Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Afternoon

Weekends off are lovely, but frankly two days are not enough to catch up on the (inevitable and seemingly self replicating) washing up, laundry and all the other crap that has to be done. I bought Seville oranges two weeks ago to make marmalade and have only got round to it today. For two weeks two kilos of oranges have sat in the corner quietly criticising the lack of organisation which not only failed to cook them, but even failed to stick them in the freezer. Still they are simmering away merrily now – which all goes to create more washing up... Having embarked on the marathon that is an afternoon of marmalade making I find I’ll be missing a Poirot episode I’ve never seen; two days is certainly not enough time to have time to do nothing.

When I haven’t been elbow deep in soap suds I made it across town to visit a couple of second hand bookshops and to pick up the gadget to experiment with mobile broadband – internet in my own home – what will it do to my reading time. Already I’ve spent more time reading about other people’s reading than in picking up a book of my own. Simon S has been writing about January melancholia; I know the last week of January is traditionally the most depressing of the year but I’ve never found it so.

Growing up in Shetland we had Up-Helly-Aa on the last Tuesday of January (worth spending a few minutes on you tube if this is something your unfamiliar with) roughly it’s a fire festival involving a lot of dressing up, drinking, and dancing which marks the lengthening of the days after mid winter. Not an easy thing to replicate in the midlands but I do now (thanks to the Scottish one) celebrate Burns night, something else that brightens up the gloom of winter and is much anticipated by the blond and I – we like the Scottish ones knees and his poetry reading. It’s fair to say we look forward to it for weeks in advance, and it makes me wonder why we don’t have an English version.

There must be an English poet who could reasonably be celebrated and I feel strongly that a night of poetry reading with friends is a very good thing which ought to be encouraged. On these same lines I’m very disappointed to learn, to late to change my work rota, about the Poetry Brothel (I found the flyer when I was distracted by a shoe’s on my way to the bookshop) . Leicester (my home town) has a comedy festival. Amazingly (to Leicester natives who generally fail to make the best of the city) it’s the biggest and longest established festival in the country outside of the Edinburgh fringe and in its twenty odd years has gained international standing. It starts on Friday and the Poetry Brothel is one of the kick off events. I’m not sure how it’ll go down here – hopefully well – apparently it appears to be a drink fuelled burlesque show but when one peruses the menu “it’s true purpose becomes startlingly apparent: for a small fee, they can slake their literary lust with personal one-on-one readings from the poetry whores’.

It sounds silly and fun, fancy dress is encouraged – but I don’t think a W******e uniform is what they have in mind – nor does a late shift followed by an early one encourage late nights of promiscuous poetry reading, so I will have to be content with a not at all humorous visit to the theatre tomorrow night to see ‘The Woman in Black’ – which it occurs to me I also meant to read today and have now left to late. Ah well back to the marmalade and the kitchen sink – I will beat the washing up.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Wilde - The Complete Short Stories

The first play I remember being taken to see was Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, one of the first classics I remember buying (rather than pinching from my mother) was ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. I went through my teenage years happy to declare nothing but my genius and then mostly grew out of it (although I still have a love of silk pyjamas fostered by Oscar Wilde and Peter Whimsy in equal parts, and green carnations which are pure Wilde). I even had a birthday drinking champagne in the Cadogan Hotel (where Wilde was arrested) – a day of Sloane Square fantasy away from the reality of work. I was there as a chaperone for my mother who was being entertained by a wealthy American who had designs on her virtue. She foiled him with me – as his manners on that occasion were impeccable he gracefully gave in, plied us with champagne and dinner and watched us leave – a clearly frustrated man. I would feel sorry for him if it hadn’t been such a good birthday and I like to think Oscar would have found the situation amusing.

I had a missed parcel note in the post a few days ago which was intriguing because a surprise, when I went down to collect it the parcel turned out to be a copy of the complete short stories kindly and unexpectedly sent by Oxford University Press. I read these as a child, and periodically since, but haven’t seen them for a few years. Reading them again over lunch hours made me realise how deeply embedded some of these stories are in my imagination. ‘The Happy Prince’, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, ‘The Selfish Giant’ ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ and ‘The Star Child’ especially are all better remembered than I expected and yet have lost none of their impact. Nearly all of them will make me feel unreasonably emotional (and when not in the staff canteen are more than able to bring a tear to the eye).

