Tuesday 31 December 2013

Diana Athill and Susan Hill

These two books (Midsummer Night in the Workhouse and other stories by Diana Athill and Black Sheep by Susan Hill) have very little in common, other than that (a) the authors have 'hill' in their name, and (b) they are the final two books for my Reading Presently project and this is the last day of the year.  So I shall consider them in turn, and only if I'm very lucky will I find anything to link them...

Mum gave me Midsummer Night in the Workhouse as a cheer-up present a few months ago, and a Persephone book is (of course) always very, very welcome.  One of my very favourite reads in 2013 was Diana Athill's memoir about being an editor, Stet (indeed, I claimed in Kim's Book Bloggers Advent Calendar that it was my favourite, but while compiling my list I remembered another which beat it - full top ten to be unveiled in January, donchaknow) so I thought it was about time that I read some of her fiction.  Turns out there isn't that much of it, and she speaks quite disparagingly of the whole process in Somewhere Towards The End (which I'm reading at the moment; spoiler alert, it doesn't compare to Stet in my mind).

As my usual disclaimer, whenever I write about short stories - they're very difficult to write about.  But they do seem the perfect medium for the expert editor, depending - as they do, more than any other fiction - upon precision and economy.  And I thought (says he, being very brief) that Athill was very good at it.  My favourite was probably 'The Return', about a couple of young women who are taken to an island by local 'tour guide' sailors - it was just so brilliantly structured, managing to be tense, witty, and wry at the same time.  But the last line of 'Desdemona' was exceptionally good (and you know how I like my last lines to stories...)

My only complaint with the collection is that they are a bit too samey occasionally - which might be explained by the new preface, where Athill explains that she mostly wrote from her own experience.  And her own experience seemed to be observing a fair amount of unsatisfactory marriages, and having a rather casual attitude towards marital fidelity (more on that when I get around to writing about Somewhere Towards The End.)

Her character and voice seem better established in her non-fiction, but this collection is certainly very good - and Persephone should be celebrated for collecting and publishing something which had been largely ignored in Athill's career.  Hurrah for Persephone!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Colin (yes, he blogs too, and apparently will be doing so more regularly in 2014) gave me Susan Hill's latest novella, Black Sheep (which was on my Amazon wishlist) for Christmas, and I read it on Boxing Day while laid up with that cold.  I'm always so grateful that I gave Susan Hill's writing a second go, after being underwhelmed by the children's book I read first - and I have a special soft spot for the novellas which have been coming out over the past few years.

Those of you who follow Hill on Twitter, or remember her erstwhile blog, will know that she seems to finish a book in the time it takes most of us to boil a kettle.  Well, more power to her, say I - and I've been impressed by The Beacon and A Kind Man.  I hadn't realised that I read those in 2009 and 2011 - well, time flies, and perhaps Hill does pause for breath between books.  Black Sheep is not only being marketed in a similar way, with equally lovely colours/image/format, but does - whether Hill has done this deliberately or not - belong in the same stable.  The three novellas have definite differences, and possibly started from very different inspirations, but they also share a great deal - all three concern remote, almost isolated communities, the complicated lives of simple folk, and (it must be conceded) a fair dose of misery.  Or perhaps just a dose of hardship, because the three novels all seem to come near to gratuitous misery, and then duck away.

Black Sheep takes place in a mining community in the past... I'm not sure how far in the past, or if we're told, but definitely an era when people rarely left their village and almost no outside-communication took place.  The village (called 'Mount of Zeal') is divided into the pit, Lower Terrace, Middle Terrace, and Upper Terrace (known as Paradise).  We follow the fortunes of one overcrowded family home as the children grow up.  Who to marry, whether or not to get a job in the mine, how to cope with illness and grief - these are the overriding concerns of the different children and their parents - but these topics are less important than the way in which Hill writes about them, and the community they live in.

It is such a brilliant depiction of a village.  Setting the community on the side of this hill, leading from Paradise to the hell of the mine, may seem like a heavy-handed metaphor - but more significant is the claustrophobia of the village from any vantage, whether in the pit or in the fanciest inspector's house.  We follow perhaps the most important character, the youngest boy Ted, when he emerges from the village into the sheep-filled fields above - a journey seldom made by anybody, for some reason - and there is a palpable sense of narrative and readerly relief.  Even while giving us characters we care about, Hill makes the whole atmosphere suffocating and, yes, claustrophobic.

Of these three novellas, I still think The Beacon is the best - but the setting of Black Sheep is probably the most accomplished.  It lacks quite the brilliance of structure which Hill demonstrates elsewhere, and comes nearest to a Hardyesque piling on of unlikely misery, but that can't really dent the confident narrative achievement readers have come to expect from Hill.  As a follow-on read from Ten Days of Christmas, it was a bit of a shock - but, if you're feeling emotionally brave, this triumvirate of novellas is definitely worth seeking out.

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And there you have it.  No noticeable link between the two - but my Reading Presently challenge is finished!  I realise it isn't as interesting for vicarious readers as A Century of Books, because (presumably) it makes no difference to you whether a reviewed book was a gift or a purchase, but I've enjoyed seeing what people have recommended over the years.  At the very least, it has assuaged a fair amount of latent guilt!  I still have at least 30 books people have given me, and I'll be prioritising a few for ACOB 2014, but I'll also enjoy indulging my own whims to a greater extent.

Appropriately enough, five of my Top Ten Books were gifts, and five were not - considering this year I read 50 books that were gifts and just over 50 that were not (finishing, because of DPhil, headaches, and new job, rather fewer books than usual).  All will be revealed soon, as promised...

Monday 30 December 2013

Together and Apart - Margaret Kennedy

I think Together and Apart (1936) by Margaret Kennedy might just be the most 1930s novel I have ever read.  Not that it is the best (though it is very good) but that it is somehow quintessentially 1930s, stuffed with all the ingredients I have come to expect - marital politics; sensuality tempered by an intrinsic conservatism; a sense of change which is both progressive and nostalgic; fraught family gatherings; women discovering their voices, but torn between the roles of wife, mother, and independent woman; people explaining their feelings to each other at elaborate length.  Of course, none of these themes are unique to the 1930s, but they recur so often in novels of that decade that, together, they evoke the 1930s for me.  (Before I go any further - thank you Rob, who gave this to me in the Virago Secret Santa back in 2011, making Together and Apart possibly my only black Virago Modern Classic.)

It all starts off with that touchy-for-the-1930s topic of divorce, with Betsy writing to her mother about her proposed separation from her husband, the celebrated librettist Alec, and it's worth quoting at length...
Well now Mother, listen.  I have something to tell you that you won't like at all.  In fact, I'm afraid that it will be a terrible shock and you will hate it at first.  But do try to get used to the idea and bring father round to it.
Alec and I are parting company.  We are going to get a divorce.
I know this will horrify: the more so because I have, perhaps mistakenly, tried very hard to conceal our unhappiness during these last years.  I didn't, naturally, want anybody to know while there was still a chance of keeping things going.  But the fact is, we have been quite miserable, both of us.  We simply are unsuited to one another and unable to get on.  How much of this have you guessed?
Life is so different from what we expected when we first married.  Alec has quite changed, and he needs a different sort of wife.  I never wanted all this money and success.  I married a very nice but quite undistinguished civil servant.  With my money we had quite enough to live on in a comfortable and civilised way.  We had plenty of friends, our little circle, people like ourselves, amusing and well bred, not rich, but decently well off.  Alec says now that they bored him.  But he didn't say so at the time.
Divorce was no longer the great unthinkable, but you don't have to be cynical to detect a hint of false brio in Betsy's assured tone.  The respective mothers leap into action - and they remind me rather of the mothers in Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout.  Betsy's mother is weak and anxious; Alec's mother is domineering and formidable.  Neither, it turns out, is particularly good at bringing the separated couple back together, and there is rather a sense that they might have inadvertently accelerated the split...

