  Oops.  Well, hopefully they'll let me sneak in as a last minute participant, because I have just finished Some Tame Gazelle (1950) - Pym's first novel - because I realised Mum had given it to me, and thus it would qualify for Reading Presently too.

This isn't my first Pym - although it is only my second.  The first one I read, back in 2004, was Excellent Women.  I'd rather expected to love Barbara Pym devotedly, and was a bit nonplussed by my lukewarm response.  I certainly liked it, but it wasn't quite what I was expecting - it was set in London, for a start, which wasn't at all what I envisioned Pym being like.

Some Tame Gazelle, at any rate, is set in the countryside.  That helped me get in the right frame of mind.  It has the same "three or four families in a country village" that Jane Austen recommended as the perfect novelistic topic (for her niece at least, and to many Pym is a figurative niece of Austen) - more emphatically, it reminded me of the close-but-carping rural communities inhabited by Mapp and Lucia in E.F. Benson's series of novels.

The families in question are really households, I suppose.  I shan't write too much about the plot, because there have been so many reviews of Some Tame Gazelle in the blogosphere this week (scroll through Thomas's blog to find all Barbara Pym Reading Week links), but I'll give a brief precis.  Belinda and Harriet Bede are eldely sisters living together, and we see most of the goings-on of the village through Belinda's eyes (although Pym often gives a moment or two from perspective of other characters, which gets a bit dizzying.)  Neither are immune from the arrow of Cupid - the title, indeed, derives from the poet Thomas Bayly:
Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:
Something to love, oh, something to love!
 Harriet develops a love for every curate she sees - a love somewhere between maternal and romantic - while Belinda is more constant in her love.  It's for their local vicar, an Archdeacon, who was with Belinda at university, is unaffectionately married, and gives sermon which were 'a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations'.  Indeed, a less lovably man would be difficult to create.  He is selfish, snaps at everyone, quotes self-importantly and at length at the drop of a hat, neglects most of his vicarly duties... and yet I get the idea that we are not supposed to think Belinda foolish in her affections.  Is he in the same boat as Jean-Benoit Aubrey, Heathcliff, Rochester, and all manner of other literary romantic heroes whose charms entirely pass me by?  Belinda, on the other hand, is very lovable - as, indeed, is Harriet, despite one being cautious and the other impetuous.

But I suspect Pym is chiefly read for her tone.  As I mentioned, she is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Jane Austen - recently by Thomas himself - and while (from my limited experience of two Pym novels) I would say she has neither Austen's genius nor her tautness, Pym is certainly a worthy successor to Austen's love of irony.  And now, of course, I can find no examples.  But time and again the narrative voice says something which coyly suggests - oh so innocently - that the character is foolish, or doesn't know as much as they pretend, or in some other is not being honest.   This narrator is far too polite to say so outright, and isn't so common as to wink, but... raises her eyebrows a touch.

As for me?  I still like Pym.  I liked Some Tame Gazelle rather more than Excellent Women - it was funny, affectionate, moving without being heavy-handed.  As the son of a vicar, I relished reading about church families, even while it all seemed rather unlikely from my experience. It even felt like the 1930s novels I love so dearly (although published in 1950, I couldn't work out when it was meant to be set - everyone has servants, and levels of propriety are decidedly pre-war, but I suppose these things were both true for some 1950 villages).  But I still don't love Pym.  I love Jane Austen, and (later) E.F. Benson, E.M. Delafield, and other authors who laid out the blueprint Pym picked up - but I still felt as though I were reading at one remove from the originals.  And, of course, even Austen was not an original - if I'd read Pym before I'd read Austen, perhaps I would love Pym more.

If other people did not love Pym so wholeheartedly, then I think I would sound very enthusiastic.  I think Pym is a very good writer, and Some Tame Gazelle is a lovely novel - but it will not be on my top ten for this year, I suspect.  Perhaps I am still too young?  Perhaps I am too familiar with the generation above Pym. When so many people rate her as one of their absolute favourites, even my very-much-liking of Pym feels a little bit like a failure.

What I really do love is the cover, and indeed all the covers of these Virago Pym reprints.  But curiously I can't find any information about the designer or artist on the book jacket - I hope I'm just being dozy, because otherwise very poor show Virago.  Very poor show indeed.

