Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More Tales of Shipwreck and Mystery

The Scottish One started composing a comment for yesterdays post and carried on until the point where I thought it was worthy of a guest slot so here it is in all it's glory.

Towering like jagged and broken saw-teeth on the western extremity of Shetland are the Rusna Stacks, eight or more forbidding towers of Middle Red Sandstone, guarding the northern shore of the western entrance to Vaila Sound. They are separated from the mainland by 150 yards of turbulent, icy grey sea and a 180 ft cliff face with a precipitous edge that every fiber in your body screams you should retreat from and keep going. It was while out for a morning’s constitutional on this coastline with Desperate Reader’s father and his faithful hounds that we were shown a curious carving scratched on a flattish, un-prepossessing rock at the top of a hill close by. It’s of a compass rose about 12 inches across, of the 32-point cardinal type, made of concentric circles and radiating lines and surrounding it were incised names, and initials, some legible, others eroded with age and all overlaid with a patina of lichen. The carving has given the small hill top the local dialect name of ‘Compass wart’ a wart being the local term for a lookout point. Like all good rock art this has a story attached to it, in this case that a vessel had been wrecked on the Rusna Stacks and at least some of the crew had survived by climbing the mast of the sinking ship to crawl up over the cliff edge and gain the safety of land. It is said that the survivors then made their way to the hill-top where they carved the compass. It is also said that a small cove or ‘bight’ a little way further into the sound called ‘Neus’ was where the news of the wreck was first heard - so it’s called locally ‘the bight of the neus’. These scant details are at that is known although there is good evidence that the compass was there in the 1850’s.

Among the names there appears only one date, the year 1611 carved close to the north point, the numeral six of this date has that scribed look rather than copperplate which makes me think it is authentic and the north point itself is not an arrow but a cross, carved within two opposing curves, called a Vesica Piscis making an almond shape, again a very old form of compass point. It’s obvious some of the other graffito is later from the lettering styles, and many have been scratched over older, fainter ones.

If this compass was carved in the year 1611, it is remarkable at a literary level in that it was in this year on 1st November (All Saints Day) in which Shakspeare’s ‘The Tempest’ was performed for the first time at Whitehall palace in London. ‘The Tempest’ of course is a story of storm, shipwreck, natural magic, revenge and love on an enchanted island. Now I’m not for a moment suggesting that West Shetland is, or ever was Prospero’s Isle (no matter how enchanting in reality it without doubt is) but the play does give an insight into the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean mindset in which belief in magic worlds parallel to our own, superstition, witchcraft and sorcery was universal.

 Imagine then a small group of exhausted and frightened, shipwrecked sailors, perhaps from another country, unable to speak the local Norn dialect, arriving on this desolate coastline fearful of making their way to habitation in case they are taken for spirits or simply pirates. Caution born of superstition may well have caused them to huddle on a small hill-top far from habitation, close to where the wreck of their vessel was gradually being eaten by the pounding waves, and wait out the storm with the few possessions they had managed to salvage from the wreck, one of which we know for sure was an accurate compass because the carving on the rock points unerringly to magnetic north. In Shakespeare’s day not all "magic" was considered evil, indeed Prospero’s magic in ‘The Tempest’ was benign and was more akin to science, rationality, and divinity, than to the occult. The reliability of the magnetic compass to truthfully point the way may have seemed a powerful talisman of this kind of life saving magic in a storm filled world of darkness and unspoken fears. While waiting, perhaps for days in this condition what would have been more natural to one of these sailors than to idly scratch with a knife blade an image of the talisman to which they trusted their salvation? All we know for sure is that this enigmatic petroglyph still weathers the storms year upon year in its rocky isolation and that happily it still prompts stories to be woven in front of a glowing peat fire with wet dogs and a malt whisky of an ancient shipwreck and another world.

He doesn't often give way to these flights so it's very much a testament to place 

Monday, August 30, 2010

A tale of mystery and shipwreck

Which might have started on a dark and stormy night, but which equally might never have happened at all. When we were staying in Shetland earlier in the summer my father told as about a spot romantically called the compass wart. It’s basically a compass carved into a stone on a hilltop near his house, and something which I had a vague memory of hearing about before but was pretty sure I’d never seen. It came up during the course of a forced march (pleasant family walk) when we paused to admire the view, and in my case get some sort of breath back, on a particularly wild cliff top.

Local legend (according to dad) has it that a ship carrying china went down off of this spot, but the sailors managed to climb up the mast to safety then made their way to the top of a hill and carved the compass into the rock along with their initials. However despite enquires he has never been able to find the name of the ship or the date she went down. It seems there are, or should be, pretty thorough records of shipwrecks so the Scottish one thought that once he had the coordinates it shouldn’t be too hard to find a likely boat.

Plenty of research has followed with very little in the way of concrete evidence which is where the mystery comes in. The Scottish one has come to doubt that there was a shipwreck, or more specifically as we’ve found dozens of recorded wrecks  in the immediate area, has come to doubt in the existence of this one wreck and its sailors activities. I’m still inclined to believe the story, mostly because it seems to be widely accepted as fact and I’m assuming there’s something behind that.

What we do know is that there is a compass – accurate according to some experimenting with the Scottish ones phone – surrounded by initials, we also know that generations of local youths have gone up there and carved their names in the rock too. The Shetland museum puts a tentative date of around 1850 on the carving (suggested by people now in their 80’s confirming that it was a known landmark throughout their grandparent’s lives) but is prepared to believe it may be much older.

The only other piece of corroborating evidence I’ve come across so far, and it’s fairly circumstantial, is in place names. Shetland still has a full complement of names for just about every inlet, crevice, rock, lump, bump, nook, or other general cranny that you can spot. I could tell you about three but my general ignorance isn’t typical. It seems that news of our wreck first came ashore at a place that has since been known as the bite of the ‘news’ (a spot about a mile or two down the coast from the potential wreck site, but equally, at least in my opinion, a potential wreck site itself) which is almost directly below the compass wart. I can at least confirm that on an early OS map (1882) that this spot is marked as Neus.

Further furtling about on the internet revealed that a Wart (which I assumed would be a descriptive reference to a lump on a hill) is a beacon on the top of a hill, or a watchtower, or any hill that had a watchtower on it. Ideally we would have found a heap of stones indicative of a watchtower, or even a spot on the OS map to suggest a building – but nothing doing, although there is a dry stone wall which might have cannibalised any remaining rubble long ago because apart from a complete lack of shelter this spot would make an ideal lookout point, and if it was an established lookout point it would answer a few questions.

