Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saplings (part 1)

 One of the things I love about Barbara Pym and about ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ especially is her sympathy for and understanding of the spinster; middle aged virgins and sexually inexperienced women are neither automatically threatening nor ridiculous in her books - they are simply a fact. Passion is all well and good but Pym is able to separate love and the need to love from sex in a way that we currently seem to struggle with. If the surplus woman was a figure of fun and derision pre 1914 at least by the end of the war she becomes somewhat less pathetic.

I’m considering this having just finished Noel Streatfeild’s ‘Saplings’ including the afterword (a much more satisfactory arrangement than a forward/introduction in my opinion). Dr Jeremy Holmes, who writes the afterword in my Persephone edition, feels the need to explain that a relationship might be seen as abusive by today’s standards, and to assure us that this is not so. Reading the book it’s clear that whatever other dangers and tragedy the 4 children it centres upon face, sexual abuse of any kind is not on their cards, it strikes me as an especially modern preoccupation that anyone could find this in the text, even to the extent to deny it.

‘Saplings’ has very little to do with single women, but it has reminded me again what an excellent publisher Persephone is. I’m inclined sometimes to give my heart to Virago – so many excellent books covering so darn much, sometimes in my mind Persephone suffers in comparison, and then I read something they’ve published and realise all over again how much there is to them. ‘Saplings’ is a book like that; middle class, middle England - very much what I would expect, and also the most amazingly perceptive examination of family dynamics and the damage it’s possible to inflict on children without even realising it that I’ve ever read. How could I have expected that?

Not for the first time in a Persephone book I found so many quietly subversive elements that I know it will take time to process it all to my entire satisfaction, but first off it was Lena the mother who jumped out of the book at me. A woman who should never have been a mother, not because she’s a particularly bad parent but because temperament suits her to be a wife and lover – her man will always come first, it’s not a fault so much as a fact, but one that will be hard on the children, especially when the man is no longer their father.

I love that despite the faults of the character she creates Streatfeild maintains sympathy for Lena, allowing her to be all about her sexuality - accepting rather than blaming her for the fact that her children are an important but secondary part of her life. It’s easy to imagine Lena as the charming but wicked stepmother in another sort of story, I just find her the sort of character painted in so many shades of grey and who breaks so many taboos even today that she’s a delight to read. I also notice that her sexuality, which might be taken for granted in contemporary fiction, is pulled out here not as abnormal but as a slightly unbalanced way of loving; all physical nothing spiritual, and that a mix of both is needed to build a real enduring happiness on.

Finally by way of celebration to mark my release from the sofa - here it is properly unemcumbered for the first time in a week...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Some Tame Gazelle

I’ve finally woken up after an exhausting week of swine flu, and taken enough Tamiflu to no longer be a danger to others so today I’m venturing beyond the door and into the world again. I know I’m feeling better because at least I can concentrate enough to read again – and stay awake. Being ill without a book in hand has been an odd experience but yesterday I got all the way through ‘Some Tame Gazelle’, a sure sign of returning health.

Barbara Pym was recommended to me in an online reading group – dove grey books, originally set up to discuss Persephone publications it’s evolved into a brilliant source of recommendation and reading inspiration so when someone there says read it and Virago prints it what could be more convincing? So far I’ve loved all the Pym’s I’ve read and look forward to the rest of the reissues but ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ has something special about it.

It is the tale of Belinda and Harriet Bede, two middle aged spinster sisters, both Oxford educated and comfortably off who have elected to spend their old age together. They live hard by the village vicarage inhabited by the Archdeacon with whom Belinda fell in love 30 years previously when they were both undergraduates; Harriet meanwhile entertains herself with a string of young curates in need of her tender care. In many ways this was the perfect antidote to all the surplus woman books I read over the summer, after so many unhappy spinsters finding contented ones feels like a treat.

‘Some Tame Gazelle’ was Pym’s first book, she started writing it in 1934 when she was only 21, but it wasn’t published until 1950, apparently it’s how she imagined herself and her sister might be in prosperous middle age. I have a lot of sympathy with Pym’s outlook in this narrative, it’s easy to believe in Belinda’s continuing dream of love with the Archdeacon, and the sometimes prickly relationship she has with his wife. Henry is a man difficult to the point of being almost entirely unlikable, for Belinda it is certainly better to have loved and lost, but the habit of loyalty and thinking herself in love are enough for her happiness, when a proposal comes along from a very respectable but unappealing quarter she has no hesitation in turning it down. I suspect that if Henry ever where free and inclined to marry her she would turn him down too.