They are wonderful children’s stories, full of beauty, cruelty and injustice – good things for the young to understand if they are to grow up well. They are also simply wonderful stories. Adult reading convinces me that Wilde is at his best just here; the plays are wonderfully elegant and fragile confections, very amusing but not really stirring. I’ve enjoyed the stories so much that I’ve got out both the copies I now own with the express intention of running a bath, filling it with something decadent in the way of unguents and reading through both introductions. If I ever was to make a list of books not to be without Wilde’s short stories would most certainly be on it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

War Damage - Elizabeth Wilson

Burns night supper went down well and somehow the end of the week has come around again (amazing how it does that week after week). I seem to have spent almost every moment not at work washing up, a state of affairs not helped by a Burns inspired rediscovery of porridge – tasty but sticks like glue. Tonight I’m ignoring the domestic nonsense in favour of books and a bath.

War Damage’ appeared in the post a couple of weeks ago (unsolicited and unexpected which was exciting) it came without any explanation in an envelope from Profile but is published under serpents tale – an imprint I associate with books well outside my niche. However the blurb was intriguing rather than off putting so I thought I’d give it a go; not least because I scarcely ever read contemporary fiction so I thought I ought to have a look at what I was missing.

The first page details a schoolboy fumble on the art room sofa in terms which regrettably leave little to the imagination – regrettable in that the description is laughable – it wasn’t just me who laughed either, I tried it out on the blonde and she was in stitches too. Fortunately early fears that this is how the book meant to go on weren’t realised – it got much better, but it hasn’t really convinced me that contemporary is the way to go.

What this book sets out to be, should be, and almost manages to be, is a stylish noir thriller set against the back drop of post war London. It does manage to be an engaging page turner that just about managed to keep me guessing until the end. Wilson clearly did her research – which is one of my problems with books like this; too much of the research ends up on the page, details which distract me from the flow of the narrative because they jar. Here it was too many references to changes in the law, and to Anthony Blunt – it just didn’t feel natural (and I’m something of a Blunt fan).

I think it would have been a better book if a little bit less had been going on – the collision of bohemian Hampstead, a seedier gay underworld, fascists, Irish nationalists, randy schoolboys, corrupt labour politicians, wronged women, femme fatal’s, stolen Jade necklace’s, and bored housewives is a lot to take in. Complaints aside I did enjoy this – the best bits where very good – the lingering threat of fascism is brilliantly played, as are the dangers and thrills of being homosexual in the forties, and the sense of threat in an old fashioned London pea souper. I look forward to Wilson’s next book – which I will certainly read even if I have to pay for it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Astley Book Farm

I had a whole different subject in mind to write about this morning but after a visit to the Astley book farm with my old book shop boss – she should probably have a pseudonym too. I would call her ‘The Blonde’ but A A Gill beat me to it. Actually Gill be damned I will call her the blonde. Anyway the blonde and I went to the Astley book farm which is probably my favourite bookshop anywhere at the moment and absolutely worth visiting if you ever find yourself near Bedworth (these things do happen).

As second hand bookshops go it ticks all the boxes. It’s a bit off the beaten track, so is almost an adventure to find. Provides tea and coffee (basic vending machine – cheap and cheerful rather than chic cafe) and has a nice clean toilet. There’s everything from 50p jumble to rare antiquarian stuff for £1000’s (mostly I’m interested in the things at £2.50). I love not knowing what I’m going to find when I know I’m going to find something. I like places that are well organised too, there are potentially amazing bookshops out there who through a determined effort to ignore the alphabet lose my custom.

The blonde and I are as one on this, having both worked in bookshops we know there is really nothing much to do apart from drink tea, read the stock, bitch about the customers (or bitch about the lack of customers) and put things in alphabetical order. Generally employers prefer some evidence of work and no evidence of the stock being read so it really comes down to a lot of putting stuff in alphabetical order. I fail to understand what people in bookshops do all day if they aren’t putting things in order. Having got that off my chest it’s probably time to stop before I manage to alienate any booksellers out there.

I was reasonably restrained only getting four books – Mary McCarthy’s ‘A Charmed Life’, Muriel Spark’s ‘Territorial Rights’, Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘Love’ (which I’ve been after without success for ages) and ‘Spinsters of this Parish F.M Mayor and Mary Sheepshanks’. If money wasn’t an object I could and would have bought three times as many, the blonde left with a good half dozen titles – about half the huge stack of books she was holding on to at one point.

I was pleased with my relative self restraint – four feels like a good number. The Spark and McCarthy are going straight on the To Be Read pile, ‘Love’ will probably be holiday reading in the summer and ‘Spinsters of this Parish’ will keep happily for a while but as it seems to be about Suffragettes as well as one of my favourite authors I don’t suppose it’ll be neglected for long.