We’ve spent a lot of time speculating as to what the compass was for (education, a marker, directions, a memorial, a rendezvous point, the list goes on) mostly because neither of us could really understand why shipwrecked you would spend your time wading through bog to climb a hill (actually I’m of the build and inclination to always wonder why you would climb a hill, especially if it involves wading through a bog in unpractical footwear, but for some reason it keeps happening to me) and then spend a whole lot of time carving a compass without adding the ships name. If however there was a light or any other signs of humanity then it would be an obvious thing to do.

This is turning into something of a quest for me; the compass wart itself is an oddly haunting place. It’s hard to imagine a bleaker or more blasted spot despite the prospect. Strategically it has a lot to recommend it – excellent views up and down the coastline which back in the fish station days would have been invaluable for keeping an eye on your boats to make sure they didn’t make any unscheduled stops. It’s the kind of place that you can almost smell a story – smuggling and wrecking both came to mind, as did desperate attempts to escape the press gangs. Look where you will, especially if you look out to sea, and it’s easy to ignore the few signs of modern life around you. I’ve had a good search through the Shetland archives image collection and can confirm that if anything it’s a much quieter place than 150 years ago.

The compass location isn’t a secret but neither is it marked or advertised in any way. I must have walked past it a few times without knowing about it, but it’s more than that easy to miss – which adds to the sense of mystery surrounding it. A definite feeling that something has been suppressed and is now more than half lost in history – I really need to find out something about that wreck...

Finally a big thank you to the Shetland Museums and Archive  who very kindly gave me permission to use their images, it's an excellent resource well worth browsing through - I know I've looked at literally thousands of images and still have a mass of material left to explore

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma – Diana Birchall

I’ve had this book for a year – it was a present from Diana (we’re members of the same online reading group and I definitely consider her a friend, which is by way of a slight disclaimer before I go on) and I should have read it long ago. When it arrived I thought it would be perfect Christmas reading, and then it was August again. Diana sent it to me after a longish tirade on my part about sequels and prequels (not dissimilar to the one below) and after my ‘Persuasion’ reread the time seemed ripe for exploring what for want of a better description I’m going to call fan fiction. It seemed only right to put a bit of effort into the business which is why I read ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’ too.

Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma’ takes us to Pemberley 25 years on; Elizabeth and Darcy are a happily married couple with three grown children enjoying an altogether satisfactory life until a charitable impulse to invite the less fortunate Lydia’s two eldest daughters for Christmas promises to turn everything upside down. Bettina is truly her parent’s daughter, bold, vulgar, and pushing, Cloe on the other hand seems to be something of a cross between the young Elizabeth and Jane, the sort of young woman no one would really object to having in the family. Sadly for the Darcy’s it’s Bettina who first manages to extract an engagement out of the elder Darcy boy, and then runs off to be his mistress. Will the better suited Cloe and Henry manage to get over the obstacles presented by such an amoral sister?

Rachel from Bookssnob commented that she couldn’t stomach the idea of Austen sequels, and I’m not dissimilar – so why you ask read two in a week? Well I used to hate olives, but I’m coming round to them now, and because often these books sound interesting – there’s a new one out in a week or two ‘Charlotte Collins’, and she’s a character who fascinates me; John Sutherland suggests that it’s Charlotte who tells Lady Catherine what’s going on between Elizabeth and Darcy in answer to the question ‘Who betrays Elizabeth Bennet?’ I don’t like to believe it but the evidence does point that way... But I won’t be reading this book or any others like it in the foreseeable future.

The thing is that I found myself having the same problems with ‘Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma’ that I had with ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’. The character that really came alive for me here was Bettina, she’s not necessarily likable (although I suspect I’d like her more than her sister) but she’s interesting. Instead of marriage she settles for lovers and a career on the stage. The family want to rehabilitate her in a cottage but she’s having none of it, her way she can have fun as well as independence, avoiding in the process the unhappiness and struggle that marriage to a feckless drunkard has caused her mother. It quickly became Bettina’s story I wanted to read. Cloe sets out to earn her own keep as well, but as a governess to the Collins family which means she eventually finds herself at Longbourne – her mother’s childhood home, but as an employee rather than a family member in a situation which makes it clear how precarious life could be for women of humble means.

My other problem is that books which use another authors cast really bring out the obscurantist (lovely thesaurus alternative for pedant that I’m going to try and casually work into conversation whenever I can from now on) in me which doesn’t improve my reading pleasure. I don’t want to find myself asking if something rings true or not, I want to be happily immersed and oblivious, and I can’t do that if I’m constantly comparing to Jane Austen, or when I’m comparing to my own very fixed ideas of what the future would have held for much loved characters. In short it’s still a genre that eludes me though I’m now prepared to admit that there are some decent books in it even if they’re not for me. So Diana, if your work here isn’t quite through, you have at least dispelled the worse of my prejudices!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Murder at Mansfield Park – Lynn Shepherd

I have something of a prejudice about all the Jane Austen (and beyond) sequels, prequels, re writes, fan fiction, industry – I’m not even sure what to call it, but whatever it is, it seems to be a rapidly growing sub genre so I wanted to put any bigotry of my own to one side and investigate a little bit. The root of this intolerance probably started with ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. I think I might have been a bit young when I read it, far too young to have grown out of the idea of Rochester as a romantic hero at any rate and it was all a bit above my head. And then I had a bad experience with an Emma Tennant – I think it was ‘Pemberley’, a reading experience so hideous I shudder to recall it.

Since then zombies and sea monsters have invaded and made themselves very much at home. For some reason I can look at a copy of ‘Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter’ and smile, but ‘Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters’ makes me almost froth at the mouth. It’s a lot to do with the marketing, which has been undeniably clever, but it frustrates me to see these books in ‘classics’ sections – the mash up thing is (I feel) a joke, not even a very sophisticated joke, but if you enjoy it that’s fine, it’s just not working for me. I suspect though that a healthy proportion of units shifted are destined not to be read – and I think that’s what bothers me most, these don’t entirely feel like books to be read but units to be sold, a cynical exercise in money making.

Perhaps you can guess that I approached ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’ with a bit of baggage attached – idle to deny it, but I did make a real effort to come at it open minded and I was in exactly the mood for something light, fun, and slightly gory. It helped that ‘Mansfield Park’ is my least favourite Austen novel – I’ve read it only once, a long time ago, and frankly the details are very hazy. The end result is that I enjoyed this – with reservations. There’s a cracking heroine, a worthy victim (she really does deserve a crack over the head, and it’s hard to be sorry when she gets it), some excellent potential villains and villainesses, and an interesting detective. So far so good. I would need to re read ‘Mansfield Park’ to get a grip on exactly what Shepherd has done with it, but it’s safe to say she’s re worked or changed a lot – all good as far as I’m concerned, because the bits that seem furthest from Austen are the bits I liked most.

