Tuesday 29 April 2014

Letters from England – Karel Čapek

When Claire recommended Letters from England (1924, translated by Paul Selver 1925) by Karel Čapek it was one of those very welcome recommendations - being for a book that I already had on my shelves.  Usually I note when and where I buy books, but this time I didn't - I can only assume it was because the name rang a bell, the physical book is quintessentially 1920s, and I have a soft spot for books about England. And, oh, how fun this book is.

It doesn't that Čapek shares my feelings about the relative merits of London and the rest of the country. It is amusing, in the 1920s, to hear him complaining about grim housing and traffic (goodness knows what he'd think if he visited it today), but I entirely agree with him about the ferocious busyness of the place.  It is rather easier to be funny when one is criticising than when one is praising, of course, and Čapek is very amusing in these early chapters.
These houses look rather like family vaults; I tried to make a drawing of them, but do what I would, I was unable to obtain a sufficiently hopeless appearance; besides, I have no grey paint to smear over them.
Oh, yes, he includes plenty of pen and ink illustrations, of the variety that are deceptively simplistic.  He is particularly good at animals, despite what he says in the text.

But - thankfully for the self esteem of the nation - he doesn't just stay in London and criticise it.  Instead, he travels around the countryside and (belying his title) pays visits to Scotland and Wales, and writes about Ireland without actually going there.
Where are you to pick words fine enough to portray the quiet and verdant charms of the English countryside? I have been down in Surrey, and up in Essex; I have wandered along roads lined with quickset hedges, sheer quickset hedges which make England the real England, for they enclose, but do not oppress; half-opened gates lead you to ancient avenues of a park deeper than a forest; and here is a red house with high chimneys, a church-tower among the trees, a meadow with flocks of cows, a flock of horses which turn their beautiful and solemn eyes upon you; a pathway that seems to be swept as clean as a new pin, velvety pools with nenuphars and sword-lilies, parks, mansions, meadows, and meadows, no fields, nothing that might be a shrill reminder of human drudgery; a paradise where the Lord God Himself made paths of asphalt and sand, planted old trees and entwined ivy coverlets for the red houses.
You see his way with words, and his fondness for the long sentence.  We will forgive him referring to any group of animals as a flock, and believeing Essex to be 'up', because he is so expressive and enthusiastic an appreciator of the English countryside - which means so much to me too, in a way which transcends expression.  The countryside is the only place where I feel properly alive, and I would love to have accompanied Čapek on his travels, gasping at the beauty of the Lake District, admiring the simple aesthetic pleasure of a thatched cottage, and (for we are not perfect human beings) sharing eye-rolls at the sort of person who bustles hither and thither in a city all year, and never ventures out to visit a sheep.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Ordering Winnie et al

I was listening to the latest podcast from The Readers, and being reminded that Thomas doesn't like Winnie the Pooh.  Now, of course, he's crazy.  I choose to believe he's having a temporary mental block or something, because we all know what a wonderful, unparalleled gem of a book it is (well, paralleled only by The House at Pooh Corner), and Thomas is a great guy.  To understand is to forgive, and all that.  But, as A.A. Milne once wrote of The Wind in the Willows, 'When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame A.A. Milne. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself.'

Ok, tongue in cheek, but it did lead me to a fun discussion with some friends - if you had to, how would you rank the characters in your esteem?

It was hard. I love them all. But I do not love them all equally.  From first to last, here is the order I came up with (which might change tomorrow, but would always have the same two at the top):

Eeyore, Pooh, Roo, Piglet, Tigger, Owl, Kanga, Rabbit, Christopher Robin

Take your time over a decision as important as this.  And if you've not read the books yet, or - Heaven forfend - have only watched the Disney adaptations, then familiarise yourself with A.A. Milne's words and E.H. Shepard's perfect illustrations.  Unless you are experiencing Thomas's temporary glitch, then you'll love them all.

Friday 25 April 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird - Helen Oyeyemi

One of the nice things about doing Shiny New Books is that I feel I have more of a grasp on what's happening in publishing at the moment - as you doubtless know by now, modern novels are seldom my go-to.  Having said that, there is a tiny handful of living authors whose careers I follow and whose books I await - and one of those is Helen Oyeyemi (even with a couple of her books unread on my shelf).  Well - and you've guessed this by now - I reviewed her latest, Boy, Snow, Bird, for Shiny New Books, and flipping good it was too.  You can read my review here, and (exciting!) the Q&A I did with Helen Oyeyemi too.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Have you read... Nancy Spain?