Harriet’s passion for curates also makes sense; Pym makes no bones about them being more in the way of pets than potential lovers. Despite her middle years Harriet doesn’t lack for entirely suitable suitors but again elects not to marry, and why should she. Her life is comfortable, well ordered and full of interest; the curates fill a romantic void, but also allow full scope for her mothering instincts. If any of that sounds a little unhealthy I don’t think it’s meant to. These are women who have elected to make the best of what they have without compromise – no marriage without love or the chance of passion. As I said I can believe in Pym’s vision although I wonder what a slightly older woman would make of it. I’ve seen plenty of the sort of insubstantial personal relationships she describes between men and women being made use of to substitute for something more conventional or deep, but wonder how many would really pass up the opportunities Belinda and Harriet have? I’m torn on this, initially I began to think it unlikely, but I’m veering back the other way now.

Another thing that really fascinated me about this book was its place in time. All the other Pym’s I’ve read have been very much of the time in which they were written; the 1950’s and 60’s and that time has felt real, with ‘Some Tame Gazelle’ that’s not really the case. The descriptions of food and clothes, as well as manners and conventions make it feel like the 1930’s. Clearly there has not been a war, and as yet there is no hint of a war, on the other hand both sisters have taken their degrees almost it seems as a matter of course and reached their 50’s so it can’t really be the 30’s. I’m not sure why this disconcerted me so much but it did there is definitely something odd about reading such an ordinary pre war vision of a war free future.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Narcisse Noir

Well I have survived my first week at the new job with nothing more serious than (very) sore feet and the odd bruise and cut – wine is a hands on dirty dangerous sort of occupation, but now I’m at the weekend and seriously in need of some escapism. I’m still flipping through ‘Perfumes The Guide’ in odd moments – it’s an excellent book to get lost in and spent a very satisfying half hour this morning scouring town for a perfume called ‘Encre Noir’, I thought a scent called black ink might just be the thing for a booklover, the description promised a top note of wet paint to delight anyone who’s ever dipped a pen in India Ink. I found the perfume and can confirm a definitely bookish smell on first spray, most satisfactory.

I’m also talking about perfume because it introduced me to one of my favourite authors – Rumer Godden. Hers is a name I sort of knew for years, but never really paid any attention to until I read somewhere about a near legendry scent – Narcisse Noir, and that it was one of the few/only perfumes to inspire a book; Godden’s 'Black Narcissus', which was also the inspiration for one of my favourite films (also Black Narcissus). This is what finally made me read Godden, and kick myself for not reading her before. For absolutely no good reason she seems to be drifting out of bookshops and out of print at the moment, although if I’m honest I don’t think much of the cover art Pan chose for her books - I certainly wouldn’t have picked one up if I didn’t know what was inside, and perhaps I’m not alone in that.

In ‘Perfumes’ Tania Sanchez describes Narcisse Noir thus:
“Shed a tear for Narcisse Noir. Where is the darkness, the strangeness, the smell of the cold, damp ashes after a bonfire, the animal breath – the drama? It was for woman in columnar gowns, marcelled hair, and red lipstick waving foot long cigarette holders and making life memorably difficult for everyone...It is now a pretty, safe little sweet jasmine and orange blossom. How can you ruin a man’s life properly whilst wearing this?”
It’s very close to being a good description for the book as well, and I am thanking heaven that no one can reformulate and dilute books at this moment. I made the pilgrimage to Les Senteurs in deepest darkest Belgravia to smell Caron’s Narcisse Noir once, if you ask nicely they will decant some into a little sample tube and you can take it away to consider. I used mine to drench my copy of ‘Black Narcissus’ - it still smelt pretty strange and opulent to my nose and I can think of worse things to make libations to.

If you haven’t got a copy and you see ‘Black Narcissus’ cheap then buy it. Second hand on amazon today it’s about £15, so clearly there’s demand for it, and so there should be. It’s a dark and strange tale of a group of nuns sent into the Himalayan mountains to start a school and dispensary in an old harem palace. From the beginning they are out of place and at odds with their surroundings which resist all attempts to be tamed into Anglican ideas of correctness. All business has to be conducted through Mr Dean, another dark and disturbing element who proves powerfully attractive to some of the nuns. There is also Dilip the young general, who come to the nuns for lessons, nephew of the man who has presented the nuns with their palace. He too is an exotic disquieting presence in the house; it is his habit of wearing Narcisse Noir that gives the book its name. It is Dilip who explains that “you have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.”