Approaching ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’ from the murder side it’s pretty good (although annoyingly the questions for book groups section at the back has quite a few spoilers in it – a warning wouldn’t have gone amiss there). The detective (thief taker) Charles Maddox is a worthy addition to the genre, suitably dark, complex, and charismatic, Mary Crawford (the heroine) makes an excellent foil for him, and I couldn’t help but wish at times that the book I was reading was essentially their case book. Mary is a particularly likable heroine as well, intelligent, spirited, capable – and more than a suggestion of a good back story, all of which brings me round to another of the reasons I don’t think this genre is for me.

The first question in the reading group section asks if it’s legitimate to keep re working Austen in this way. Well if you want to why not, but the question I would ask in return is this – why set yourself up for comparison to Jane Austen, how many writers can really measure up to her? The language Shepherd uses is clearly meticulously researched, but I couldn’t help but feel there was something a little self conscious about it. It doesn’t always read as entirely natural, yet re reading ‘Persuasion’ a couple of weeks ago I was struck again at how fresh Austen’s prose is. The comparison to Jane makes me far more pedantic than I would normally be and that’s hardly fair on the book I’m reading. Another question that bothers me is this; why constrain yourself with someone else’s plot and characters?

If I was scoring this book (which I’m not really) it would be a 3.5 out of 5, I found it a very satisfactory page turner and I’m extremely hopeful that Shepherd will return to Maddox, taking care to provide him with a suitable replacement for Mary Crawford, but I’m equally hopeful that her next book will owe a bit less to Austen. I think she’s too good a writer to need to re work someone else’s vision. If however you don’t share all my prejudices and in fact actively enjoy re worked Austen I doubt you could do much better than ‘Murder at Mansfield Park’.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Happy Birthday

Today is Desperate Reader’s one year anniversary, and only slightly coincidentally my 200th post. It’s fair to say that time has flown, but then it has been a reasonably eventful year, or perhaps more accurately it’s been a blessedly uneventful year after two more than interesting ones. I started blogging during a period of effective unemployment, but am now only underpaid which is a definite improvement (I think).

Blogging has turned out to be an unreservedly good thing so far, I’ve read more books, read them with a bit more thought, and met some great people doing this. I started with no idea that there was a community side to it, so that’s been a total bonus. A couple of people have also been very generous with books and a good thank you seems in order – a list would make for dull reading, but on the off chance that anyone who’s sent me a book is reading then consider yourself well and truly appreciated, and whilst I’m about it I should extend that thank you to anyone who’s read this blog, and anyone who’s commented – it’s all been very encouraging and enjoyable for me!

So how have I been celebrating this momentous occasion? There has been cake for one (chocolate brownie with cherries since you ask, very squishy, very chocolaty, any excuse) and I’ve started Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. Actually I picked it up last night around midnight, read till 2am, fell asleep. Woke up at 8am today and the moment I could focus (about 8.20 am) started reading again. I might have gone back to sleep if I hadn’t found a spider in my bed. Quite small, but equally quite large enough to make me behave like it was an angry tarantula (I mean really quite a small spider, but I’m pathetic about these things).

Anyway I got an extra 2 hours reading time in today and slightly surprised my father when he called at 8.30 (en route to Florence the lucky so and so) by being conscious. There are 850 pages of ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’, and I thought that it might be a bit of a chore to read through, but I’m beginning to suspect it might not be half long enough. I’m getting very excited by this book.

I’ve also found myself with a very bookish dilemma courtesy of river cottage handbooks and amazon. Regular readers might have noticed I have a bit of a thing for these handbooks and the next 2, scheduled for the spring, appeared on my recommends list today. ‘Fruit’ (about orchards I gather) which I’m already looking forward to despite not having an orchard (unless a lemon tree in a pot counts, and I really don’t think it does), and ‘Cake’. My love of cake and baking is no secret, as is my love of books but I do wonder if I really need another book about cake, so I’m struggling with this a little – what if when it comes out I don’t need it? What will I do? Can I have an incomplete series? All I’m saying is it’d better be indispensable...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Getting out more

After catching up with the blonde, ok specifically after being able to tell my blonde friend what Virago books could be bought, for how much, and in which charity shops within the city centre (I could also tell her roughly how long each had been on the shelf, and what their chances of selling soon are) it occurred to me that some new hobby might not be a bad idea. It’s not that I have a problem with my own obsessions but I feel I’m a still a bit young to be crazy book lady.

With this in mind when another friend (I’m tempted to refer to her as a yummy mummy, because she is, but I’m not sure she’d like it, so I won’t...) told me she was going to hobbycraft I asked if I could hitch a lift. I’ve never visited one before but people swear by it and with a name like that what better place to find something new to add a bit of balance to the book buying?

Hobbycraft (like my friend) is more Nottingham way so I got the train to a convenient rendezvous where she picked me up, in the process driving past four promising looking charity shops and an independent book shop in hitherto virgin territory (to me and the blond at any rate). I felt like a sniffer dog must feel when it gets a whiff of whatever it’s meant to be chasing, but we were on a schedule as well as a mission and sped on towards the land of promised craft cutters.

Hobbycraft, for the uninitiated, is a very big shop containing a huge amount of stuff and amazingly I didn’t manage to buy a single thing. I’ve forgotten how to knit, don’t have the patience for quilling, or the skill for sewing (or again the patience). I looked at cake decorating things for a good long time, but I’m not sure that either pocket or waistline could stand a sustained interest in sugar craft, besides which becoming mad cake lady is already only a couple of steps away and I think I prefer the sound of book lady. I have an interest in painting (such a nice ladylike occupation) and spent some very happy minutes looking at paint and brushes, but hobbycrafts goods are quality, and therefore expensive. My painting skills are currently budget level. I was almost tempted by some decoupage paper but sparkly robins aren’t entirely my aesthetic, and truthfully my flat needs more bit’s of paper littering it up even less than I need more cake.

After hobbycraft we hit Wickes (proper man territory) where we acquitted ourselves with such honour (only asking for help once) whilst getting sink unblocking paraphernalia that I briefly flirted with the idea of plumbing as a hobby (would be useful) but then I thought of my father, a man who can, when it comes to these sort of things and how I’ve inherited exactly none of those skills from him and so I walked away.