From here, Margaret Kennedy weaves a complex and evolving pattern.  I expected the novel to focus on the married couple, seeing whether or not they could mend their rift, but Kennedy's world is far wider than that.  I might even criticise it for being a little too wide, in that it occasionally seems to lose focus a bit as she tries to encompass a school, four or five households, and the minds and opinions of a dozen or more principal players.

As with the G.B. Stern novel (and because I'm rushing up so many posts!) I don't think it's worth elaborating at length about the plot.  Kennedy shows us the consequences of actions, and movingly depicts the ways in which separation affects everyone - not just the 'think of the children' angle (although this is shown a fair bit, the children are all quite flawed of their own accord) but the married couple themselves.  The split between Betsy and Alec is never final and certain in their minds - both are plagued by regret or, more to the point, uncertainty about their decision (regret would be a form of certainty which neither can reach).  I have never been married, and of course never divorced, but I was still impressed by the nuances in Kennedy's writing...

...with the caveat that this is the 1930s, and I often find that the dialogue in 1930s novels is never quite as nuanced as one might wish.  People do explain their emotions at length, and have oh-gosh-darling moments, but that all adds to the good fun of it all.  My first Margaret Kennedy book was her biography of Jane Austen, and it is interesting to see how her own fiction compares.  Well, of course Austen is better - but you can see where Kennedy learnt a bit about portraying human nature in its complexities, and I think Jane would rather have enjoyed reading this if she'd been around in 1936.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Ten Days of Christmas - G.B. Stern

I don't usually do much in the way of seasonal reading, but I draw the line at reading anything with 'Christmas' in the title at any other time than Christmas itself.  So it was that I spent Christmas Eve and the next few days reading Ten Days of Christmas (1950) by G.B. Stern, very kindly given to me by Verity last December.

I forget exactly what the process was between me finding out about the book and being presented with it, but I'm pretty sure it started with spotting Jane's review in 2011 (my eager comment is there below it).  Verity couldn't have known, when she passed on her large print copy, that it would be exactly what I needed in my cold-ridden post-Christmas haze - not only because it was a rather lovely book, but because my eyes couldn't cope with any smaller font size.

The novel opens with a vast number of characters and (ominously) a family tree.  I decided - as I always do when confused by characters at the beginning of a novel - to ignore all of this and plough onwards, reasoning that they would fall into place sooner or later.  And they did.  It isn't important, for this review, to disentangle first marriages and second marriages, half-siblings, step-siblings, and cousins - but rest assured that they do all sort themselves out.

The central thrust of Ten Days of Christmas is the nativity play which the various children intend to put on for their family - and to raise money to replace a displeasing picture in the church.  I will cross oceans to read a novel about theatrics, and enjoyed all the to-ing and fro-ing this bunch of believable (if occasionally a little too wise) children go to in deciding who will take what part, which play to choose, and all that.

It was all shaping up to be an enjoyable and simple family-oriented story, but for one incident.  Rosalind - who, at 17, has forcibly transferred herself from being considered a child to being considered a grown-up - is given a pre-war 'duck ball' toy by an eager and proud cousin... and then given an identical one by someone else.  She believes she has handled the situation beautifully...

It is this simple incident, which could so easily happen, which spirals out of control to cause two painful arguments - one among the children, another among the parents.  Stern expertly shows how children and adults can feud in very similar ways - and how the variations often make the adults more childish than the children.

But, fear not, all is not dissent.  There is plenty of happiness sprinkled throughout.

Look, the influence of Jane's recommendation is making me blog with her short paragraphs!

One thing I could not shake from my head throughout was how very, very similar it all felt to the premise of an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel.  How very easily she could have taken these characters and these incidents and crafted one of her works of genius!  The many children and adults, interrelated in curious ways; the single incident which becomes so immensely important; the back-and-forth discussions which spiral round and round.  G.B. Stern was friends with Sheila Kaye-Smith (they wrote these two celebrations of Jane Austen in collaboration) and Sheila Kaye-Smith (as we know from the very brilliant bibliophile-memoir All The Books of My Life) was a devotee of Dame Ivy - could I be right in concluding that Stern was also a fan, and that Ten Days of Christmas was her attempt to follow in Ivy Compton-Burnett's hallowed footsteps?

Well, G.B. Stern doesn't have anything like Ivy Compton-Burnett's talent, and Ten Days of Christmas doesn't come close to the quality of her novels, but (to my mind) that is true of all but the tiniest handful of novelists.  Setting Ivy aside, Ten Days of Christmas is a very good, insightful, amusing, and (despite the arguments) extremely cosy novel.  Perhaps it is too late to recommend a Christmas novel now (although, of course, neither the twelve days nor the ten days are over) - but for future festive fireside reading, I do heartily recommend indulging in this treat of a book.  Thank you, Verity!

Saturday 28 December 2013

The Best of Archy and Mehitabel - Don Marquis

I've been away from the internet for a few days, and with a stinking post-Christmas cold (which won't go away and has left me exhausted) so I'm going to be hard-pressed to write my final four reviews of the year... but this afternoon I did finish my Reading Presently project.  Hurrah!  I have read 50 books which were given to me as presents... and I'll write something about each of the outstanding ones before the end of the year, leaving my Best Books, summings up etc. until the early days of 2014.

My friend Barbara gave me The Best of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis for my birthday this year, with a note hoping that I didn't have it already (always a worry when people give me books as presents).  Well, in this case, I had never heard of Don Marquis or the cockroach and cat of the title.  They originated in a New York newspaper column, when Don Marquis apparently discovered that a cockroach had, in his absence, been writing vers libre on the typewriter.  And that is what this little book contains.

The cockroach is Archy; Mehitabel is a cat, and (unsurprisingly) my favourite of the few characters which enter the scene.  'Toujours gai' is her motto, as well as 'there's a dance in the old dame yet', and 'always the lady'.  Despite these protestations, she is arguably not particularly ladylike... often detailing the savagings she has given gentlemen cats who have wronged her.  Oh, and she claims to have been reincarnated from Cleopatra.

I don't often read poetry, but this collection was enjoyable - a pleasant mixture of the silly, surreal, and profound.  Here's a rather long example I liked, 'mehitabel and her kittens' (poor Archy cannot type capitals - although, as E.B. White writes in his reprinted introduction, that is no reason to foreswear them when referring to him):

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
but am i never to be allowed
to live my own life
i have purposely avoided
matrimony in the interests
of the higher life
but i might just
as well have been a domestic
slave for all the freedom
i have gained
i hope none of them
gets run over by
an automobile
my heart would bleed
if anything happened
to them and i found it out
but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove
them they are living
just now in an abandoned
garbage can just behind
a made over stable in greenwich
village and if it rained
into the can before i could
get back and rescue them
i am afraid the little
dears might drown
it makes me shudder just
to think of it
of course if i were a family cat
they would probably
be drowned anyhow
sometimes i think
the kinder thing would be
for me to carry the
sweet little things
over to the river
and drop them in myself
but a mother s love archy
is so unreasonable
something always prevents me
these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too
in spite of hell
well boss it will
be interesting to note
just how mehitabel
works out her present problem
a dark mystery still broods
over the manner
in which the former
family of three kittens
one day she was taking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject
we had a heavy rain
right after she spoke to me
but probably that garbage can
leaks so the kittens
have not yet
been drowned

Thursday 26 December 2013

2013 in First Lines

A fun yearly meme I've done at least once or twice is the Year in First Lines created by Melwyk at The Indextrious Reader. It's very simply - you copy across the first line of each month's first blog post, and a link to that post, as an intriguing overview of the year... and it seems an appropriate way to celebrate Boxing Day.