I hope this doesn’t sound too much like advertising, but it is a place I’m enthusiastic about and which I certainly feel deserves shouting about – this is bookshopping as I remember and love it – the sort that needs celebrating. I can also assure you that any recommendations for other excellent second hand shops will be gratefully received.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Anxiety Dreams

Last night the Scottish one and I were discussing holiday plans after I’d had a day off with the prospect of this morning off, he will be working from home today which he infinitely prefers to working at work. It was all very relaxed and civilised with the end that we both slept badly, finally waking to report a series of anxiety dreams. Mine involved keeping enough wine in the right place – sort of a bottle version of Tetris, and his was about buildings falling down (architect), so I think I got off lightly.

Work dreams are nothing new, my first Christmas in a wine shop I woke myself up one night shouting out the price of peach schnapps – dreams about not getting customers out the door and still being trapped at work at 3 in the morning are not uncommon either (normally ending with me committing some fairly satisfactory act of violence) – but not in January when the day job is beyond quiet and the biggest problem in getting things done is finding enough things to do. February is far better; Valentine’s Day seems to bring out everyone’s inner drinker.

Sat down with a cup of tea in a favoured chair by a heater I couldn’t help but notice the table. Large pile of books gathered from various bits of floor waiting to go back on the shelf, two piles of books waiting to be read and to find homes if any shelf is left, small pile of books actually read. I know that there are more books on the loose, wandering about the flat, waiting to be gathered into these piles and dealt with in some way. It occurs to me (like a pile of books dropping on my head) that this might be the cause of the dreams.

Normally an accumulation of books like this is purely on the back of my own spending, in which case it’s easy to put them away unread until I want just such and such a book, but these ones are a bit different. Of the forty or so books acquired in the last month I have paid for about four of them. Most of the rest where presents, many specifically requested or at least heavily hinted for, and I want to read all of them. Immediately. A good proportion came from publishers, one or two begged for, which ought to be read immediately, and several unsolicited but which yet look so good that I want to read them immediately too. Where to even start?

At this rate I would have no need to buy any more books this year, but I’m planning to go to Astley book farm at the weekend and can tell you now that self denial is not the object of the excursion. I’m beginning to understand why bloggers set themselves so many challenges – it seems it may be the only way to keep on top of the books. I wish I still had a job where reading under the counter might go unnoticed on a day like today is likely to be, instead I’m going to have to try and look interested in what I’m doing (moving boxes from one cage into another pending next week’s new promotions – not very interesting but quite tiring) whilst trying to come up with a reading plan I can stick to. I suspect it will be like coming up with a diet I can stick to. Self discipline isn’t something that comes easily, so wish me luck, and in the meantime I’m devoutly hoping this is the worst problem the New Year springs on me, it’ll be a wonderful year if it is.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Burns night dilemma (or what goes with Haggis?)

My partner has been asking for a pseudonym for blog mentions - I think he’s asking for trouble in the long run, but for today’s purposes I’m going to refer to him as ‘The Scottish One’ (he is after all from Scotland so it’s a reasonably appropriate title). Burns night is approaching and the Scottish one has a passion for Haggis. Not a passion I entirely share and not one that’s confined to only one day of the year either, but for Burns night itself I’ll make an exception and enter wholeheartedly into the spirit of the thing – helped by a large dram, the Scottish one’s appearance in a kilt, and his poetry reciting skills.

The Haggis part of the occasion has without deviation, embellishment or invention to include a MacSween’s Haggis (the best available south of the Border) neaps and tatties, I would favour bashed neaps and tatties (mashed together no less) but he says no the potato and turnip should not mingle. The suggestion of anything green on the plate met with such a terrible reaction that I never dared mention it again. Either way that part of the meal is easy, but the appearance of the Scottish one’s knees is an occasion worth celebrating with friends and a proper dinner so yet again I am wondering what else to cook for the big night.

I tried this year to think a bit further ahead than normal and so pulled out a huge pile of cook books looking for inspiration – it was a sadly disappointing experiment; I found a few recipe’s for making my own Haggis (I plan to stick with the bought ones – even more so after reading the instructions) but no elegant menu suggestions. I did think that Nigella Lawson’s ‘Feast’, Claire MacDonald (of Macdonald) or even Agnes Jekyll’s ‘Kitchen Essays’ might have had something to say about it, but no.