I got back to the station with no time to explore book possibilities (trains once an hour, considered waiting an hour for the next train, opted for lunch with the Scottish one instead) post lunch I had another catch up with the blonde, and next day off we have big plans for small market towns and equally high hopes for cheap books. We may be just a little obsessive, but we’re happy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hedgerow – John Wright

This was another amazon purchase (and another source of high street frustration.) ‘Hedgerow’ should be easily available - it’s been well publicised, and yet I couldn’t get it in town at all. I know I keep coming back to this, but bear with me; for the last 2 years almost all my book shopping has been second hand, I’ve found brilliant books which I would never otherwise have had the pleasure of owning, reading, or even knowing about this way, but sometimes a book comes out that I’ve waited for, wanted, and scrimped to good effect over, and when this happens I want to walk into a shop (supporting the local economy) and walk out again with my purchase. It’s much more satisfying than waiting for, and then missing the post (unless someone’s sent me the book free, that’s a good feeling too).

Hedgerow’ is just such a book; I’ve been looking forward to its publication for months. I love John Wrights writing, it’s funny, warm, and informative, and although I’m not much more than an armchair forager every time I pick up one of these books ('Mushrooms', 'Edible Seashore', and now ‘Hedgerow’) I feel inspired and comforted in equal measure. In short ‘Hedgerow’ has more than lived up to my expectations, and now for the longer way of saying that...

The comfort comes in a few forms; not least being that the book is a delight to look at and handle, nice size, tactile cover, well illustrated, and an easy to use format (I think much of the credit for this belongs to the publisher, in this case Bloomsbury). I also find comfort in knowing what’s around me and what I can use it for – it leads to a very pleasant feeling of competency (doesn’t go amiss for small talk either). I love books that can be pulled out at will to be dipped into, and ‘Hedgerow’ is perfect for that, along with purely practical information there’s plenty of anecdote and folklore as well – it was my handbag book for my recent Derbyshire trip with the blonde. She laughed at me, but being in company there wasn’t much time for satisfactory novel reading, plenty of time to be absorbed by the history and mythology of the elder though (as well as edible things that can be made from it).

How inspiring I find this book (and indeed the whole series) is harder to put into words. I was bought up to take an interest in the countryside (still can’t whistle with a piece of grass though, despite my dad’s attempts to teach me) but it’s not nostalgia for a more innocent time – foraging is a competitive business (I’ve spent enough time in an English village to know better than to get between a WI member and a good blackberry at jam time), and of course if you forage the wrong thing you can do yourself some real harm. It’s not the idea of the good life either – not when even the things which are good for you can bite back (yes blackberries again).

I think what really inspires me in ‘Hedgerow’ is the sense of being rooted in a culture, a history, and in the seasons. The wild things you can eat or make use of, but not abuse (on Elder “There is one novice mistake that I must warn you about. Do not pick all the flowers from a tree, then go back expecting to find some berries. You won’t. Find any that is.”) are a rich part of our shared history, passing on that knowledge a fundamental part of country culture, as is teaching respect for the very things we hope to exploit.

One of the surprises about moving into a city was how much more in touch I got with the seasons again after a period of village life. Village life was generally about being on the bus to and from work, city life meant walking, and walking has meant being able to see, feel, and smell, what’s going on outside. It also provides reasonable foraging opportunities. Plenty of brambles, wild cherries, hazelnuts (though I’ve never beaten the squirrels to a nut, and if I did these are feral town squirrels who know no fear and are quite capable of retrieving nuts from me with extreme prejudice) mulberries – though ‘foraging’ for those was really a matter of outrageous flirting with the park gardener, and now I find there are a whole lot of other things that I had no idea were edible.

I might never make much practical use of some of this new found knowledge but I’m getting an increased appreciation of ‘weeds’, I’m inclined to look harder at what I see every day, and next time the Scottish one risks breaking his neck to gather me damsons I definitely won’t let them go mouldy before I do something with them (Gin not Jam I think). He’s well on the way to being as passionate about this book as I am – I suspect the joy of free food appeals to his thrifty Scottish soul, and deep down who ever grows out of a delight in the first blackberries of the season.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

And The Winner Is...

Thank you to everyone who commented and emailed, sadly only one book to give away and it’s going to Clover Heather. I hope it answers all your rhubarb questions and proves inspiring recipe wise!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Highland Fling – Nancy Mitford

A book which I’ve just this moment finished (1 down, 39 to go). Reprinted by Capuchin Classics at the beginning of July it’s been something of a struggle to get hold of, the only place I’ve actually seen it for sale is in the wonderful Bakewell bookshop, (though if you couldn’t buy a Mitford book that close to Chatsworth it would be a pretty poor show) but by that time I’d finally managed to order it via amazon after it being persistently out of stock for about a month.

Either way my persistence paid off and I couldn’t help but start this book almost the moment I got it. It’s not a long book and for all its faults it’s an absorbing read, all in it probably only took 3 or 4 hours to get through and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Which is another reason for the slight feeling of resentment I’m harbouring over how hard the darn thing was to get hold of, it just shouldn’t be this difficult. ‘Highland Fling’ has been on my book radar for a good 3 years (since I first noticed it on Capuchin’s list). I’m hardly the only Mitford fan out there, and unlikely to be the only one who doesn’t feel her bank balance can take the unexpected withdrawals that pre orders result in. Is it really unreasonable to hope to find books like this in bookshops? Apparently it is in Leicester. (And here ends my complaint for tonight.)

Back to the book, which I’m inclined to see as a bit of a coup for Capuchin, especially after ‘Wigs on the Green’ (summarizing my opinion thus – interesting period piece with a few good jokes and rather more bad ones. Appealing to fans, but not the finest indicator of what Nancy Mitford’s like at her best!) and ‘The Water Beetle’ (very mixed essays) I had quite low expectations. Happily ‘Highland Fling’ totally exceeded said expectations, true the plot is almost nonexistent and the quality of the writing patchy, but there are brilliant pen portraits which must have been taken from life, and a really good sense of a clash of cultures between the county set and the bright young things.

This I think is the key to why ‘Highland Fling’ is more than the curiosity that ‘Wigs on the Green’ is. Fling was the first novel that Mitford had published and was written whilst she was still in her 20’s (it says in the introduction) so the lack of polish is easy to overlook, it feels like, and possibly was an attempt to make some money, but it also has all the authentic Mitford hallmarks – wit, wisdom and some very cutting observations. The central characters are Sally and Walter Monteath, a young couple who sit on the fence between county respectability and the bright young things. As much as Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Vile Bodies’ this gives a feel for that group, though I suspect Mitford was rather more of an insider, especially class wise than Waugh ever was.