January: "You'll be sick of these soon... but what is the new year for but to share book-reading statistics?"

February: "I'm starting a new job on Monday (maternity cover) at Oxford University Press."

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

April: '"Yet one fearful characteristic of the physical world tempers any optimism that a reader may feel in any ordered library: the constraints of space.'"

May: "Book reviews coming soon, promise - and those replies to your great comments which I promised last week."

June: "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."

July: "Sometimes you just need to read an Agatha Christie, don't you?"

August: "I can't remember if I've already blogged about the beautiful new editions of some Barbara Comyns novels that Virago have brought out, but it bears repeating."

September: "A couple of times I have had the pleasure of staying with bloggers, who have kindly put me up (and put up with me) when I've needed a bed to crash in while in London."

October: "Well, sort of."

November: "Simon... is me!"

December: "Of all the books to speed-read, The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford was a poor choice."

Wednesday 25 December 2013

Happy Christmas everyone!

I shall share my favourite lines from a carol, as I believe I have done before:
Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing!
A very wonderful Christmas Day to you and yours - may your stockings be filled with books!

Tuesday 24 December 2013

My Grandfather, and Father, Dear Father by Denis Constanduros

Happy Christmas Eve!  It seems the right time for a Slightly Foxed memoir - and another Reading Presently candidate, since this book was a birthday present from Mum and Dad.

This was supposed to look festive...
...not like I'm about to burn it.

Slightly Foxed are, as I've mentioned before, utterly dependable when it comes to insightful, moving, and often rather laced with nostalgia - albeit invariably for a past I have not myself experienced.  The two-for-one set of memoirs by Denis Constanduros gives an interesting spectrum of childhood experience and reflections - although also something of a self-contradictory portrait.

When the good people of Slightly Foxed were sorting out a reprinting of Constanduros's My Grandfather (first published in 1948) they discovered that there was an unpublished sequel of sorts - yes, you've guessed it, Father, Dear Father - both of which were read on the radio in the 1980s.  They are very different creatures.

My Grandfather is, as it sounds, a depiction of Denis's grandfather - centre of his home, where myriad women (his wife, sisters-in-law, maid, housekeeper, cook, and daughter) fit in with his ideal of the home - the only other male being Denis.  In the hands of a tyrant, this household would have been miserable - but Grandfather could scarcely be less of a tyrant, at least through the eyes and memory of Denis.  Through this lens, Grandfather is the jolliest, most amenable man imaginable.  Good-nature and kindness line his every thought, as do childlike delight - even if it is for hunting.  He is a creature of routine, and Denis's documenting of Grandfather's weekly meetings with a lifelong friend, and the conversations they repeat every time, is really rather lovely.

It was lashings of cosiness and niceness, filled with character and vim (it is no coincidence, surely, that Grandfather loved Dickens dearly).  And then everything changes when we get onto Father, Dear Father.  Unlike the first memoir, it isn't really a portrait of a single man - indeed, I came away from reading it with very little idea what Father was like, except that he liked sports and thin-lipped masculinity.

The book is quite sad and sombre, even when describing eventful days and happy occasions - you can tell, throughout, that Constanduros did not have an easy relationship with his father, and it didn't come as a great surprise when it was revealed, towards the end, that he didn't see his father after he was a boy - at least not until shortly before Father died.  The most curious scene is the one shortly before Constanduros's parents get divorced - he seems to believe, still, that it was related to a practical joke that went awry.  The scene is given - seemingly unintentionally - through the uncertain and fragile eyes of a child who mixes up causality and thinks himself in some way to blame for his parents' incompatibility.

I still enjoyed reading Father, Dear Father, because Constanduros is a good writer - but I can't feel the affection for it that I feel for My Grandfather.  It is as though they were two different childhoods - and, indeed, I cannot understand how they fit together, since it seems throughout My Grandfather that Constanduros and his brother live in the grandfather's house, yet it clearly isn't the case when you read Father, Dear Father.  Would I be too much of an amateur psychologist to think that he compartmentalised his memories of childhood into the happy and the sad, aligning each with a different home and household?

Having not quoted from the book(s) yet, I will end with a lovely passage which is relevant to almost every book I read, and which I think will bring nods of agreement from most of you:
Sometimes it seems that only the tremendous is worth writing about, that everything one reads or writes should be full of mighty catastrophes or upheavals and that nothing less is worthwhile.  Earthquakes, wars, tragedies and triumphs have stretched our compass to such an extent that the sheer ordinariness of ordinary people and their lives seems absurdly trivial by comparison.  But there is a virtue in triviality.  I remember looking into a dog's eye when I was a child and being surprised to see reflected, not only myself, but the whole garden.  There it all was, complete and exact, in brilliant miniature.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Hyperbole and a Half - Allie Brosh

I think I've mentioned the blog Hyperbole and a Half a few times over the years, and it is certainly very popular - it gets millions of views, even though it has slowed down a great deal over the past couple of years, as its author (Allie Brosh) has dealt with depression.  (She has written movingly and rather brilliantly about depression here.)  But generally it is an extremely light-hearted and irreverent blog, detailing Allie's life through naive MS Paint pictures and snarky, self-deprecating humour.  I love it.

And its success means that Brosh was asked to write a book - which my brother Colin kindly gave me for my birthday.  It's about half new content and half things which have appeared on her blog before (including my favourite, the story about trying to train her very stupid dog.)

Brosh's drawings are deliberately made to look amateur, but I think she must actually be quite talented at drawing - it's the sort of amateur which needs a professional.

I prefer her stories when they are stories - quite a few are more general reflections on her personality, or things of that ilk.  My favourites are those which do just narrate something which happened - getting lost in the woods as a child, wanting to go to a party despite being recovering from a general anaesthetic, moving house with two anxious dogs - because these reveal as much about her personality without losing a narrative momentum.

It's not very similar to all the other books I review on Stuck-in-a-Book - it's not even similar to the odd graphic novel I occasionally read - but it is very funny, occasionally incredibly insightful (when she chooses to be in that mood), and a brilliant dip-in-and-out-of book.

Thursday 19 December 2013

A Reader on Reading - Alberto Manguel

It's been a good year for finishing books about books.  There was the wonderful Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, which is one of my books of the year and which I read over the course of a couple of days - there was Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night, and there was his A Reader on Reading.  The Manguels I dipped in and out of contentedly for years - my lovely friend Lorna bought me A Reader on Reading back in 2010 - and it was with a happy sigh that I finally closed its pages a month or so ago.