Friday 7 June 2013

Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs - Jeremy Mercer

First things first: I added an Oxford comma to the title of this book in the subject line, and I'm going to be doing the same throughout.  That's just how I roll.

Secondly - I've found that any exercise which makes one turn to unread books on one's shelves, whether that be the TBR Double Dare, A Century of Books, or Reading Presently, brings up all sorts of unexpected joys.  That's hardly a surprise, perhaps, but it does give me pause for thought - how many wonderful books are waiting for me in my own room?  I have about 1000 unread books, probably - if a tenth of them are as good as Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs (2005) is, then I've got some definite treats ahead of me.  Thank you Charley, for buying this for my birthday in (gulp) 2010.

Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs was published as Time Was Soft There in the US, but for some reason the publishers decided we Brits couldn't cope with such high-flown language, and gave us this variant title - rather unfairly, since at one point it is made clear that there weren't any bedbugs.  I'm getting ahead of myself - this is Mercer's non-fiction account of living in Paris's famous Shakespeare & Co bookshop for a year.  I've visited it myself - indeed, the first ever photograph I put of myself on Stuck-in-a-Book is outside the shop - and although it isn't much of a treasure trove for the secondhand bibliophile, being mostly new books now, it is an amazing place to visit.

But I was a few years too late to move in.  Although (unbeknownst to me) George Whitman was still alive when I visited in 2010 - he died in 2011 - it was no longer a haven for artistic types from around the world.  When Jeremy Mercer arrived at the turn of the 21st century, he could not really be considered an artistic type.  Before I started reading Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs, I'd rather assumed it would be about cosy, literary folk, and that Mercer myself would be the sort of bespectacled, cardigan-wearing book-fiend that I am myself.  Turns out, no.  He was only in Paris (from his native America) because someone had threatened his life after some criminal confidences were broken.  Mercer was a crime reporter who also wrote trashy true crime books, and his past exploits include attacking a neighbour and drug dealing.  Not exactly a lovable guy - and, although he is mostly repentant, I have to say I had a hard time reading the bits where he complained about being judged for attacking the neighbour.  Hmm.

But, if Mercer isn't exactly a man I'd invite round for a night watching As Time Goes By, he certainly knows how to write an engaging memoir.  In exchange for bed and board, he was chiefly expected to help out around the shop, and follow George's often curious whims:
The official store hours were noon to midnight, but most days George opened earlier to accommodate the crowds.  The major rule was that residents were expected to be out of bed in the morning to cart out boxes of books for the sidewalk display and sweep the floors before the customers arrived.  Beyond that, George liked everyone to help out for an hour each day, whether it be sorting books, washing dishes, or performing minor carpentry chores.  More idealistically, George also asked each resident to read a book a day from the library.  Kurt said many chose plays and novellas to meet the quota, but he was still tackling novels.
George does sound rather a strange taskmaster, expecting everyone to live on food taken from restaurants as they close for the night, criticising anyone for spending any money at all - but then losing thousands of francs by leaving the till unattended or hiding wads of notes behind books (some of which ended up being a nest for mice.)  George is 86 at the time that Mercer moves in, and as eccentric as they come - but still with an affection for young ladies.  This isn't romantically reciprocated by any of them, but it does explain why so many young women find themselves working curious hours at Shakespeare & Co.  And then Mercer discovers that George has a teenage daughter, and decides to reunite them...

That's quite a big moment in the memoir, engineering significant upheaval, but for the most part Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs just tells of Mercer's everyday experiences with the hopeful, but yet slightly hopeless, artistic people surrounding him - from the ageing poet Simon to handsome, lost Kurt.  It;s not at all the portrait of Shakespeare & Co that I was expecting, but it is a fascinating glimpse into a small society that has only recently disappeared, and yet stretches back to the camaraderie and ethos of another time.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Four Hedges - Clare Leighton

I have no recollection why I put Clare Leighton's Four Hedges (1935) on my Amazon wishlist, but I'm assuming it was either because of a blogger or something Slightly Foxed mentioned (any guesses/answers?) - but it was enough to get my good friend Clare (not Leighton) to send this beautiful Little Toller edition to me for my birthday last year.  And where better to read a book about a garden, thought I, than in a garden.  So over the past few days, I've been reading it in study breaks from doing DPhil editing.  And reading it in a hammock.  Jealous at all?