She captures the boredom and pointlessness of country house parties dedicated to killing as much game as possible (whilst possibly bagging a suitable husband) along with the frantic but essentially just as pointless round of cocktails and practical jokes of the younger set. More than that though she also explores what separates the generations. The younger set are basically pacifists – genuinely revolted by the waste of the war they missed (though destined to fight in the next one) the ‘Grown ups’ incapable and unwilling to question the values they have always live by. One character (the sympathetic Mr Buggins) sits between, he fought in the trenches and in a nice little speech quietly and convincingly tells how those 4 years robbed him of his ability to be useful or productive. There are other episodes like this which not only stand out but more than stand the test of time. The bright young things seem like children, but it’s clear that they will for the most part outgrow their childishness, it’s also clear that Mitford believes there are more dangerous faults than a penchant for silly pranks and living on credit.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Just a couple more books...

Book buying has been a bit of a theme over the last few weeks, and something of an obsession over the last few days. The blonde took me up to her ancestral home in the very lovely peak district, we basically trawled the local book and charity shops in the manner of women on a mission (which we were) and came home with roughly 10 books apiece. Long story (involving charity shops, amazon, Waterstones 3 for 2, some very kind publishers, and a few independents) short I’ve managed to acquire a slightly daunting 40 odd new books in the last month. Some of them are real doorstoppers as well.

Just to be clear (mum and dad) I can still pay the mortgage, Derbyshire seems to be the home of the book bargain and I haven’t actually been all that extravagant, quite extravagant, but manageably so, at least in terms of money spent. I think I might have been very extravagant indeed in terms of the sheer amount of text I can reasonably expect to read (The Count of Monte Christo – I’m looking at you...) before the next very exciting crop of books start whispering to me. But then there’s nothing new about that.

There are a couple of books I want to keep quiet about until I’ve read, and some I got because they caught my eye, or because they were too good to leave behind but know I won’t read for a long time (again ‘The Count of Monte Christo’), so I won’t exhaustively describe every book I’ve acquired right now (although it’s tempting, but I think I’m the only one that would find it really interesting). However there are a few I’m just too excited about not to share!

From amazon there’s John Wright’s ‘Hedgerow’ – I’ve been so excited about this book coming out, it really is my most looked forward to title of the year and it hasn’t disappointed me, (there will be more to come about this one). For reasons I can’t fathom it’s proved impossible to buy on the high street, but anticipation only made its eventual arrival more exciting and my reluctance to be parted with it in the last week has become a bit of a running joke with the blonde.

Also via amazon E F Benson’s ‘Mrs Ames’, again no sign of this in any actual bookshops which is a shame because it’s a terrific book, and Ali Smith’s ‘Girl Meets Boy’. These are both books that have been hovering on my wish list for a while and I’m very pleased to have them. I’m also very pleased to have Nancy Mitford’s ‘Highland Fling’ which I’ve patiently waited for Capuchin to publish since 2007, ordered from amazon but actually spotted in The Bakewell Bookshop. (This is a fantastic bookshop – easily one of the best I’ve ever found anywhere, ever!)

Oxford World Classics very kindly sent me Wilkie Collins ‘The Dead Secret’ and ‘Man and Wife’ – I’m really looking forward to these and wondering about the wisdom of drawing up a reading timetable in the manner of those revision timetables which I ignored at school. Hmmm. Some organisation is clearly called for, any suggestions?

Mildred Pierce’ and ‘In Tearing Haste’ came from Brierlow Bar (another excellent bookshop, this time the bargain sort) I love the film and the book was recommended to me here a couple of weeks ago. My brand spanking new copy was half the price a used amazon one threatened to be, so yet again I’m very happy with this. ‘In Tearing Haste’ is one of those books that I’ve fancied for a while and which became irresistible at £3.99. It seemed possible that it might just join the rest of my collection of unread Mitford letters, but I’ve been reading bits of it and I’m finding it compulsive.

I collect Virago modern classics in a mild way (as does the blonde). It’s not a really dedicated collection - I only get ones that specifically appeal, but I’m getting tantalisingly close to the 200 mark. Nice green copies are getting increasingly hard to find (I’m up to date with the new covers/titles) so there’s always the thrill of the hunt involved in hitting on something new, or something that either of us have been after for a while. Edith Bagnold’s ‘The Loved and Envied’ was new to me and Mae West’s ‘She Done Him Wrong’ is one I’ve wanted for ages...

So – I’m not planning on buying anything for a while, and I think I’ll be staying in a lot to catch up on some reading over the next few months anyway – which will take the sting out of the lousy weather. But should the sun shine I’ll be out complete with my ‘Hedgerow’ book on a foraging mission, though I know the squirrels have already beaten me to every hazelnut within the city limits.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Persuasion - Jane Austen

Actually none needed, ‘Persuasion’ has long been my favourite Jane Austen novel and this is neither the first, nor the last time that I’ve read it. (Incidentally the rather pretty looking OUP cover in the corner is not the edition that I own, mine is a rather battered old penguin with an introduction by D. W. Harding. I love it to the point that it’s falling apart, but must admit the cover is not such that it makes me want to get the camera out...)

I turned to Jane Austen this time because I was feeling a bit low after coming home; there is nobody to touch her for creating an utterly absorbing world to get lost in for a few hours, and of course she can be relied on for a happy ending. This is one of the things I love about reading in general; the right book for the moment will fix my attention until I’ve adjusted to life around me. It’s also why I read determinedly through my lunch breaks; it’s a lot easier to be deal with customers once I feel I’ve really got away from them for a bit.

‘Persuasion’ became my favourite Austen from the first time I read it, without doubt because the plain, quiet, older girl gets her man. I would have been in my teens at the time but even then the allure of the second chance was irresistible, far more so than first love. That Anne Elliot is reconciled to a life of very limited happiness, and yet is absolutely determined not to compromise with marriage where she does not love still strikes me as inspirational. With all due modesty she clearly has an idea of her own worth which won’t allow her to sell herself into matrimony despite the advantages it would bring her, and Austen takes care to provide Anne with a proposal which might easily have provided her with a happy home where she could expect to have been well loved, something entirely absent in her immediate domestic circle. (I am assuming that everybody who reads this will have read ‘Persuasion’ or seen an adaptation of it, so apologies if I’m not making much sense, but all I can say is read the book!)

The thing with Austen though is that you see find something new every time you read her, and whereas in the past I’ve had an uncomplicated liking for Anne, and a suitably low opinion of the rest of her proud, selfish and foolish family this time I found myself sympathising with the generally unpleasant older sister Elizabeth. This maybe because for the first time I read the introduction, there’s a reason I don’t normally bother to do this, and it’s because I normally find myself in violent disagreement with the far more qualified opinion of the academic responsible. So it was this time – but how else could it be when you find someone doesn’t entirely agree with you in their reading of your much loved classic?