Given that Burns night suppers were a traditionally male only occasion I suppose it’s not surprising that Jekyll didn’t include it - even in her ‘For Men Only’ section, but I’m slightly surprised to find nothing in more contemporary cookbooks. Now I’m in a position to know I can tell you all that Haggis sales are healthy, even in my part of middle England, it’s a food that seems so in tune with current ideas of thrift, seasonal, and nose to tail eating. Puddings are easy enough to come up with (Rhubarb Cranachan has proved popular in the past and will probably appear again) but what of a starter? The Scottish one is prepared to allow a certain amount of originality, even of novelty, into this stage of proceedings – I want something involving greens, a possible hint of Scotland, and which won’t seem out of place next to such a determinedly peasant vernacular dish. Any and all suggestions gratefully received.

A quick scan of the book shelf has also revealed that I did not in fact buy a book of Burns Poetry last year as I thought, and as the Scottish one has become (and will hopefully remain) a fixture I think the time has come for me to invest rather than relying on the library – if I go now I hope I might get a full rendition of 'Tam O Shanter' before Monday!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

All the Dogs of My Life – Elizabeth Von Arnim

I’ve wanted this book for ages but despite heavy hinting no copy was forthcoming for either Christmas or birthday so as a sort of back to work present I ordered it when I got home last week. After only half an hour queuing at the parcel office on Friday evening I finally got my hands on it. One of the reasons I waited so long to buy this was the lack of cheap copies - at £9 it felt like too much of an indulgence - but finally the time was right.

I wish there were cheaper copies, the only ones I’ve seen are Virago print on demands - clearly everybody who has it is keeping hold of it, an attitude I can well and truly understand. This book really wasn’t meant for the top of the to be read list; I only meant to have a quick look whilst I was waiting for the kettle to boil before I put it on a shelf to wait it’s turn but one thing led to another and I’d read most of it by the time I finally went to sleep.

As a definite dog lover I was hooked from the start;

“I would like, to begin with, to say that though parents, husbands, children, lovers and friends are all very well, they are not dogs. In my day and turn having been each of the above,-except that instead of husbands I was wives,-I know what I am talking about, and am well acquainted with the ups and downs, the daily ups and downs, the sometimes almost hourly ones in the thin skinned, which seem inevitably to accompany human loves.
Dogs are free from these fluctuations. Once they love, they love steadily, unchangingly, till their last breath.
That is how I like to be loved.
Therefore I will write of dogs.”

Maybe it wouldn’t be much of a book for a none dog lover (though given Elizabeth Von Arnim’s lightness of touch and overall humour I think it would be a hard book not to love anyway) but if you’re a dog person I should think it irresistible.

All the Dogs of My Life’ is described as autobiography though never by Von Arnim who’s at pains throughout the book to point out that it’s not. It isn’t. No more than ‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ is, but like any of her books I’ve read it’s full of details of her life, there are perhaps more details and more personal philosophy in ‘All The Dogs Of My Life’ but it’s still a highly edited (I’m guessing mostly by omission) version.

14 dogs measure out an extraordinary life – catapulted from a sheltered childhood to rural Pomeranian grandeur then widowed with 5 children before building a Swiss mountain idyll (the idyll destroyed by the war and a disastrous second marriage) all followed by more dogs and wanderings until a final (at the point the book ends) settling in the south of France. None of this really matters though; it’s the humour that makes the book. Like ‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ this is one I will read over and over. It doesn’t take long and it’s strangely satisfying for something so light. Marriage number one come across as basically happy and affectionate, marriage number two is mostly ignored, lovers are not referred to (although they existed) but there are plenty of dogs in a string of perfectly delivered vignettes. Von Arnim has aged more than gracefully, she feels far fresher than I would reasonably expect and I will continue to search out and work my way through her books – but I imagine I’ll carry on preferring those that stray furthest from fiction.

This dog is Jamie, sadly not mine but my fathers; he's a remarkably handsome and engaging beast when he wants to be so I think he deserves a picture...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Comforters – Muriel Spark

And on to the fourth book of the year which I started with a certain amount of trepidation – started in Scotland when and where due to snow the only pass times available were light housework, reading and bickering other what to watch on television. The television choice was lousy and housework never appeals, but reading by the fire was looking better than ever – well nigh irresistible in fact (not that I felt much need to resist), so I that’s what I did.