Apologies to Karen/Cornflower for borrowing her 'Have you read?' title, but I need to crowdsource this one.  I was recently re-reading Ann Thwaite's biography of A.A. Milne, and towards the end she writes about a meeting between AAM and Nancy Spain, as Spain wrote about it at length in her autobiography.  So I went hunting to learn more about her... and, by a lovely coincidence, that fantastic Invisible Ink column in The Independent did a piece on Nancy Spain this week. (That link isn't working for me at the mo, so if you're having trouble then maybe Google it... and it might only work in the UK?)

She sounds a fascinating woman.  Apparently she was once famous on panel shows and the like, but - of more interest to me - she wrote detective novels in the 1940s and '50s. And they have brilliant titles (Death Before Wicket; Out, Damned Tot; Murder, Bless It and so forth) - not to mention that several are set in a girls' school called Radcliffe Hall. Ahem, if I may.

What really intrigues me is that (as I found out here) she was turned down from the Detection Club as her detective novels were considered too funny. I want in.

Many of the series are incredibly expensive and scarce, but - matching up with the gaps in my Century of Books - I have bought Cinderella Goes to the Morgue... so I'll report back soon.  But does anybody already know her novels?  Are they due a reprint?

Tuesday 22 April 2014

The Pumpkin Eater - Penelope Mortimer

Sorry to disappear suddenly - I went off to Somerset for an Easter weekend (the most dramatic moment: Sherpa getting stuck on the roof; eventually I pulled her through the bathroom window, with Our Vicar on a ladder and Our Vicar's Wife & Colin holding a tarpaulin like a firefighters' blanket).  Now I'm back in Oxford, and eyeing up the growing pile of books I've got waiting to review for you.  First up - one of those pesky Penelopes.

I had intended to read Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, as part of my vague project to read more of my unread Persephones, but it clashed with another title on my Century of Books - so instead I picked up The Pumpkin Eater (1962) in this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.  But, oh, aren't they always beautiful?

I thought the image on the front was simply abstract, until I realised that it was a pram full of faces - Downhill in a Pram by Susan Bower, to be precise.  And that is apt for the recurring theme of The Pumpkin Eater (and possibly my favourite thing about the book) - the number of children the unnamed narrator has.  Cleverly, Mortimer gives us a heroine who has a lot of children - but by never specifying quite how many, we get the impression that they are numbered in their dozens.  People are always shocked by how many there are; her various husbands (she's not short of them, but at least the number is given: four) baulk at them, and only one name is vouchsafed to us: Dinah.

The novel starts with the narrator in a therapy session.  These recur throughout the novel, and are very amusing (in a dark way), mostly because of the lack of progress that is made in them.  The therapist follows the narrator around in circles, expecting her to feel something about her husbands and children - but she is steadfastly stony-faced.
"And then?" he asked coldly.
"Then?  Well, then I married the Major, but since he was going overseas we went back to live with my parents.  I had Dinah there.  Of course he was dead by then."
"And did that upset you?"
"Yes.  Yes, I suppose it did.  Naturally.  It must have done."
He slumped in his chair.  He seemed tired out.  I said, "Look, need we go on with this?  I find it tremendously boring, and it's not what I'm thinking about at all.  I just don't think about those husbands except..."
"Except when?"
"I never think about them."
She has something of a Barbara Comyns heroine about her - that undaunted matter-of-factness - but Mortimer does reveal some of her emotional fragility as the novel progresses, and Jake the current husband is knocked from whatever pedestal her might have briefly mounted.  "One's past grows to a point where it is longer than one's future, and then it can become too great a burden," as she says in the narrative, towards the end.

And then there is the enormous glass tower Jack is building for them in the middle of the countryside.  It's a curious part of the novel, and I don't know how we are supposed to interpret it - as Freud would? As Ibsen would in The Master Builder? Or is a tower sometimes just a tower?

But, as with many of my favourite novels, the important feature is voice.  Mortimer does this brilliantly.  We are immersed in the worldview and experience of the unnamed narrator, even without for a moment believing that she could plausibly exist in the way she is presented.  Her upsets and anxieties are certainly real, but the character is more than that - the centrepiece of a black comedy with only a toe in reality.  And, designed that way, it is a glorious novel.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Tove Jansson

You probably know that one of my very favourite authors is Tove Jansson - but I didn't know very much about her beyond what she'd put of herself in her fiction. So I was thrilled to learn that a biography of her was going to be published by Sort Of Books - indeed, translated (by Silvester Mazzarella) as, unbeknown to me, it was actually published in 2007.