Still if I hadn’t read the intro I wouldn’t have been looking at Miss Elizabeth for signs of humanity and that would have been a shame. Whereas Anne, unappreciated as she is within her family, could if she needed command a home with her great friend Lady Russell (a woman with no children and comfortable means who might be depended on to leave Anne well looked after in her will?) or with her sister Mary. (Not very tempting perhaps, but her sisters family are fond of her, she’s likable after all.) Elizabeth’s prospects are pretty grim. At 29 she’s reached a dangerous age for an unmarried woman, she’s no longer young however attractive she still is, she clearly doesn’t have the trick of being liked, and has presumably never received a serious proposal. She has more than her fair share of the family pride and is without doubt a fairly silly woman, but... Elizabeth takes her mother’s place when she’s only 16, she’s close to her father (who encourages all her worst characteristics) and used to the precedence of her borrowed position. The families fall from fortune affects her more than her sisters; her expectations have always been higher, and by the end she’s suffered the indignity of seeing the only man she’s ever been inclined to care for reject her twice, court her sister, and finally abscond with her best friend as his mistress. Even worse there is the possibility that said friend will one day take (and exceed) her social position. Elizabeth has no friends, and no training to prepare for life as a dependant.

Previously I’ve always read her almost as a parody – a Cinderella style ugly sister (despite her handsome appearance), but now I’m inclined to think that Austen also had moments of sympathy for Elizabeth, hers are the sins of the father, and she certainly stands as a warning against the sin of pride, but she’s no Mrs Elton for example (again assuming everyone is entirely familiar with the Austen cannon). The end result is that I’m vaguely looking forward to the time when I pick up ‘Persuasion’, and wondering what I will find in it next time. I’m also considering a sneaky ‘Pride and Prejudice’ binge, and I’m quite reconciled to being at home again.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Wapshot Scandal – John Cheever

My Cheever obsession is developing apace, a temporary relaxation of Waterstone’s policy to stop me buying books saw a cashing in of loyalty points (bitching aside I’m a very loyal customer) in return for the acquisition of John Cheever’s ‘Collected Stories’, Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Helen’, and ‘The Count of Monte Christo’. The Count alone is well over a thousand pages and I’m now idly wondering how many words I got per pence, because Cheever’s ‘Collected Stories’ is a hefty old tome as well.

I’ve had ‘The Wapshot Scandal’ for a few months and have been sitting on it with unusual self restraint; normally I’d just plough through everything I could find by an author who appealed to me as much as Cheever did after ‘The Wapshot Chronicles’, but this way seems to work too, not least because ‘Scandal’ is a very different book.

Where ‘The Wapshot Chronicle’ is a mix of coming of age drama and paean to small town life in New England, ‘The Wapshot Scandal’ is a proper cold war novel (of which I’ve read surprisingly few – surprising to me anyway given that I grew up at the very end of the cold war period). Many of the same characters come back but life has moved on and not necessarily been very kind in the meantime. Even St Botolphs (the small town in question) shows signs of change and a fragmenting community. The whole tone is darker – within the chapter a Christmas eve scene of snow and carol singers starts to take in loneliness, alcoholism, and finally the death of an old man as he pitches into the freezing river whilst drowning a sack of unwanted kittens.

Decay and corruption - both moral and physical, are a constant thread throughout the book yet when it ends on another Christmas scene there’s a silver lining of sorts around the more general black clouds. Cheever is better known (apparently) for his short stories (I wish he was better known generally here because any way I look at it the writing is remarkable.) and in some ways ‘Scandal’ does read like a collection of short stories. The narrative is divided between different characters loosely connected by family and sex, each episode is an almost complete story in itself, somehow though it becomes a complete book, perfectly balanced and far more than the sum of its parts.

Despite, or more probably because of the overall bleakness I found more humour in ‘Scandal’ than in ‘Chronicle’, and more to empathise with as well. There are no certainties, this is the era of McCarthy after all, not to mention heavy drinking, twitching curtains, and rigid social mores. ‘Scandal’ is not as racy as ‘Peyton Place’, or as chilling as ‘The Lottery’, although both those books reflect some of what’s to be found here; a world of flawed but human characters who I find myself caring about far more than I would have supposed possible, and writing so dazzling I can’t begin to understand how it’s put together – which feels like a sure sign of genius.

And on a totally unrelated topic – I won’t draw for ‘Rhubarbaria’ until the weekend so please do put your name down if you think you might like that spare copy!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Rhubarbaria and Prospect Books.

What with holiday reading, holiday book hunting, some very exciting book donations, and a sneaky amazon purchase, a lot of very good bookish things have come my way recently, with the end result that everything is piling up and I’m feeling a touch guilty about it. However I’ve dug out a notebook and made some lists which is giving an illusion of orgonisation, so now all I need to do is stop procrastinating and start writing this stuff up.

Second on my list, but bumped up to first place because of pure enthusiasm is ‘Rhubarbaria’ by Mary Prior published by the really wonderful Prospect Books. Mary Prior has a Shetland connection (including a daughter who’s a very talented cook, which all adds to the pedigree of this book) and I’d heard that this collection was in the pipeline a couple of years ago but nothing more since, and then on this last trip back I actually saw (and bought) a copy. Seeing it was published by Prospect books I looked them up and have been wondering how on earth I could have been basically unaware of such a treasure trove for so long.

As a cook book enthusiast I do own a copy of Alan Davidson’s ‘North Atlantic Seafood’ which I think is probably Prospects best known title, and I distinctly remember reading an article about them some years ago in The Guardian which made me think I should look out for their titles. Sadly I don’t see them very often in the markedly average bookshops which are within my reach, a fact which I’m increasingly inclined to think of as a breach of my human book buying rights. I got in touch with Tom Jaine who now runs Prospect and he very kindly sent me a handful of titles from the English Kitchen series of which ‘Rhubarbaria’ is part, he also sent me a catalogue...

Prospect publish cookery, food history and ethnology of food titles (my mouth is actually watering as I type this) and here are just a few: ‘Dinner for Dickens The Culinary History of Mrs Charles Dickens’s Menu Books’, ‘The Elder In History, Myth and Cookery’, ‘Outlaw Cook’ – no idea, but it sounds exciting – ‘Sugar Plums and Sherbet The Prehistory of Sweets’, ‘Rhubarbaria’ of course, and who couldn’t want ‘The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelm Digby, KT., Opened (1669)’ on their shelf? This is a very small cross section of what’s on offer, please, please go and have a look for yourself.