The Comforters’ was Spark’s first novel – it’s made me think it would have been interesting to read them all in some sort of order to see how some of her themes develop. ‘The Comforters’ and ‘Loitering With Intent’ have much in common both sort of being books about writing books. Having read ‘Loitering With Intent’ ‘The Comforters’ doesn’t feel like a first novel (although what does a first novel feel like?) what it does feel like is assured elegant and streamlined – a fine vintage Spark in fact.

Now is a good time to admit that Muriel Spark came as a bit of a late revelation to me. I was predictably aware of ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ but only read it for the first time a couple of years ago. My Jean Brodie is an everyman edition and has some other short stories/novellas in the same volume – which was the first intimation that I had of her wider writing. I know it’s not altogether unusual but it always surprises me to find how a writer can become utterly identified with one book to the point that everything else they wrote is almost forgotten. Muriel Spark (for me at least) was just such a case – I had no idea that she had written so much.

Now that I do know I’m particularly happy that Virago are republishing so many, because the real problem when an author is so linked to one title is that it generally becomes the only one you can ever find in a bookshop. Without having read more I had no idea how much I would come to love Spark, so it never occurred to me to look for other titles on amazon or even to order through a bookshop; equally without actual demand why would shops stock a wider selection?

What attracts me to Spark at her best (and this holds true with this book) is her combination of humour and detachment. She creates the most marvellous villains and Georgina Hogg who plays the role here is no exception. Described as a gargoyle (which she is) she is splendidly repulsive, as a blackmailing Catholic zealot with inconveniently large breasts. Actually all the characters have personality kinks and manias of one sort or another. They can’t help but search through each other’s tings, hate to be touched, retreat into monastic seclusion, refuse to deal with the unpleasant, imagine witches, or wish to convert and persecute all around them. It could be too much but isn’t partly because of the conceit that they are characters within a novel within a novel. For a book over 50 years old it feels remarkably contemporary.

It was the idea of a book about people realising they are in a book that intrigued me enough to add this to my holiday packing – I wanted to see how it would work – it turned out to do the trick, easily living up to expectation and suiting my reading mood exactly.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Group – Mary McCarthy

This was my second disappointment of the year (only two weeks in and I’m not doing very well so far). As with Barbara Pym’s ‘A Glass of Blessings’ I’m putting some of the disappointment down to over anticipation. Every review I read of this book was enthusiastic, the cover is plastered in enthusiastic blurbs from all and sundry, and Candace Bushnell does a great build up in the introduction. I raced through this book in a day and a half hoping it would live up to its promises but I’m just not getting it.

As an aside checking the introduction again tonight (a week after reading) I find that McCarthy was bought up against a strict Catholic background – I thought reading this was by way of a break from the Catholic attitudes of the two preceding novels I’d got through but seemingly there’s no escape from the church of Rome.

I believe I read somewhere that not only are members of ‘The Group’ based on McCarthy’s own university friends, but that she was hurt and surprised when some of them refused to have anything more to do with her after this book came out. I’m not surprised; one of the things that I couldn’t get away from as I read was a feeling that scores were being settled. One of the group - Libby MacAusland sounds particularly vile, and particularly real. I’m sure we all know and dislike a Libby, but even when she’s almost raped she isn’t granted a moment of sympathy. I don’t believe I’ve ever disliked anyone as much as McCarthy dislikes Libby. Another character who comes in for a fairly rough ride is Kay. The book begins and ends with her – right at the beginning she’s described as “a cruel, ruthless, stupid person who was marrying Harald from ambition”. It’s true, but again if Kay is a real person it’s tremendously unkind.

Another sticking point was how tremendously privileged these girls were – one is given a plane as a graduation present, only one of them has to work for a living and she’s the eccentric the ‘find’ of the group. As an honest portrayal of snobbery from the inside it’s certainly an eye opener. What else can I say – the story is broken up into chunks from each girls life, loosely connected by their joint friendships each vignette examines a different girl as she discovers sex, marries, finds a career, has children, suffers disappointments and generally grow up, although for most of them the growing up is cushioned by their fortunate backgrounds. It all felt a bit disjointed with far too many unanswered questions. When the coolest girl in the group returns from Europe a lesbian there’s only acceptance but it doesn’t read right; as if McCarthy simply got bored with the idea and dropped it.