It's the sort of book that one inevitably reads with a pencil in hand, wanting to make little notes of agreement in the margins - or at least jot down page numbers to read again later.  Manguel's work is a touch more high-flown than bookish books I adore (like Jacques Bonnet's, or Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing) but even when he is discoursing on Argentinian highbrows I've never read of, I can't help loving him - because, at heart, he is simply a passionate reader.
I believe that we are, at the core, reading animals and that the art of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species.
I had to give up making notes quite early on, because I knew that I'd essentially want to write down every page.  There are literary truths known only to the ardent reader on almost every page.  My head nodded in happy agreement so often that I've probably got whiplash (NB, I probably haven't).  Check out these two:
Like so many other readers, I have always felt that the edition in which I read a book for the first time remains, for the rest of my life, the original one.
(That's how I feel about I Capture the Castle and the curious 1970s edition I read.)
The experience may come first and, many years later, the reader will find the name to call it in the pages of King Lear.  Or it may come at the end, and a glimmer of memory will throw up a page we had thought forgotten in a battered copy of Treasure Island.  
Of course, having read it over so long a period, I can't remember all that much apart from the things I jotted down... I know that I ended up skimming some of the stuff on Borges, and was surprised by how interesting I found a political section towards the end.  When he wrote about individual authors and books, I tended only to be riveted when I knew the books myself (and I love that he uses Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the source of every chapter's epigraph) but I was most delighted when he wrote about reading or writing in general.

I realised that if reading is a contented, sensuous occupation whose intensity and rhythm are agreed upon between the reader and the chosen book, writing instead is a strict, plodding, physically demanding task in which the pleasures of inspiration are all well and good, but are only what hunger and taste are to a cook: a starting point and a measuring rod, not the main occupation.  Long hours, stiff joints, sore feet, cramped hands, the heat or cold of the workplace, the anguish of missing ingredients and the humiliation owing to the lack of knowhow, onions that make you cry, and sharp knives that slice your fingers are what is in store for anyone who wants to prepare a good meal or write a good book.

Yes, this post is fast becoming simply a list of quotations, rather than a review, but I think that's the best way to entice you to read Manguel.  (Plus, I've just come off the stage for the village's Christmas show, and this is the best you can get out of me...!)  And with that in mind, I'll end with the longest quotation yet - about anonymous authors.
The history of writing, of which the history of reading is its first and last chapter, has among its many fantastical creations one that seems to me peculiar among all: that of the authorless text for which an author must be invented.  Anonymity has its attraction, and Anonymous is one of the major figures of every one of our literatures.  But sometimes, perhaps when the depth and reverberations of a text seem almost too universal to belong on an individual reader's bookshelf, we have tried to imagine for that text a poet of flesh and blood, capable of being Everyman.  It is as if, in recognizing in a work the expression in words of a private, wordless experience hidden deep within us, we wished to satisfy ourselves in the belief that this too was the creation of human hands and a human mind, that a man or woman like us was once able to tell for us that which we, younger siblings, merely glimpse or intuit.  In order to achieve this, the critical sciences come to our aid and do their detective work to rescue from discretion the nebulous author behind the Epic of Gilgamesh or La Vie devant soi, but their laborus are merely confirmation.  In the minds of their readers, the secret authors have already acquired a congenial familiarity, an almost physical presence, lacking nothing except a name.
Thankfully Manguel isn't anonymous, so I can go out and buy other books by him - and the hardback editions of his essays are simply beautiful.  Despite being a die-hard fiction lover, I think my dream books are non-fiction literary essays - which are essentially what blogs are, of course.  My little shelf of books-about-books may not be as extensive or as personal as the wide (and widening) blogosphere, but it holds almost as special place in my heart, and I long to find well-crafted examples to add to it.

Monday 16 December 2013

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim - David Sedaris

Ok, confession time.  I've often seen David Sedaris's book Me Talk Pretty One Day in bookshops, and thought it was a good title.  At some point along the way, this noticing must have developed into delusion, because for some reason I was sure it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems.  Erm... nope.  Turns out it's memoir.

A similar thing happened with Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) which I received from my friend Laura in a book group Secret Santa in 2011.  I took it up to the Lake District with me, thinking it was a novel.  Indeed, I was about thirty pages into it before someone referred to the narrator as David, and I suddenly realised that (a) the narrator wasn't a woman, and (b) it was autobiographical.  I felt somewhat justified in my false assumption, though, scouring the blurb, because nowhere does it say that it's autobiographical.  Lots of talking about him being a humorist par excellence (more on that anon), comparing him to Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde (because they have so much in common...), and talking about 'his world', which I suppose is a clue, but could equally apply to the world created by a novelist.  Eventually, in tiny letters by the barcode, I found the word 'autobiography', and all was solved.

As when I read Ali Shaw's The Girl With Glass Feet and only discovered halfway through that Ali was a man, it was an instructive lesson in how such things influence my reading.  When I thought it was a novel, I was quite enjoying it; when I discovered it was a sequence of autobiographical essays, I started to really like it.  And I wouldn't be able to tell you quite why that was, except that true events don't need to be as sparklingly innovative or well-structured - they have the virtue, instead, of being true.

Many of the anecdotes do have the ring of fiction, though - truth stranger than fiction and all that.  I found the tales of Sedaris's life in his first apartment away from home rather unnerving, with the kleptomaniac young girl next door - then there is the time he is mistaken for an erotic cleaner.  As you are.  But the word 'family' is in the title for a reason, and it is Sedaris's vivid depiction of his family which makes this book so extraordinary (and, one presumes, the same is true of his other memoirs - indeed, I don't know how he had this many stories left to tell after publishing all those other essay collections).

Don't go thinking this is Swiss Family Robinson or Little Women, though - Sedaris's family is a pretty bizarre bunch, with many unpleasant elements.  And Sedaris doesn't sugar coat.  His sporty, brash, vulgar brother is no treat; there is more affection when he discusses his sister Lisa, and her feelings about potentially being portrayed in a film of his books.  There is, of course, an irony in publishing an essay about choosing to shield his family from intrusion, but it is still a beautiful moment nonetheless.

There are a couple of misfires in the collection.  I could have done without his story of manipulating children to undress and sit on his knee - not (to my mind) wholly redeemed by the fact that he was also a child at the time.  The vignette of house-hunting and finding the ideal home in Anne Frank's attic was a one-line dark joke which didn't work as an essay.  But that is not a bad hit rate, out of 22 essays.

What makes these essays special, and wonderfully readable, is Sedaris's eye.  He lets us into his family circle - with every blemish well known, and every annoying trait magnified through repetition, but also with a glow of affection - sometimes, for Sedaris, reluctant - which cannot truly evaporate.  How he gets this into words, and through the most eccentric anecdotes, I have no idea.  But it works brilliantly.  I am far from the first to discover the wonder of Sedaris's tone, but perhaps I am not the last - and I want to encourage you, particularly if you are in the US where his books are everywhere (why didn't I buy any when I was there?!) to pick this up and see what you think.  The good personal essay, the expertly wry memoir, are seldom found.  My thanks are due to Laura, for giving me a copy of this at a Secret Santa and giving me a chance to find an excellent practitioner of that rare form!

Sunday 15 December 2013

The Underground River - Edith Olivier

Back when I discovered Edith Olivier's brilliant novel The Love-Child in a charity shop, I started raving about it to my friends in the dovegreybooks online book email list.  Little did I know that The Love-Child would go on to play an important role in my DPhil thesis, and that I'd present a few papers on it, but I did know that it was a really special book.  And so I very gratefully accepted the kind offer of a lady called Jane to send me a copy of The Underground River (1929) by Olivier.  That was in 2007 - and I finally got around to reading it in spring this year, while doing extra bits and pieces of research for my Olivier chapter.  And here's a quick little post about it...