It really wouldn't have worked to read Four Hedges in a city, because it is such a hymn to nature.  It's non-fiction (I always seem to forget that you can't know these things unless I mention them), and tells of Leighton's experience creating a garden, through the course of a year - the year isn't dated, but the garden is about three years old, and presumably it wasn't long before the book was published in 1935.

As you might have guessed by the cover, the book is filled with Leighton's woodcuts (I assume 'engravings on wood', as they are termed in the book, are the same as woodcuts?)  It was this that undoubtedly attracted me to Four Hedges - there is something so simply and dignified about a woodcut; such a celebration of the forms and movements of nature.  Leighton writes at one point that people don't appreciate the feel of nature enough, valuing only sight, sound, and smell - and, later, writes that flowers are considered too much for their colours, rather than their shapes.  Woodcuts are a rebuttal to both these errors, aren't?  Without colour, they somehow offer texture as well as appearance - at least, they do in the hands of a craftswoman like Leighton.

As you would suppose, a lot of her woodcuts show plants - and I can only presume that they are accurate, and might well be of especial interest to the botanist.  For my part, I particularly appreciated the ones with people or animals in them.  For I am almost entirely ignorant about nature.

That's a shocking thing to confess, for a country-boy who is desperate to get away from the city (even a city as beautiful as Oxford) and live in the countryside.  Right now I'm in my parents' garden in Somerset, listening to the cows in the adjacent field eating parts of the hedge (indeed, I can see a couple about two metres to my left) and I love it.  One day I will write properly about my deep love for everything about villages.  But, with nature, my love is passionate but uninformed.  I love nature in the way that I love friends - joyously living alongside them, discovering more about them when they want to share, but not needing to know everything in order to love.

But I was a bit nervous before starting Four Hedges.  A few years ago I read some letters between gardeners and, while I enjoyed the camaraderie and friendship, I didn't have much of a clue what was going on.  I don't know when certain plants need bedding, or when others need pruning.  Latin names are so many Flowerus floweriori to me.  I love gardens, but I love walking through them and not doing an ounce of work in them - because I loathe gardening.

Luckily, Four Hedges was still perfect for me.  True, Leighton took it for granted that her reader loved gardening, and would be entirely unable to resist weeding (believe me, I resist it very easily), but she also writes in a way that can be loved by anybody.  She writes about watching birds being reared and caterpillars metamorphosing; she writes about a baby goat moving into a nearby field, and the perils of windy days - most importantly of all, she writes about her thoughts, feelings, and responses.  It is a delight to hear how thrilled she is about bulb catalogues, and I was swept away with her admiration for certain weeds, reclaiming them from gardeners' snobbery.

It struck me how timeless this book was.  No mention is made of experiences outside the garden - barely even the house, to the extent that I thought there wasn't a house for a great part of the book.  Certainly no hints of a forthcoming war (which was obvious to most by the mid-'30s) or anything like that.  Everything in Four Hedges could be happeningin 1835, or today - the only anachronism would be the non-electric mower and the scythe.  (Having said that, in the last place I lived in Oxford, our landlords only gave us a non-electric mower - one of their very many oddities.)

Although Leighton does not write humorously (nor intends to), there is a great deal in common between joyful writing and comic writing.  They reach towards the same goal, of sharing and bringing delight - and Leighton is so joyful, so able to find excitement and hope in the smallest detail, that it is a lift to the spirits to read her words, even for the non-gardener.  And which entirely humourless gardener, after all, would write this:
We should never take our gardens too seriously.  It is hard to curb ourselves in this, if we have any love for our plants, even as it is difficult to take a walk round the garden without pulling up weeds.  But too professional an attitude is apt to give us the same taut, strained feeling that comes into the faces and lives of all specialists.  It is better to have a few weeds and untidy edges to our flowers beds, and to enjoy our garden, than to allow ourselves to be dominated by it.  To be able occasionally to shut our eyes to weeds is a great art.  Let us relax in our gardens, and as a dear old countrywoman used to say, let us "poddle" in them.  We waste else the very beauty for which we have worked.
I am never in danger of taking gardening too seriously, but it is refreshing to hear Leighton say this nonetheless - any expert or avid hobbyist should include humour and self-awareness in their activities, shouldn't they?  Now excuse me while I tend to my book collection - it's getting rather overgrown, and it's threatening to take over the floor.  A bit of weeding, and it'll be fine.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Sherpa vs. hammock

I'm enjoying some time in Somerset, cat-sitting and thesising - with breaks for lying in a hammock and reading a book!  If you sit in a hammock in the Rectory garden, chances are you'll be joined by Sherpa, who is not only the most beautiful cat, but the silliest, and the cat with the worst balance.  As you'll see in this brief clip...