Despite these niggles I enjoyed this book; I wouldn’t have carried on if I hadn’t. Dotty Renfrew stuck on a park bench for 6 hours with newly acquired contraceptives in a bag on her lap (and what a procedure to get the cap in the first place) whilst she waits for her lover to come home and realising she’s been stood up – we can feel for her, as we can for Polly dealing with her father’s poor mental health and trying to build a happy safe single life for herself (she too is allowed to be happy in the end). That it feels real may be part of my problem with the book, but it’s what also makes it compelling; exactly like watching a car crash. I admit I wanted and expected more from this book, but just because it didn’t entirely work for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for you – it’s certainly worth taking a look at.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stuck into books

So in response to Simon at Stuck-In-A-Books ‘'tag' here are my ten books – it’s a sort of random choice – as random as loosely thematic bookshelves allow. The instructions were as follows;

1.) Go to your bookshelves...

2.) Close your eyes. If you're feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.

3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or... basically, wherever you keep books.

4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself - where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc.....

5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn't matter if you've read them or not - be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.

6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to...

Now in all honesty even with my eyes closed I have a reasonable idea of what books are where but this is at least a broadly representative selection from across the shelves and piles

1.) L. Sandy Maisel ‘American Political Parties and Elections’. This one came straight off the top of the birthday/Christmas pile of books yet to be read/to find a home. It came from my friend Ruth who was once my boss when I worked in her bookshop quite a long time ago. I’ve wanted exactly such a book ever since I started watching the West Wing – also quite a long time ago, and have probably ruined several joint book buying expedition’s by complaining about not finding just this very thing so I’m very pleased with it and fully intend to read it now I’ve got it. Some time very soon. Honestly.

2.) Jane Grigson’s ‘Vegetable Book’ from easy hand grabbing reach on the kitchen bookshelf. My mother has a huge collection of cookbooks, as does my stepmother (though she has the excuse of being a professional cook). As a teenager I was dismissive about the need for all those books and swore I would do with Delia Smith’s ‘Complete Cookery Course’. I now have well over 100 cookbooks (this Christmas I’ve run out of shelf space for them – some serious reorganising will have to be done) The slide started with Claire Macdonald’s ‘Seasonal Cookery’, followed by ‘More Seasonal Cookery’ followed by more and more books. The Grigson’s where fairly early additions to the collection and are books I wouldn’t be without. I love everything about this book which is showing serious signs of wear, it used to live in my bag for reading on the bus, not just for the recipe’s but also for the food history and anacdote’s. It’s Jane Grigson more than any other writer who’s given me a passion for cooking.

3.) Daphne Du Maurier ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ from the virago shelves. I’m a little bit ashamed of this one, it’s one of several Du Maurier’s on the shelf none of which I’ve read beyond 50 pages, Somehow I can never click with her try as I might, every book has been started with high expectations and got nowhere. ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ I really wanted to love – it has Pirates for heaven’s sake, and was bought on the recommendation of my sister’s godmother after we spent the day walking and painting around some spectacular coastline. Even if I never read the book it does at least remind me of a really good summer day.

4.) Angela Carter ‘Nights at the Circus’ from the women’s-shelf-that’s-not-virago. This was also a present. It sat around for ages before becoming the first Angela Carter I read – a real flash of lightening clap of thunder experience. If I ever made a list of best things I’ve ever been given this would certainly be on it; It’s a book that made me fall in love with reading all over again. I think it’s by far Carter’s best book, and it set me off after all sorts of things – fairy tales and myths especially- which I’ve loved.

5.) Gavin Maxwell ‘Harpoon at a Venture’ from a shelf dedicated to books that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. I bought this book in 1987 in the middle of England when I was 13 and feeling very homesick for Islands. Its “The story of an idyll that went sour” and is a book I must have read a dozen or more times, but not for years and looking at it now it’s definitely due another read. It’s Maxwell’s account of trying to start a life after the war – by shark fishing on the west coast of Scotland. Predictably for Maxwell the enterprise failed, but there’s something grand about his failure’s (and from the sharks point of view welcome). I think of this as nature writing, but nothing like the stuff people do today it’s far less sentimental coming from a time when you shot something if you wanted to identify it rather than photograph it, and for better or worse that much closer to the Scottish Island life I knew as a child. For a while I wanted to be (a later day female and slightly less ill fated) Gavin Maxwell so I’m delighted one of his books got on this list.

6.) P. G. Wodehouse ‘Jeeves in the Offing’ I discovered Wodehouse on my mother’s bookshelves when I was about 14, looking back I’m not sure what he was doing there as she’s not really a fiction reader and I’m not even convinced that this is her kind of humour. I think about half my Wodehouse’s are one’s I shamelessly appropriated but I can’t remember if this one was legitimately come by or not. I went through a phase of reading all the Wodehouse I could find in my mid teens which must have had a shocking effect on my vocabulary (happily I can’t remember that either). By the time I graduated I was about Wodehoused out but looking at this I want to read him again. Even better it looks like there are plenty I don’t have so I can read ones new to me.