It's a children's book, about Tony and Dinda who escape from their terrifying great-aunt by going underground and (you guessed it) finding a river.  Many are the adventures they find there... Surprisingly large numbers of people live alongside the river, lit only by candles in the gloom - and some of them are pretty terrifying.  Along the way are men who ask young ladies to dance... who can then never leave them (Dinda manages to avoid this fate).  There are smugglers, kindly magical folk, adventure, peril... it's the standard fare that I've come to expect from a childhood reared on Enid Blyton.  And some self-aware humour at times, maybe?
After a time they felt hungry, but they found it was very difficult to eat their meal in the dark.  They each had a knife and fork, but they had never guessed how hard it would be to cut slices for themselves off a sirloin of beef, with no butler to carve, no carving-knife and fork to carve with, and no light to carve by.
My favourite passage, of course, had to be the following - it's nice to know that we twins are up there with magical creatures in terms of wonderment.
Tony and Dinda were really delighted.  They had never seen twins before, and they had always longed to know some.  In vain had they begged their mother to give them twin brothers or sisters.  She had always refused, and now here was a family entirely consisting of twins.  It seemed too amusing to be true.
There are nice illustrations by Margaret Forbes throughout, and the edition itself is rather charming - part of 'The Enchantment Series', whatever that was, and it is indeed enchanting.

I've read quite a few of Olivier's novels (as always, you can see them all by selecting her from the author drop-down menu in the left-hand column) and none have lived up to the wonder of The Love-Child, but that is hardly surprising.  Whilst Googling The Underground River, though, I stumbled across someone else who has read her obscure books - Scott, of The Furrowed Middlebrow (that link will take you to all his Edith Olivier posts).  There is a coda to this gift-giving; I spotted that The Underground River was one of the few Olivier books Scott hadn't managed to get hold of, so thought I'd 'pay it forward' (if you will) - and now this little book is on its way across the Atlantic...

Friday 13 December 2013

The Compleat Mrs. Elton - Diana Birchall

I wouldn't normally count a book from the author as a Reading Presently candidate, but in the case of The Compleat Mrs. Elton (2004) by Diana Birchall (consisting of The Courtship of Mrs. Elton, A Defence of Mrs. Elton, and Mrs. Elton in America) things are different - because Diana is a friend of mine, and you may know her blog.  We first met online - through a book discussion email list - but have now met at least three times in person, and Diana gave me a present of this book (and the biography she wrote of her grandmother Onoto Wantana) at a lovely riverside tearoom in Oxfordshire.  Photographic evidence...

I suspect most of you will already have worked out what the book is about, if you do not know already, for - yes- it is Mrs. Elton from Emma, once Augusta Hawkins, the fairly ghastly woman who ends up marrying the vicar.  If any of Austen's characters ever needed a defence, it is she, with her 'caro sposo' and 'Mr. K' and vulgarities here and there.

At least, that is the generally agreed line.  Diana disagrees.  Of the three, I found the Defence of Mrs. Elton both the most intriguing and the most controversial - but I will come to that in time, starting at the beginning with Augusta's courtship.

Firstly, I should say that Diana writes Austen beautifully.  A long time ago I wrote about Diana's sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma (which is brilliant) and there is no doubt in my mind that Diana is among Jane's most faithful imitators - and it is a joy to read her taking on Austen's mantle.  The courtship between Mr. Elton and Augusta Hawkins shows the future Mrs. Elton to be as aware of her age and singleness as Austen's better-loved heroines... it's a nice tale, and starts the defence:
If our lovers were in fact a venial pair, marrying only in a spirit of self-seeking, how much worse were they than half the world?  It was such a perfect case of like marrying like, that the most elevated love between two pure souls could be no more perfectly matched.  With a strong mutual wish for matrimony, and for each finding a partner who could bring benefits to the other, and a determination and resolve to be bettering themselves, Mr. Elton and Miss Hakwins stood a great chance of finding as lasting a happiness as exists in this mutable world.
Which leads me onto In Defence of Mrs. Elton.  Scenes from Emma, from Mrs. Elton's arrival onwards, are shown again from that lady's perspective, away from the satirical and subjective slant of the narrator.  In my opinion (and I would love to enter into a debate), Diana doesn't so much defend Mrs. Elton's character as give her a different one...
Augusta knew, even as she was speaking, that everything she was saying was wrong [...]
Did she?  Hmm... of course, people often say one thing and mean another, or don't come across in the way they intend, but it is perhaps too easy a defence to take a character's objectionable qualities and say they were not really there.  Diana does, however, is more convincing and does a very good job when attacking the other characters - I hadn't really noticed quite how awful Emma et al are to the newcomer, and Augusta's plea swayed me...
They were all her enemies, yet what had she done to any of them?  Her ways, her manners, were not like theirs; she knew that well enough.  She was not capable of their sort of superior insolence, the exquisite politeness that only pointed up the disdain beneath: when she thought a thing, she said it.  If they were so pretty and exacting as to mind such a difference in her, and disapprove of the manner when the heart was right, what hope had she of ever living in harmony with any of them.
Onto the next and final story - whizzing through these, but hard to write about three novellas in one post!  Well, it's the one where things go a bit mad, and it's great fun.  Not only does Mrs. Elton go - with husband and children - to America, they travel among the Native Americans.  There is scalping...  From anybody who loved Austen less, I might not have forgiven the narrative world Diana takes her characters to, away from the English village life they call home, but I know that Diana would fall down dead rather than be disrespectful to Jane Austen.  The writing is good enough to support the scenario.  There is even much discussion of slavery - a wry comment on those who see slavery hidden behind Mansfield Park, I wonder?
"Yes - it is very painful," agreed her husband, shaking his head.  "We cannot be glad enough that there is not such an evil institution in England as slavery; and hope that it can be removed from this country in the natural operations of time, so that America may one day be as fair and untainted a land as ours."
From an English writer, this might come across as snobbery - but Diana is an American gal born and bred, which makes her tour of early America through the Eltons' eyes particularly intriguing.  It's a crazy idea, but it somehow works - and is a darn sight more entertaining than the next Lizzie-and-Darcy bonkfest penned by every author fixated with the 2005 film...

So, there you have it!  For those of us who adore Austen's novels and are on the look-out for intelligent, sensitive, and adventurous explorations of her characters - look no further.  Now, in the comments... thoughts on Mrs. Elton?

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Faulks on Fiction (audio) - Sebastian Faulks

As you see from this post's title, I didn't read Faulks on Fiction (2011) in the traditional sense, but rather I listened to it on audiobook.  This was something of a novel (ho ho) experience for me, as I haven't listened to an audiobook all the way through for more than a decade, perhaps nearer 20 years.  Indeed, for me - when I had trouble sleeping as an undergraduate - audiobooks were basically lullabies.  I'd stick Diary of a Provincial Lady, or Felicity's Kendal's White Cargo, or the letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham in the cassette player, and go to sleep to the sound of their voices.  Those were the only cassettes I owned, so I got very familiar with first ten minutes of each side...

But I asked for the CD (how times have changed) of Faulks on Fiction for Christmas a couple of years ago, and my parents kindly gave it to me.  I listened to it gradually, mostly last winter on my iPod, because I had daily walks into town of 45 minutes each way (and couldn't afford to get the bus all the time).  Then I got the job at OUP, could afford to take the bus, and somehow left the final CD of ten until last week...