And you guessed it - I'm pointing you towards my Shiny New Books review of Boel Westin's biography of Tove Jansson!  Not only that, though - Silvester Mazzarella very kindly agreed to write a brilliant piece about translating the book.  It's a long and interesting book that I don't feel I entirely did justice to in my review, written when cold-ridden, but I always think it's difficult to write properly about a biography - because, almost by definition, they have so much, and so much variety, in them.

Monday 14 April 2014

Confession time...

I have a number of books to review, a play to talk about, a haul to reveal, and plenty of Shiny New Books links to give... but I couldn't resist doing as Susan D suggests and putting up a post about confusing authors.

Not as in I-find-Gertrude-Stein-confusing-to-read, but as in I-get-Gertrude-Stein-mixed-up-with-Gertrude-Jekyll (as it may be).

We had a nice cathartic, collective confession of confusion when it came to the many and various Penelopes, and I'd love to know who else has caused you angst in this way.  Almost invariably, I find, it all becomes clear once I've read one or both (or all) of the authors in question, but beforehand all is lost.  For instance, I used to be unable to disentangle George Orwell and H.G. Wells (that 'well' in both their names threw me) until I started reading them.

Well, I confessed some yesterday, but didn't mention these, whom I used to get confused:

  • Anita Brookner / Anita Shreve
  • Naomi Mitchison / Naomi Jacob
  • Edith Wharton / Eudora Welty

Over to you... c'mon, don't be shy. And remember, this is a safe space... so confess, don't judge ;)

Saturday 12 April 2014

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Thank you for all your lovely birthday greetings!  I will do the prize draw soon, and today bought the book I'm intending to send... it's very good, by one of my favourite authors, and not all that easy to find.

Now onto another Shiny New Books review for my Century of Books - Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West.  I volunteered to read the very beautiful new edition from Daunt Books, and was surprised by the date and description.  And after a bit of digging realised that, yet again, two authors with vaguely similar minds had become amalgamated in my mind - this was another case of the Penelopes (or V.S. Naipaul and V.S. Pritchett, etc. etc.) - Nathanael West was, of course, not the same as Nathaniel Hawthorne... embarrassing.

Anyway, enough preamble, do go over to Shiny New Books and read my thoughts on Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) - and don't forget to check out Oliver's Five Fascinating Facts about Nathanael West while you're there.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Happy birthday to Stuck-in-a-Book!

Yes, today is seven years since I started blogging.  Each year seems to come around quicker than the last - but you, dear readers, aren't looking a day older.  A hearty thank you to everyone - from those who have been there since day one to those who came here today accidentally, looking for an online bookies. You're all wonderful, and I truly appreciate you!

It's been an exciting year, blog-wise, and it feels oddly appropriate that as I come to the end of seven years, the shiny new Shiny New Books initiative is kicking off (incidentally I wrote a sort of 'behind the scenes' post for Vulpes Libris today).  Not that Stuck-in-a-Book is going anywhere, fear not.  I'm hoping for at least another seven years.

To celebrate, I'd like to run a book giveaway.  I haven't actually decided what the prize will be yet, but it may well be secondhand and lovely... so don't enter if you only love shiny new books (if that's you, there's a website I think you might like...)

If you would like to enter, just pop your name in the comments and, out of interest and because I'm feeling the egotism of the birthday boy, tell me how long you've been reading Stuck-in-a-Book.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

As For Me And My House - Sinclair Ross

Well, I hope you'll still be having a wander around Shiny New Books, but that won't (of course) stop me writing reviews here on Stuck-in-a-Book - although they may quieten down a bit when Issue 2 starts to loom!  (Incidentally, we're keen to get lots of bloggers writing pieces for us - contact me on simondavidthomas[at]yahoo.co.uk, or all of us at info[at]shinynewbooks.co.uk if you're interested.)

And onto a book that I've been reading for about six months - As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross, kindly given to me by... someone.  I think Thomas at My Porch - certainly he is a huge fan.  Am I?  Hmm.  I don't know.  This is one of those cases where I know the book is very good... but I didn't very much enjoy reading it.