Monday 3 June 2013

The Egg and I - Betty Macdonald

There are some authors, because of the influence of the online reading group I'm in, that I stockpile before I get around to reading them.  Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth von Arnim were among the number for years (and I love them now, of course) - on the other hand, so were Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch, and now I've tried them without success, I'm left with piles of their books to keep or give away...

Anyway, long-winded introduction to: Betty MacDonald.  I believe it was Barbara or Elaine who first mentioned Ms. MacDonald to me, and her books were definitely compared to E.M. Delafield's Provincial Lady novels - which is, of course, a surefire way to get me to try them.  It's taken me a few years, but I've finally read one - The Egg and I (1945), which I bought in Edinburgh in 2009.

You might be disappointed - but you'll probably be relieved - to learn that no supernaturally large egg features in the novel, but it does feature farming. Indeed, that is what The Egg and I is about - an account of being a farmer's wife in 1920s America. As with the Provincial Lady books, and my other favourites by Shirley Jackson, it's memoir thrown to the wolves of exaggeration - or fiction tempered by reality, depending on which side you see it.

And it is very amusing.  MacDonald realises the comic potential in the astonishing workload of running a small holding with an ambitious husband, and there is plenty to delight the reader in accounts of a recalcitrant stove, suicidal chickens, and uncooperative bread.  My chief reaction was gratitude that the shifting class system in Britain meant that my father and I could go to university and pick our careers, and that I didn't end up in the great tradition of Thomas farmers (which stretches back as far as anyone knows, I believe.)  Nothing wrong with being a farmer, of course, only I have always suspected that I would be totally hopeless at it - a suspicion confirmed by reading The Egg and I.  You have to assume that Betty MacDonald deeply loved her then-husband Bob, because nothing else could possibly persuade a sane woman to embark on this venture with him.  It is a mark of her exceptionally good nature that, even when she is being teasing about the chores Bob suggests, there appears to be no deep-seated malice (which would be entirely justifiable):
By the end of the summer the pullets were laying and Bob was culling the flocks.  With no encouragement from me, he decided that, as chicken prices were way down, I should can the culled hens.  It appeared to my warped mind that Bob went miles and miles out of his way to figure out things for me to put in jars; that he actively resented a single moment of my time which was not spent eye to pressure gauge, ear to steam cock; that he was for ever coming staggering into the kitchen under a bushel basket of something for me to can.  My first reaction was homicide, then suicide, and at last tearful resignation.
Did I mention that she has a baby in the middle of the four years spent on this farm?  Betty MacDonald basically IS superwoman - and with a sense of humour too.

Then there are her neighbours - on one side is a large, lazy couple with about a dozen children.  Mrs Kettle seems quite good-natured (if not wised-up to the etiquette of everyday living), but Mr Kettle and his progeny seem to have no object in life but getting other people to provide food and assistance - and they do charmingly awful things like burning down their barn and starting a forest fire.  On the other side is the direct opposite: a farm kept so spotless you could eat your food off the floor.  All these secondary characters seem like exaggerations, but that didn't stop the Macdonalds' old neighbours filing lawsuits, according to the Wikipedia page.

The Egg and I doesn't have the same laugh-every-page that I found in the Provincial Lady books, has a slightly slow start, and the workload is exhausting even to read about, but I still loved reading it.  Anybody drawn to self-deprecating, cynically optimistic accounts of a person's everyday life (albeit an everyday life few of us would recognise), then this is a great book.  As so often, reading about the author's real life changes things a bit - she was divorced from Bob, and remarried to Donald MacDonald, by the time the book was published (one wonders quite what her current husband thought about her achieving fame writing so fondly about her ex-husband) - but it's easier simply to let The Egg and I be the simplified, all-American tale it wants to be.  As I wrote before - it's neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a delightful amalgam of the two.