I haven't even properly mentioned the author yet, although you'll have worked it out.  Sebastian Faulks (known for his novels, particularly Birdsong, none of which I have read) presented a TV series looking at selected novels in the history of British literature, and this was the tie-in book.  I only actually watched one of the episodes - on heroes - and didn't bother with the rest, because it all seemed a bit dumbed down.  Someone told me that the book was better (well, duh) and they weren't wrong.

Faulks addresses various 'categories' - heroes, villains, lovers, and snobs - and tracks each through the history of literature. So he'll start with a Defoe or a Swift, moving on through Austens, Eliots, Brontes, via Woolf, Lawrence et al, and finally an Amis or an Ali.  It is of course a subjective overview of literature, and the four categories we suggests could only ever be a necessary structuring device (arguably all four appear in most of the novels Faulks chooses), but I liked the idea of picking out these motifs.  With only one or two examples per century for each category, it could hardly be considered comprehensive, and I baulked a bit when Faulks attempted to draw wider conclusions from his chosen examples - but no matter, I suppose it is what is expected of anything with so broad a title.

There is always that main problem with books which summarise books: that you've either read the book being summarised or you haven't.  If you have, you don't need to be given the outline of the plot (although I found it did often help my faulty memory), and if you haven't, you don't want spoilers.  I appreciated the run-through on books I never intend to read, but did end up fast-forwarding through sections on tbr pile candidates.  Having said that, I listened to his thoughts on The End of the Affair by Graham Greene before I read it, and had still fortunately forgotten everything he said.

In either case, my favourite moments were when Faulks was talking about the books, rather than giving summaries.  I didn't always agree with him - see my post on Faulks and Pride and Prejudice - but I'm a sucker for intelligent, accessible discussion of great liteature.  His groupings are intriguing and his discussion is warm, witty, and well thought-through.  Of course, it's been so long since I listened to most of it that I can't really recall what he said, but the CD I listened to last covered Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, and I enjoyed hearing what he had to say about the creation of Barbara, and how the novel differed from the film.

As for how the format affected my listening... Well, I found it impossible to separate the speaker from Faulks, even though they were definitely different people (the narrator, incidentally, is James Wilby).  I could definitely have done without his attempts at accents - I can understand the eager actor relishing the opportunity to wander from Russia to Yorkshire and back again, but it was rather distracting.  But, aside from that, I quite enjoyed listening to an audiobook.  There were times when skipping would have been easier than fast-forwarding, or skimming backwards easier than rewinding, but Wilby has an engaging voice and it was the perfect entertainment for walking to and from town, as it could be listened to in discrete bursts without much being lost.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Phantoms on the Bookshelves - Jacques Bonnet

My friend Clare has struck gold again with Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, which she got me for my birthday a month ago.  Admittedly it was on my Amazon wishlist (and thus must have been mentioned by someone in the blogosphere... was it you?) but girl still done good.  I've added it to my 50 Books You Must Read About not simply because it's wonderful, but because it is so perfect a book for the bibliophile blogger.

Published in 2008 in French, and translated by Siân Reynolds in 2010, Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a sort of memoir and sort of essay collection about what it is like to live with and love books - but on a scale few of us can imagine.  Bonnet is the proud owner of several tens of thousands of books - about 40,000, if memory serves - and talks about people with similar numbers of books as though they were in secret fraternity, which is rather adorable.  Better yet, he is first and foremost a reader, and his books reflect that:
I'm talking about a working library, the kind where you don't hesitate to write on your books, or read them in the bath; a library that results from keeping everything you have ever read - including paperbacks and perhaps several editions of the same title - as well as the ones you mean to read one day.  A non-specialist library, or rather one specialized in so many areas that it becomes a general one.
People who collect books primarily for their value, or who think a first edition is infinitely preferable to a tenth, are anathema to the whole-hearted lover of reading - I could empathise so much with Bonnet, although I have no plans to have a library quite as large as his.  I can see myself getting to ten thousand, though, especially if I use Bonnet as my conscience - he has the delightful habit of many bloggers I know; being able to justify any and all book purchases.  I'm sure some of you are longing to write in the comments about betraying libraries or cutting down trees or the lust of avarice, but Phantoms on the Bookshelves is not a book for common sense responses, it is a book for illogical aspiration and unashamed book-adoration.

But practicality is certainly not left behind.  I love reading about the ways in which people organise their bookshelves, and this is all the more important if books are likely to disappear forever if disorganised.  Bonnet writes fascinatingly about finding space for big collections, and about the various schemes he has considered for his own collection - which reveals it to be far broader than I can boast.  He worries about where to put authors born in Yugoslavia, now that it no longer exists, what to do with his Frisian books, and all sorts of other considerations which my largely-British largely-literary library has never really had to worry about.

His chapters on not just on organising bookshelves, of course. He writes wonderfully about reading itself ('every time you open a book for the first time, there is something akin to safe-breaking about it'), about diaries, dictionaries, destitute authors, and - heartbreakingly - those libraries lost to destruction.  Not just Alexandria and the like, but personal libraries lost to fire, and what the possessors did afterwards.  Bonnet also suggests - another way in which these bookshelves are filled with phantoms - that the enormous library is possibly a doomed creature:
we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear, taking their phantoms with them.  This little book is being written from a continent which is about to be lost forever
He blames e-readers, I think, but perhaps the premium of space will also play its part.  But I can't see why there wouldn't still be just as many people who can afford to have this luxury as there were before...

The mark of a great book about books is whether or not familiarity with the titles mentioned matters.  One of the reasons I love and cherish Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing is because so many of the authors she writes about mean something to me, either through having read or meaning to read.  I love Alberto Manguel's books on reading, but tend to skim bits about Borges (and love the bits about Lewis Carroll).  Well, Jacques Bonnet mentioned maybe one book I'd read, and another couple I'd heard of, and it didn't matter at all.  Even though a sizeable portion of the books mentioned have never been translated out of French, I still loved reading about them.  That's impressive work, Monsieur Bonnet.

I name-checked Manguel there (and a review of A Reader on Reading is forthcoming) - I love his books, but not in the same way that I love Phantoms on the Bookshelves.  Manguel is a great reader, of course, but he is almost always scholarly at the same time - Jacques Bonnet is more like the friendly face at your book group who will enthuse about managing to squeeze another bookcase into the corner of the living room.  More of a bibliophile friend, in general.  Phantoms on the Bookshelves certainly isn't a philistines' book by any means, but nor does it alienate with erudition.  It would be another perfect Christmas gift for the bibliophile in your life (or to drop heavy hints about) - it was the perfect birthday gift for me.

Monday 9 December 2013

Hetty Dorval - Ethel Wilson

Somehow I'd forgotten, when noting down books to read for my Reading Presently project, that quite a few of my unread Persephones had originally been gifts.  So there might be a little flurry of them as I come to the end of the year... and first up is the shortest, which accompanied me on my trip to the Lake District (and which I read in its entirety on the train): Hetty Dorval (1947) by Ethel Wilson. (Thanks, Becca!)