As For Me and My House (1941) takes the form of a woman's diary from provincial Canada - but Diary of a Provincial Lady this is not.  True, Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife are the central characters - Philip Bentley and his (anonymous?) narrator wife - but that's where the similarities end.  Basically, the narrator's life is miserable.  The small town is rude and ungrateful for the hard work her husband does.  He, in turn, has lost his faith and wishes he were a painter.  They are poor, their marriage is rocky, and dissatisfaction soaks every word of the novel.
He's a failure now, a preacher instead of a painter, and every minute of the day he's mindful of it.  I'm a failure too, a small-town preacher's wife instead of what I so faithfully set out to be - but I have to stop deliberately like this to remember.  To have him notice me, speak to me as if I really mattered in his life, after twelve years with him that's all I want or need.  It arranges my world for me, strengthens and quickens it, makes it immune to all worlds.
Well, as you can see, the writing is beautiful.  There is a deep and emotional richness to the way Ross writes.  I'm not sure it benefited from being in the diary format - it would have worked equally well, and probably rather more convincingly, simply as a first person narrative - but he certainly offers a fully-realised voice.  Just as convincing are the husband and (later) sort-of-adopted son, although I wonder if Ross intends us to believe the narrator to be as perceptive as she seems.

Here's another beautiful, dispiriting passage:
The sand and dust drifts everywhere.  It's in the food, the bed-clothes, a film on the book you're reading before you can turn the page.  In the morning it's half an inch deep on the window sills.  Half an inch again by noon. Half an inch again by evening.  It begins to make an important place for itself in the routine of the day.  I watch the little drifts form.  If at dusting time they're not quite high enough I'm disappointed, put off the dusting sometimes half an hour to let them grow.  But if the wind has been high and they have outdrifted themselves, then I look at them incredulous, and feel a strange kind of satisfaction, as if such height were an achievement for which credit was coming to me.
That rather aptly describes how it felt reading the novel.  Melancholy piled on melancholy.  It swept through all the pages, in every sentence, almost in every word.  The more I read, the more I felt outdrifted by it.  I don't demand novels of unswerving cheeriness, but... surely life isn't as bad as all this?  ("But a man's tragedy is himself, not the events that overtake him.")  It was wearying.  Beautiful, but wearying.

Of course, I read As For Me and My House as someone who has lived in a vicarage for many years, and whose father is still a working vicar (and mother a working vicar's wife).  I am well aware that it isn't always easy - that some parishioners can be difficult or aggressive or ungrateful.  In this novel it is the purportedly faith-filled whose hypocrisy stands out; in real life, it is just as likely to be the thoughtless atheist who tells you he'd like the church to burn down, or the teenager who thinks the vicar's sons are fair game to shout abuse at in the street.  But Ross gives only the tiniest mention (in Mrs Bird) of the positivity that comes with the profession.  The strangers who are kind to you as soon as you arrive in a new village, the people who selflessly give up their time to help with kids' events and so forth.  There is a world of literature bemoaning the claustrophobia of the small town - which needs to be balanced by how really lovely it is when people all know each other, care for each other, and let nobody go lonely.

Part of this seems like I just wish that Ross had written a different book.  But I think I could have really loved this one if there were a bit more balance - something more to alleviate the melancholy and hopelessness.  As it is, I do admire As or Me and My House.  Ross is unarguably a brilliant writer.  One I'd definitely recommend to sturdier souls.  And maybe my soul will be sturdier next time I try this one.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Shirley Jackson - The Sundial, Hangsaman, and The Bird's Nest

Oh, this has been a difficult bunch of books to keep quiet about.  And I haven't really managed it, looking back, but I could have been much less restrained.  Now that Shiny New Books is unveiled, I can finally start linking to my Century of Books reviews - and I have to kick off with the Penguin Classics reprints of Shirley Jackson's novels. (Incidentally, they tick two dates on my Century of Books list.)

Best among them is The Sundial.  If I didn't already have a Shirley Jackson title in my 50 Books You Must Read list, then this would be on it.  Annoyingly (and these are the sorts of things I keep quiet from Shiny New Books, but can't hide from you, dear friends) I'd spent a mini fortune on a copy of The Sundial three years ago, back when it was very scarce... and yet hadn't got around to reading it until the reprints came out.  Oops.

So this is what I'll do with my links to SNB reviews.  A little bit of intro, and then the first line or two of the review, to hook you in... click on the link to read my review of Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, and The Sundial.