7.) Evelyn Waugh ‘Decline and Fall’. I think my Waugh collection is fairly complete but I’m always hopeful of finding an unread one. Really I would like to have pulled out ‘The Loved One’ which changed the way I looked at ‘classics’ and set me off on an entirely new sort of reading (again pinched from my mother, sorry mum I’ll make it up to you somehow) or ‘The Sword of Honour Trilogy’ which is probably my favourite, but ‘Decline and Fall’ is as good an example as any really. I fell in love with an idea of the 1920’s through Waugh and Wodehouse when I was about 15 and have never recovered from it. I love Waugh for his particular brand of black humour – something I’m coming to associate with Catholic writers – it’s also just occurred to me that he was the first in an ongoing if minor obsession with Catholic writers as well.

8.) Dornford Yates ‘Cost Price’ – which lives on the shelves devoted to crime and thrillers. I had hoped that something a little bit cooler and infinitely harder boiled would have come to hand, but Yates certainly underscores my preference for period books and for high adventure and even higher camp. Yates was a House of Stratus discovery from the beginning of my pick a publisher not an author approach to book shopping, I started reading him in a fairly tongue in cheek fashion, but ended up hooked in a very unsophisticated way.

9.) David Thomson ‘The People of the Sea’ which inhabits a mini bookshelf dedicated to island books (but not including Gavin Maxwell because he wouldn’t fit) it was a Guardian recommendation from the days when ordering online wasn’t automatic and it took weeks to get hold of whilst I got more and more impatient at being fobbed off by the bookshop. Fortunately I still wanted to read it by the time it turned up (most of my to be read pile is made up of books that took so long to arrive that by the time I got them the moment had passed). Thomson travelled from Shetland down to the south west coast of Ireland collecting seal myths and seals have always fascinated me, as does writing about the sea.

10.) Simon Schama ‘An Embarrassment of Riches’. This is a relic of student days (History of Art degree) I kept all my books partly from sentimentality, partly because most of them look so pretty, and partly because they look interesting and a lot of them still haven’t been read properly. ‘An Embarrassment of Riches’ is in the latter category. The bit’s I did read (and the reading itself) were in the heavy demand section of the university library, when I found this copy in a discount bookshop I’d already sat the exam. This is one of those (many) books to be read ‘when I have time’ which probably means retirement when I hope I’m still interested.

Looking at this list I’m really surprised at how male dominated it is as the majority of the books I read are by women which isn’t really reflected, but at the same time it’s a fairly accurate picture of my shelves, and probably of me. I’m not entirely sure what it says about me though – I think that’s probably for anyone who gets all the way through this epic post to decide...

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Glass of Blessings

When it comes to packing for a holiday I can do most of it in about ten minutes flat, but it takes me days to decide how many books to take and what they should be. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly fast reader which is just as well or I'd struggle to carry my bags, I have to take at least one more book than I have any real chance of reading, and there needs to be a balance to suit reading moods. So for a week away any less than five books would have been unthinkable,  eventually I decided and packed the chosen five, only bought one more when I was away (snowed in or it would probably have been more) and read four so numbers wise I got it about right – had we not been able to get away I would have been okay for a few more days...

Harder to judge is the right balance of books to see me through a week. Had I taken Wilkie Collins ‘Armadale’ as originally planned I would probably have got the balance about right but Robertson Davies threw a spanner in the works. I couldn’t resist reading ‘The Cunning Man’ straight away but I followed it with Barbara Pym’s ‘A Glass of Blessings’ which didn’t do Barbara any favours at all. Pym was also dealing with Anglo Catholicism, complicated personal relationships, and skirting around the edges of same sex relationships. I found it very hard to adjust from one to the other and consequently found it hard to warm to ‘A Glass of Blessings’ in the same way that I have with her other books partly because it wasn’t Davies.