Hetty Dorval isn't really the heroine of the book, and she certainly isn't its narrator - that title goes to Frankie (Frances) Burnaby - but she is perhaps its leading figure.  Frankie first sees her on her arrival in their small British Columbian community, and is enchanted (and a little intimidated) by Hetty's beauty and lack of convention:
We walked our horses side by side, I feeling at the same time diffident and important.  Mrs. Dorval did not 'make conversation'.  I discovered that she never did.  It began to seem so easy and natural riding beside her there and no one making an effort at conversation that I was able to steal a few looks at her side face.  This was especially easy because she hardly seemed to know that I was beside her; she just took me for granted in a natural fashion.  Through the years in the various times and places in which I came to know Mrs. Dorval, I never failed to have the same faint shock of delight as I saw her profile in repose, as it nearly always was.  I can only describe it by saying that it was very pure.  Pure is perhaps the best word, or spiritual, shall I say, and I came to think that what gave her profile this touching purity was just the soft curve of her high cheek-bone, and the faint hollow below it.
Frankie is only a child, and does not understand the mystery of the woman - but agrees to keep coming to visit her secretly, flattered because Hetty Dorval refuses to have any other people call.  And, of course, it all ends rather calamitously.

The novel follows the various different times that the paths of Frankie and Hetty overlap, as the narrator realises and mentions, when she is a young adult:
But this is not a story of me [...] but of the places and ways known to me in which Hetty Dorval has appeared.  It is not even Hetty Dorval's whole story because to this day I do not know Hetty's whole story and she does not tell.  I only knew the story of Hetty by inference and by strange chance.  Circumstances sometimes make it possible to know people with sureness and therefore with joy or some other emotion, because continuous association with them makes them as known and predictable as the familiar beloved contours of home, or else the place where one merely waits for the street car, or else the dentist's drill.  Take your choice.  But one cannot invade and discover the closed or hidden places of a person like Hetty Dorval with whom one's associations, though significant, are fragmentary, and for the added reason that Hetty does not speak - of herself.  And therefore her gently impervious and deliberately concealing exterior does not permit her to be known.
It is a curious and interesting way to structure a novel, because it leaves the reader with a sense of incompleteness and an obviously skewed sequence of events.  Both factors enhance the mystery and complexity of Hetty, seen through the narrator's evolving eyes.  The early enchantment becomes, inevitably, disenchantment - as Hetty's past is revealed to show her not only disliked, but dislikeable.  Hetty Dorval is a intriguing counterpart to another Persephone book, Susan Glaspell's Fidelity, and all others of its reactionary ilk which sought, George Bernard Shaw style, to show that the fallen woman need not be immoral.  That was so much the dominant narrative of interwar fiction that a 'conservative' viewpoint would be more revolutionary than a liberal one - or so it seems to me.

Not that Wilson is making any grandiose point about sexual morality - rather, she is depicting one woman's sexual morality, and the impact this has on another young girl growing up.  Hetty Dorval is psychologically so subtle that the narrative can read deceptively simply - but it is an impressively measured and restrained portrait of two women.  Well, restrained, that is, until the final section where things get suddenly melodramatic - but somehow it doesn't feel out of place; it is as though emotion had been repressed or held back for so much of the novel, that it has to burst out at some point.

The Persephone edition has an afterword by Northrop Frye, of all people, and an amusing and interesting letter from Ethel Wilson to her publisher, obviously in response to various corrections and suggestions - largely asking for them all to revert to her initial wording.  It's always great to see 'behind the scenes', and this is the sort of thing to which the reader all too seldom has access.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"This is a “small” story of ordinary dramas, but it illustrates a big truth that is easy to forget in a world that prizes the independent spirit." - Teresa, Shelf Love

"This is a book definitely worthy of its dove-grey cover and beautiful endpapers!" - Jane, Fleur in Her World

"This small book so captures the wild joy I feel in the wind, in nature, in prairies, hills and mountains." - Carolyn, A Few of My Favourite Books

Sunday 8 December 2013

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Short intro... enjoy!

1.) The blog post - don't forget to be checking out Kim's advent calendar of bloggers' best books of 2013!  That link takes you to Kim's blog Reading Matters so you can scroll through the choices; to see mine, which appeared on day one, click here.

2.) The book - another reprint publisher which got in touch recently was Turnpike Books, who sent A.E. Coppard's short stories Weep Not My Wanton, which I'm excited to read as soon as I possibly can.

3.) The link - these are probably faked, at least some of them, but funny notes written by kids are always going to be funny, yes?

Friday 6 December 2013

The Sculptor's Daughter - Tove Jansson

Somehow a new Tove Jansson edition has come from Sort Of Books without me noticing (or them telling me, come to that!) - and I have now, of course, got it.  It's her memoir/short story collection The Sculptor's Daughter - word of warning, many (most?) of these stories appeared in the very brilliant collection A Winter Book, but there are some that don't seem to have been translated into English elsewhere.

It's a beautiful edition - it doesn't match the other Tove Jansson books Sort Of have published, with their blue covers, but it's got a lovely feel and quality to it.  News it, I am told, that more Jansson stories are going to be translated, and a biography will also appear.  Lovely!

So, not a review, just a so-you-know.  Something for a Christmas stocking?

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Time Will Darken It - William Maxwell

William Maxwell is an exceptionally good writer; I think that would be difficult to dispute.  Famously he was an editor of the New Yorker (editing, amongst many things, Sylvia Townsend Warner's short stories - leading to the miracle of wonderfulness that is their collected letters), and it is those skills which he carries over into his fiction writing.  A close eye to detail, an observing nature, and a delicate precision in his prose that makes reading his novels a lengthy exercise in perception and patience.

All of which means that I have to be in the right mood to read Maxwell.  When I am, nothing is more glorious.  I can luxuriate in his sentences and his precise (that word again) cataloguing of human emotion.  If I'm not in the right mood, it wearies me - it requires proper attention, and sometimes I am not a good enough reader to give it.  This, incidentally, is how I feel about many of Elizabeth Taylor's novels, too - and, like A Game of Hide and Seek (for instance), I started, shelved, continued, shelved, repeat as needed, and eventually finished Time Will Darken It (1948).  It took the best part of four months, but it was worth doing it like this - had I rushed it, I would have resented it.  As it is, I think it was wonderful.  (Thank you, Barbara, for giving it to me back in 2009!)

The focus of the novel is on Austin King and his family in Draperville, as his cousin's family come to visit, and the aftermath they leave behind them.  There are broken hearts, accidents, threats, arguments - but these make up a patchwork which portrays a community, rather than being of utmost importance themselves.  And the highlight of this community is Austin King himself.  He is a very Maxwellian character - patient, kind, uncertain, and never entirely able.  He lives in the shadow of his great (late) father, having taken on his partnership in a law firm; he lives his wife Martha who seems cold and distant, but is really (as Maxwell scrapes away the layers) confused and unhappy.  And then he lives with his boisterous cousin Mr Potter, his chatty wife, caddish son, and besotted daughter.

One part of King's life which is largely satisfactory is his relationship with his daughter Abbey, or Ab.  Many Maxwellian characters are good fathers, and even though I am not a father of any variety, I love reading his portraits of these relationships - which always remind me of Maxwell's lovely relationship with his own daughters, as shown through his letters.  He is always a sensitive writer, but perhaps most of all when it comes to Ab.
The world (including Draperville) is not a nice place, and the innocent and the young have to take their chances.  They cannot be watched over, twenty-four hours a day.  At what moment, from what hiding place, the idea of evil will strike, there is no telling.  And when it does, the result is not always disastrous.  Children have their own incalculable strength and weakness, and this, for all their seeming helplessness, will determine the pattern of their lives.  Even when you suspect why they fall downstairs, you cannot be sure.  You have no way of knowing whether their fright is permanent or can be healed by putting butter on the large lump that comes out on their forehead after a fall.
There are some many characters and events that I can't begin to list them all, so I'll just quote one incident I thought rather lovely.  Here Miss Ewing - Austin's aging legal secretary - is talking to him about his father:
"I'll never forget how good your father was to me when I first came to work here.  I was just a girl and I didn't know anything about law or office work.  He used to get impatient and lose his temper and shout at other people, but with me he was always so considerate.  He was more like a friend than an employer."
Austin nodded sympathetically.  What she said was not strictly true and Miss Ewing must know that it was not true.  His father had often lost his temper at Miss Ewing.  Her high-handed manner with people that she considered unimportant, and her old-mad ways had annoyed Judge King so that he had, a number of times, been on the point of firing her.  He couldn't fire her because she was indispensable to the firm, and what they had between them was more like marriage than like friendship.  But there is always a kind of truth in those fictions which people create in order to describe something too complicated and too subtle to fit into any conventional pattern.
Maxwell often does this, and does it so well - a specific event will lead into generalised maxim, but one with such heart and such insight that all my wariness of generalisations is washed away.