"You can more or less divide readers’ familiarity with Shirley Jackson’s works into separate levels"...

Monday 7 April 2014

Shiny New Books is LIVE!

The four editors (Annabel, Victoria, Harriet, and me) have just had our final Skype conversation, playing around with menus and links to reveal all the pages that lay hidden on the Shiny New Books site, and (enormous drum roll please) SHINY NEW BOOKS IS NOW LIVE!

Please head on over and start to enjoy!  You don't have to read it all in one go, of course - we're hoping it'll be the equivalent of the quarterly review magazine in print - that you dip in now and then over the course of three months (although we will have updates before the next issue in full).

I hate to sound like an overly proud parent, but we really are proud of it.  It's been such fun putting it together, as well as quite a lot of hard work, but all our discussions about the logo and the site and... everything - they definitely all feel worth it now.

Over the coming weeks I'll be linking to some of the reviews, particularly the ones I've written which qualify for A Century of Books (!) so I hope that's ok with everyone.  First things first, I'll mention that there's a competition in the first issue (on the homepage) which I'd love to enter if I could...

If you wrote for us, or sent us a book which we've reviewed, we'll be in touch as soon as we can be - and we'd love to hear from other bloggers who'd like to write for us (see our Review For Us page).  For now, I'm off to work... and I hope you enjoy it all!

Friday 4 April 2014

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor by Gertrude Stein

If Swallows and Amazons is a great book to be reading while the brain is a bit confuzzled, then Blood on the Dining-Room Floor (1948) probably isn't.  But it came to mind the other day when Dorothy Richardson was mentioned - simply because I'd mixed up who wrote it - but by then I'd pulled it off the shelf, and the fab Picasso cover, combined with the book's brevity, meant I thought I'd give it a whirl.

Every great writer has, I imagine, been called a fraud - and many frauds have been called great writers.  Which is Gertrude Stein?  I haven't read anything else by her, and the introduction to this edition more or less says that Blood on the Dining-Room Floor wasn't a success, but I spent the whole time thinking 'Emperor's New Clothes'.  But then I thought... there are plenty of people who say that about Virginia Woolf's fiction, which I think is sublimely brilliant - so it's just as likely that this novella is brilliant and I simply don't get it.  Here's a sample sentence:
A little come they which they can they will they can be married to a man, a young enough man an old man and a young enough man.
Well, sure, Gertrude, why not?  Not all the novella is that obfuscatory, but it's also far from unique in the narrative.  In theory, I'm not anti experimental writing - but as I get further and further from my undergraduate days, my tolerance for unconventional grammar and deliberately cloaked meaning gets lower and lower.

And what's it about?  Well, the writer of the blurb optimistically calls Blood on the Dining-Room Floor a detective novel, but since it's more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor (a more prominent death in the book is the maybe-sleepwalker who fell out a window), then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.

An interesting experiment to read, and it's always possible that my cold-ridden delirium played its part, but... I can't call myself a Stein fan as of yet.  Anybody read this, or any of Stein's more famous work?  Could I be yet persuaded?

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Perfect reading for a cold...

... I'm feeling sorry for myself on the sofa today, and needed something with big print, non-challenging words, and general jolliness.  Would you believe I've never read this?

And what a lovely copy, which came courtesy of Vintage Books a couple of years ago (oops).

Tuesday 1 April 2014

A Quarter of a Century of Books

Thanks for all your lovely messages yesterday - it now feels mean to make you wait a week before unveiling the Shiny New Books magazine properly, but if you follow us on Twitter we're giving a few teasers from reviews and features.  Which may or may not be crueller...

You may remember from the last time I did A Century of Books that I gave quarterly updates - and that, by careful planning or complete coincidence, I actually read exactly 25 qualifying books in each quarter.

Well, dear reader, things have gone awry.  I'm doing better than the sidebar counter suggests, but I've only read 22.  That's right, I'm three books down in what should be the easiest part of that year... inauspicious!

Since I'm reading 1914-2013, it's not so neat to divvy up the decades and see how I'm doing.  But, bear with me... This is how many books I've read so far in each span of ten years.

1914-1923: 2
1924-1933: 2
1934-1943: 2
1944-1953: 3
1954-1963: 4
1964-1973: 0
1974-1983: 4
1984-1993: 2
1994-2003: 0
2004-2013: 3