'Rhubarbaria' is a slim and very reasonably priced volume (to my delight all the headings inside are in a bright rhubarb pink). I have actually read it cover to cover, and caught the Scottish one doing the same thing. He was intrigued – and slightly repulsed - by recipes for Puffin and rhubarb, included for the sake of completism rather than for trying I think.

I learnt that rhubarb was first known for its medicinal qualities, only becoming a recognised food stuff in the last few hundred years. The leaves (poisonous) used to be eaten like spinach, which is perhaps why it took a while for rhubarb to become popular. I read about the heyday of the Yorkshire rhubarb triangle, complete with the rhubarb express which transported the sticks to London. The last express left in 1966 but it’s an image which has really fixed itself in my imagination. The promise of the introductory essay is more than fulfilled in the recipes which are presented with learning, humour, and anecdote – this is a book with a winning personality. Incidentally the recipes I can’t wait to try are for rhubarb jelly; I’ve never eaten it, but have an enticing image in my mind’s eye of something with a jewel like colour and a seductive wobble.

It’s fair to say I have my own cultural reasons for an interest in rhubarb – it’s one of a few things which grow well in Shetland, is indeed almost ubiquitous. Judging by the provenance of the recipes I’m not alone in associating the rhubarb patch with a well ordered home. I can’t say it’s the taste of childhood (though we certainly ate plenty of it) it’s more that I feel slightly adrift when I realise I can’t put my hand on a stick or two of it, and resent the high price I have to pay in supermarkets for it. I collect any recipe that comes my way as if it’s still a staple of existence, and see a romance in the fact of an ingredient shared across the world and including the Falkland Islands, Faroe, Shetland, New Zealand, America, Canada, Yorkshire, and the Persian court.

Finally, if anyone shares my enthusiasm for Rhubarb, thanks to the generosity of Prospect I have a spare copy which is up for grabs. I’m happy to send it anywhere and really can’t recommend this book highly enough. A comment or an email will get you entered in the draw.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Possibly as in should find a way to pull myself together and work through the long list of things I have to do over the next few days, though actually as in Faber Finds and charity shop finds. Now before I go any further I want to make it clear that I have a huge amount of respect for Faber and Faber as a publisher, and everyone of their books that I owned to date is a thing of beauty both inside and out.

The exception now it’s come is a Faber Finds title – Robert Aickman’s ‘The Unsettled Dust’ that I got in Oxfam. I did wonder what it was doing there because these aren’t really cheap paperbacks (I’ve checked and this one would have been £13), and because they’re almost exclusively print on demand. Really the sort of thing you buy because you want it and not on a whim, so not the sort of thing that goes to a charity shop. I felt lucky, not least because I’ve been curious about print on demand for a while but haven’t felt able to afford a proper exploration. (I have a few Virago’s which are print on demand, but a brief search has revealed very little about their policy on this, and I’m not aware of being able to order up any old title that appeals. Which is a shame.)

‘The Unsettled Dust’ is a collection of short stories about the supernatural, and I wholeheartedly agree that it deserves both survival and revival. I was hooked in from the very beginning of the title story; narrated in a querulous middle aged voice it chronicles the strange atmosphere of a national trust type property. It really is quite unsettling, but in a very quiet way, nothing shocking, nothing terribly dramatic happens – but at the end of every one the world that’s known and safe seems a little bit more fragile.

The problem is that something’s gone very wrong with the resetting of the text, I have a fairly liberal view regarding grammar and spelling and will overlook quite a lot of errors even when I notice them, but take this as an example “But, as it to connrm me man s point mat runner communication” which I eventually deciphered as “But as if to confirm the man’s point that further communication”. This is a particularly atrocious excerpt but in the same story a character’s name changes from Agnes to Agnew (at about the same time that it becomes clear that the child in question is male), and although sometimes there were pages without noticeable errors the overall effect makes it hard to follow the plot or appreciate the quality of the writing.

The experience has made me wary of print on demand, and particularly wary of Faber. I can’t tell if this is typical, but I now have no intention of ordering any of the (few) £15+ titles on my wish list until I’ve heard good reports from others – I really can’t afford that kind of disappointment. It’s a shame and as I’ve been re reading about Faber Finds I’m feeling increasingly torn, not least because I’m comparing directly with the Bloomsbury group reprints (amazon parcel turned up yesterday and I’m off work for the week. Very happy.)

I understand that they are not at all the same thing, the Bloomsbury group books are not print on demand, but they are a nicely put together series of books which are most definitely being revived, publicised, and generally celebrated. Physically they’re a real pleasure to read with a particularly nice type (I love the Q’s). Faber Finds are printed specifically for customer orders and the list of potentially available titles is huge – which is exciting. Realistically a list this long and diverse couldn’t exist without print on demand, and again I can’t stress enough how exciting I find this list, which is perhaps why this particular experience has been so disappointing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The call of the kitchen.

My mother called me earlier (as I was walking past a jewellers, which is appropriate as she’s the kind of glamorous blonde who can smell out a diamond at fifty paces, and can clearly sense her daughters proximity to same) and after discussing plans for the weekend which involved such unlikely phrases as ‘I might want to leave a shotgun under your bed’ she said she thought I should write about something other than books for a change. So Just for my mum (and not because she’s apparently armed) I’m going to write about cake, okay so it’s not much of a change, but it is a particularly good cake.

I found the recipe in Nigella Lawson’s ‘Feast’ which is also where the Guinness cake (although I prefer my sisters much more chocolaty version) hailed from. It’s definitely thanks to said sisters very impressive culinary efforts that I’ve revisited this book which despite my being a general Nigella fan is not one I turn to often, probably because I seldom get to cook for large numbers of people and ‘Feast’ suggests a crowd. There’s a lesson in this for me about not judging a book by its cover (or title), or even in judging a recipe by the section it comes under.

The item in question is ‘Rosemary Remembrance Cake’ which I found under funeral feasts, and I was inclined towards making it because I liked the Victorian connotations of anything to do with the language of flowers. (It was partly an homage to Cornflower after her picture challenge, and also because she does such a wonderful line in recipe and book matching.) Anybody who knows me will find it hard to believe that chocolate cake is not necessarily my favourite, but it’s true, and I think this is one of the best cakes I’ve ever made.