It was perhaps a slight case of over anticipation as well. I love Pym when she writes about single women looking for ways to find fulfilment be it through church or marriage or friendship. Nobody can touch her when it comes to putting a mirror up to the small disappointments and pre-occupations of life – how to fill the days and make dinner stretch for company. ‘A Glass of Blessings’ is a different proposition, it details the marriage of well to do Wilmet Forsyth. Wilmet and her husband live with his mother in her house have no children and a more than comfortable income – with no responsibilities Wilmet is bored. Still fairly young (33) she’s looking for mail attention and starts a harmless flirtation with her best friends brother. Her best friend’s husband tries to start a slightly less harmless flirtation with Wilmet. Neither affair comes to much partly because the brother finally reveals he prefers men. Meanwhile it transpires that Wilmet’s hitherto steady husband Rodney has almost had an affair of his own with Prudence Bates (last met in 'Jane and Prudence').

So what didn’t I take to? Something in the air of middle class sexual sophistication coupled with a general lack of purpose for Wilmet who at 33 is appalled at the idea of having to set up a home away from her mother in law slightly alienated me. As a much smaller niggle this is the first Pym I’ve read where characters from other novels had walk on parts with the end result that I was reminded of books I’d enjoyed far more.

Despite all of that I still enjoyed this book, found myself laughing over it, and reading bits out of it to my (very patient) partner. I’m going to give it another try some time, and will be running my thoughts past the Pym fans in my reading group to see if they can show me the error of my ways.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

On the other hand...

Having said I'm happy to be home I'm missing the peace and beauty of the Scottish countryside (and the aga)especially now the cold is a distant memory - so yes, it's holiday photo time... That's lots of pictures of snow coming in.

Pictures of snow covered trees. I took a lot of pictures of snow covered trees, in fact so many you'd think I'd never seen one before, but I'm trying to control myself with how many I post here.
And then there was the view from the sofa... this is the foot end, head end had a woodburning stove making it almost impossible to move off the darn thing so comfortable was it. I don't have a woodburning stove at home, or a view like this. Something clearly went wrong in the planning.

And the walk down the road once a kind farmer opened it up with his jcb
And the generally plush surroundingsReally a very good week enjoying the sort of winter weather I didn't think I would ever see again, continued police warnings to stay put really weren't at all hard to comply with!

Happy to be Home

Well we made it back from the borders in one piece despite the best efforts of the weather to keep us there. Admittedly had we not run out of wood for the fire we might well have stayed put (whisky supplies where still good and I had a book and a half left) but work calls and in all honesty the snow is far more appealing when your not trapped by it.

So... just in case anyone was wondering the first book of the year was a last minute Oxfam purchase; ‘The Cunning Man’ from the pen of Robertson Davies. Some years ago I picked up ‘The Cornish Trilogy’ in Waterstone’s Piccadilly when it was part of a campus novels table. I then forgot about it for quite a long time – in fact until I bought the first part of the Salterton trilogy read it and loved it – imagine my joy at finding I already had another Davies omnibus just waiting for me already. ‘The Cunning Man’ was a bit of a find because I hadn’t really been aware of it, I’m seeing it as a Christmas present from fate, and it’s certainly set the tone for my reading so far this year (yes a whole 9 days of it).

The Cunning Man’ takes in Anglo Catholicism, sin, temptation, holistic medicine, friendship, love, betrayal, murder, and something of what it means to be Canadian. It’s a heady mix which Davies pulls off in an extraordinary way. He keeps me reading where a lesser writer would not, from the first sentence; “Should I have taken the false teeth?” to his last All of that in reply to a wrong number for the Odeon, and it’s meant to be as self conscious as it sounds. Davies trick is balancing the ridiculous with the heavy. ‘The Cunning Man’ as well as being a meditation on personal philosophy also has a sort of murder mystery (was it a murder?) running through it whilst being a sort of mixed up biography of Jon Hullah the cunning man of the title.
“No, this is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good-night.”

Mixed up in that the narrative takes the form of a set of notes he makes over 4 years looking back on his life as it occurs to him rather than in strict chronological order. A device that suits me down to the ground, intimation’s of the end appear all the way through, and skipping to the actual end told me nothing so I had to keep reading to unravel everything. I was glued to this book all the way north on the train, and for every moment I got alone until it was finished, not just because I wanted to find how it finished, but also to work out the beginning as well, and to take in some of the gothic detailing as well.

Pulling in under Edinburgh castle reading Davies felt somehow appropriate, I’m sure he would have delighted in it (and probably did, I realise I could do a lot more actual research on Davies) I’m also sure that J K Rowling is a fan. There’s something in the way they both put together names for characters and throw in little things that send me chasing a reference (or leave me feeling a bit smug because I already understand the allusion) that I love about both writers and which feels like an homage in Rowling. Like Rowling, Davies books are very re readable – the devil’s in the detail, so each reading will reveal something new.