The only times this approach doesn't work very well (in my opinion) is when Maxwell gets too homiletic for too long.  There is the odd chapter which might as well be the third act of an Ibsen play, and sometimes he forgets to give us enough of the specifics before he gets onto the reflections.  But they are small flaws in a novel which is extraordinarily insightful and complex.  No character's action or reaction is careless or implausible - sometimes they are extreme, but only where extremity is believable.  He is truly an astonishing writer - I just wish I were always as capable and adept a reader.

Oh, and the cartoon... a while ago I said I'd start doing pun covers, as a bit of silliness, and promptly forgot all about it.  Well... they're back!

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"This is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read; beautiful, maddening and thought provoking" - Rachel, Book Snob

"The greatness of Maxwell's writing is that he looks deep inside each character, and he looks with humanity, without judgement, indeed with what I can only call love." - Harriet, Harriet Devine's Blog

"I liked the way the town and its characters came to life, as a sepia-tinted photograph does. There is an old-fashioned, autumnal feel to this novel." - Sarah, Semi-fictional

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Who wrote Shakespeare?

I've been busy reading about Shakespeare at the moment, for a project at the Bodleian (discussion about which, incidentally, inspired my recent short story 'Jane Austen wrote the works of William Shakespeare') and have grown irresistibly attracted to the anti-Stratfordian theories.  That is, the theories that someone other than William-Shakespeare-from-Stratford wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.

Now, when I say that I have grown irresistibly attracted to them, I do not mean that I believe any of them.  Far from it.  I simply love reading about them - from Francis Bacon to the Earl of Oxford to (yes) Queen Elizabeth I - and the curious bendings of logic and likelihood which are necessary for their promulgation.  I've only been reading online so far (let me say, comments on Amazon reviews on Contested Will are hilarious, albeit admirably polite for the most part).  Here is a wonderful excerpt from Bill Bryson's concise, amusing, and brilliant book Shakespeare, which I've just re-read (and reviewed many a year ago here):
In short it is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent, and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare.  But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so.  These people must have been incredibly gifted - to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their own lifetimes and for four hundred years afterwards.  The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later.  Now that is genius.
Enough said, one would have thought - but apparently not.  My favourite thing I've seen online (and refuted in Bryson's book) is the idea that none of the surviving documents link the playwright with the Stratfordian... I'm far from an expert, but I'd have thought that the compilers of the First Folio appearing in the Stratfordian's will was something of a link.

Anyway, I intend to seek out Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro, not least because the title is so amazing.  But if you know of any others which might amuse me, do let me know...

Monday 2 December 2013

The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford

Of all the books to speed-read, The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford was a poor choice.  I had to, because it was for book group and I started it only a day before the meeting, but I should have lingered, and savoured every paragraph, to get the full stylistic experience.

Most of the books I like, as I've mentioned before, I like primarily for style and character, rather than what happens.  The exception is Agatha Christie.  But it could hardly be more the case than in the present instance - there is a certain amount of things happening, but they are largely incidental to the way it is told.  Oh, and it's not at all about war, as I had imagined it was.

You might be familiar with its (fairly) famous opening line: 'This is the saddest story I have ever heard.'  Apparently Ford wanted to call the novel The Saddest Story, but the publishers thought it would be inappropriate given the onset of World War One, and so it became The Good Soldier - the 'good soldier' in question is Captain Edward Ashburnham, although it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the narrator's (John Dowell) opinion of him is flawed, and a bit changeable.
Have I conveyed to you the splendid fellow that he was—the fine soldier, the excellent landlord, the extraordinarily kind, careful and industrious magistrate, the upright, honest, fair-dealing, fair-thinking, public character? I suppose I have not conveyed it to you.
Indeed he hasn't, because at other times his opinion of Edward is very low.  I shall come on to that...

What isn't so clear is what the 'saddest story' is - or, indeed, why Dowell claims to have 'heard' it, rather than acknowledging that he is telling it, and has been a principle figure in it.  The leading cast, as it were, are Dowell and his wife Florence, Captain Ashburnham and his wife Leonora, and... no, that will do for now.  Dowell starts off telling us all about his 'poor wife' Florence, who has died, and narrates the various experiences the two couples have gone through - and it becomes clearer and clearer that Florence is far from the poor invalid Dowell initially conveys, and all manner of other marital strife affects all four people in these marriages.

What makes The Good Soldier masterful is the way in which Ford portrays a voice - and it reminded me a little of John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure; a narrator who is not so much unreliable as unsteady, whose shifting thoughts and reflections pull the tone of the novel back and forth.  The Good Soldier is all told at one remove, as something that has happened - indeed, a flaw (perhaps) of the novel is this sense of detachment, as though it never really 'gets going' - but Dowell's opinions are far from settled.  Depictions of the characters evolve; he is trapped in each changing increment of his opinions, even with the distance of time.

And, as I said at the beginning, it's all about style in The Good Soldier. I'd been put off reading it for years, mostly because it was the main text analysed in some incomprehensible book I read called 'Modernism and the Fragmented Self', or something like that, and because I'd heard it compared to the multi-claused horror that is Henry James.  Well, neither terror was warranted - Ford's writing has depth and rhythm, but certainly isn't alienating or unreadable. At times it is deceptively conversational, and perhaps its most significant characteristic is how calm and undramatic Dowell's tone always is.  Here's an example, picked almost at random, but which demonstrates that many clauses need not mean unreadable:
I have forgotten the aspect of many things, but I shall never forget the aspect of the dining-room of the Hotel Excelsior on that evening—and on so many other evenings. Whole castles have vanished from my memory, whole cities that I have never visited again, but that white room, festooned with papier-maché fruits and flowers; the tall windows; the many tables; the black screen round the door with three golden cranes flying upward on each panel; the palm-tree in the centre of the room; the swish of the waiter's feet; the cold expensive elegance; the mien of the diners as they came in every evening—their air of earnestness as if they must go through a meal prescribed by the Kur authorities and their air of sobriety as if they must seek not by any means to enjoy their meals—those things I shall not easily forget.
I expect that one day I will re-read The Good Soldier, more slowly and thoughtfully.  For now, I am impressed, and pleased that the choice of someone at book group finally made me read this.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"If you only ever read one more novel again in the course of your life, let it be this one." - Harriet, Harriet Devine's Blog

"That is what makes this book great – the characterization, the elegant prose and, most of all, the wonderfully clever structure." - Jane, Fleur in Her World

"I feel it's a rare and perfect thing that I am far from done with." - Hayley, Desperate Reader