Most like a Madeira cake it turned out a lovely mixture of moist and springy on the inside, with a sugar crunchy top. The rosemary flavour isn’t in the least overpowering, but does make it a great cake to have with tea. It’s also made me want to experiment some more with flavoured sugars, I think a subtly rosemary flavoured syrup would turn this into an amazing drizzle cake. Anyway without further ado this is the Link to the recipe – I did nothing to change it, and if mine was only almost as pretty as the one in the picture it was still a mighty handsome cake. Now back to the kitchen for me – I’m off to make jam before the fruit flies descend on the bargain raspberries I got on the market today, and before my will to sterilise jars totally disappears. It’s a favourite of my mum’s and I want to keep her happy...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Green Carnation Prize

I meant to add a link and forgot, so here it is. Sorry. Simon's post and the The Green Carnation page.

It’s enough to turn a woman to shoes.

As a rule contemporary literary prizes don’t much interest me and generally I pay no attention, currently the Booker list is a mystery to me (though I do know it’s out there because I’ve been skimming over several posts about it). This isn’t a stand or anything; it’s just that at the moment I don’t get very excited about these lists long or short. However a (very disappointing) visit to Waterstones and the inauguration of The Green Carnation prize are making me reassess how I feel about prizes generally, and niche prizes in particular.

The Green Carnation is a prize for fiction or memoir written by gay men partly organised by Simon Savidge from Savidge reads. He’s rightly excited about this, and though again in all honesty this might be another long list that doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me I think it’s important because it seems to me it’s getting harder than ever to find books outside of our comfort zones.

Now let me start complaining. My financial status over the last couple of years has left a bit to be desired so for books I’m mostly dependent on charity shop finds, and the kindness of publishers who are happy to support a blog like this (to whom I owe a great deal of happy experiences with the postman), but when I can I want to buy books. From a bookshop. That I’ve browsed for. It’s been one of the great pleasures in my life for as long as I can remember shopping and so I resent the state of provincial bookselling as it exists for me.

In my city we have a few charity bookshops which are pretty good, we have an average W H Smiths, two Waterstones, and that’s about it. It’s not very inspiring and in reality it means Waterstones. I’m still waiting for their improvements to appear (which will presumably be after the clearance 3 for 2 they have on at the moment). I would be a lot happier about this if it wasn’t for the fact that both my local branches, neither large to start with, have been steadily cutting down on shelf space. Because of the aforementioned offer and in proud possession of some actual cash I went to buy some books.

This was my wish list: Any of the new Bloomsbury Group titles – ‘Mrs Arris goes to Paris’, ‘Mrs Ames’, ‘Let’s Kill Uncle’, and ‘Henrietta Sees it Through’. Any or all of these would have done. None in stock. The River Cottage ‘Hedgerow’ book (featured heavily in ‘The Guardian’), not only not in stock, but no plans to get it in either. Capuchin’s new release of ‘Highland Fling’ – out of stock on amazon, and no I didn’t really expect to find it, but still it’s Nancy Mitford for heaven’s sake – it will sell. Wilkie Collins – I was looking for ‘The Dead Secret’, ‘Man and Wife’, or ‘Poor Miss Finch’ – none available, presumably all space taken up by the three different editions of ‘The Woman In White’. Anything by John Cheever, anything by Alice Hoffman. Gladys Mitchell’s ‘The Mystery of a Butchers Shop’.‘The Hurricane Party’ by Klas Ostergren – part of the Canongate myths series, or for that matter ‘Girl meets Boy’ by Ali Smith in the same series, neither in stock. And that would be where I gave up, because not only were none of the books I wanted available, there was nothing tempting that I didn’t already have.

I can’t help but feel that off a list of currant books with everything from classics to your actual contemporary fiction I should have been able to find something. In the end I hit amazon, got two of the Bloomsbury Group titles, ‘Boy Meets Girl’ and Collins’ ‘Hide and Seek’. I’m pleased with this lot, I spent the same give or take as I would have off line but it’s not how I wanted to do it.

Which is where I come back to ‘The Green Carnation’, when bookshops can’t inspire it’s left to the internet which I find brilliant when I know what I want, but frustrating when I don’t, which in turn is why I read so many blogs, and why it seems a few more awards, a few more ways of bringing new and old books to our attention are needed. I hope ‘The Green Carnation’ is a successful enterprise and I hope it gets some attention offline as well as on – I want a utopian idyll of vibrant bookselling back on the average high street, and I want it soon please, before I start buying shoes!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Laura – Vera Caspary

This was one of my holiday reads so has been on a list to write up for the last couple of weeks – which has rather been the fate of this book since I bought it in a fit of enthusiasm for Dorothy B Hughes a couple of years ago. I’d just read ‘The Expendable Man’ reprinted by Persephone who I don’t normally associate with edgy nourish thrillers but it is a particularly good book, and that I do associate with Persephone. I was distracted in my search by ‘Laura’ – I once shared a flat with a girl of that name who would have made a good noir heroine.

By the time I got the book the moment had passed (yes a whole 5 days later) but holidays are a good time for a bit of noir so it seemed like a good time to give it a go. Unfortunately ‘Laura’ is more romance than Noir and that’s part of the reason it’s taken me a bit of time to get round to talking about it, but this afternoon I came across the film version on film 4 which gave me a bit of a prod.

My copy of ‘Laura’ is a feminist press reprint which comes with a very earnest introduction about women writers of pulp fiction (which is interesting, but not really holiday reading) and which definitely kept me off the romance track. It all started very encouragingly with the eponymous heroine being offed courtesy of a sawn off shotgun discharged in her face. (Yes I know it sounds horrible, but any description centres on her green chiffon negligee and silver mules, and it is only fiction.) As her life is slowly unravelled the investigating officer develops something of an obsession for the dead woman, and then one night alone in her flat the whole case changes....(spoilers available on Wikipedia).

I don’t want to say any more about the plot which is actually not so very bad, and though I found the writing a little flat, had I been in the mood for something a bit more romantic (despite shotguns) I probably wouldn’t have minded. What I did quite like was that the narrative swapped between the principle characters, and what I also really liked was the film. Things get swapped around a bit but basically I think the film works better, it’s snappier and just a little bit more convincing, the romance makes more sense, and yet...

With pulp fiction it makes sense that a film version might work better, but I’m currently re reading ‘Persuasion’ and when the film version of that was mentioned in an online book group thread it’s safe to say reaction was violent. If I’d loved ‘Laura’ I would have resented the liberties taken with plot ordering and character, as it was I had to watch the film start to finish, but should it ever matter very much what’s done with a book? It doesn’t change the book, and maybe it’s good to see other people’s interpretations (though naturally if they mess with my vision of how it should be they have it wrong!)

So – ‘Laura’ was okay but not quite what I was hoping for, and I haven’t yet got any more Dorothy B Hughes, so meanwhile it’s back to Raymond Chandler – very reliable and also brilliant on screen adaptations.