It’s not giving much away to say that eventually all the nuns turn a little mad as the mountain seduces them into giving into their desires, be it for a garden of flowers rather than vegetables, or children to care for more deeply than is allowed, or even a man. The ending is both tragic and hopeful which seems fitting for a book about faith.

There is something fascinating about nuns and convents, I’m certainly aware of more books about them than their male equivalents, what I love about ‘Black Narcissus’ is that Godden manages to explore the sacrifices faith demands and the difficulties of living a communal life with sympathy, and presumably a deep personal faith. It’s not a faith I share, but she makes me understand it which I think is rare and precious gift enough.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mrs Tim of the Regiment

Bloomsbury publishing’s ‘Bloomsbury Group’ has intrigued me from the off. There has been such a boom in reprinting old titles – something that I buy into entirely, be the books unjustly neglected classics or pure nostalgia. In fairness I think most of them fall somewhere between the two, although it’s impossible to fault Virago, Persephone, Hesperus et al in terms of quality even where there is an element of nostalgia involved.

I have a definite preference for books which have proved their worth, actually I’ll rephrase that – I have a definite preference for writers who have proved their worth and stood the test of time. Some of the observations in ‘Howards End is on the Landing’ have made me think a bit more about why I pick books like this, and made me feel a lot happier about it. Of all the books I keep there are only an armful or two by contemporary (or at least late 20th Century) writers. There are armfuls more that I’ve read, enjoyed and disposed of - because they seem so disposable - and who knows perhaps in 30 years Dan Brown will read like Dornford Yates and I’ll enjoy the period detail.

What Bloomsbury did which seems subtly different to other publisher’s approaches (and is surely a touch of marketing genius) is to approach book bloggers for title suggestions thereby ensuring a certain amount of interest from the off. I hope it works for them because they turned to some brilliant readers and any publisher who prints ‘The Bronte’s Went to Woolworths’ would have my whole hearted approval whatever they went on to do.

Out of the four titles I didn’t already know D. E Stevenson’s ‘Mrs Tim of the Regiment’ is the one I’ve been keenest to read. I enjoyed ‘Miss Buncle’s Book’ when Persephone bought it out and hoped for more like it. I found a copy of 'Amberwell' earlier this year, and although I enjoyed it wasn’t really smitten. I know Elaine at Randomjottings had similar experiences with other titles, so it’s very gratifying to have an excellent D. E. Stevenson presented for my reading pleasure with such a flourish and quality guaranteed (after all I’m a busy woman again).

When I first opened Mrs Tim I was afraid from the format it was going to be ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ without Delafield’s magic touch, but further acquaintance with Mrs Tim reveals her to be a very different woman. She’s much more ordinary, probably more domestically able, and the dynamic with her husband is somehow warmer – they feel more like equals, more romantically involved, more definitely on the same side. I think the provincial lady would like Mrs Tim, and I can’t imagine anyone who’s fond of either not liking the other but at the end of the day I find it easier to imagine a conversation with Mrs Tim, I suspect army wives haven’t changed as much as provincial lady’s have.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Joy of Scents

Or ‘Perfumes The A – Z Guide’

I feel like I managed to pull a fast one with this, but somehow I managed to get on the mailing list of someone exceptionally nice who was kind enough to send me a copy. There’s something about unexpectedly finding myself the recipient of a book I really want which makes me feel like I’ve pulled a fast one – even in the most legitimate of circumstances and Perfumes definitely gives me a getting away with it vibe.
Smell is probably the most under rated sense we possess, but how dull life would be without it. Food would be bland, wine would be tasteless, crisp autumn evenings and fresh spring mornings would lose half their savour and baths would be merely functional. I am slightly obsessive about scent (possibly because of a decade in the wine trade where you really have to think about smell; if you ever notice someone absentmindedly swirl and sniff a cup of tea or glass of water you can be fairly sure of what they do for a living) for two reasons. First because I can think of no more powerful memory trigger, and second because smells I like make me happy (and without any of the repercussions of say chocolate or gin or very expensive handbags).

One of the great unexpected pleasures of wine tasting is discovering wines with a giggle factor; something that smells so utterly delicious, magical and complex that it makes you smile then laugh out loud before you even drink it. Perfume has much, much, more of the same quality; a well chosen scent also has the power to enhance confidence and provide comfort, so like I say – only slightly obsessed.

When Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’s ‘Perfumes The Guide’ appeared in hardback last year I think it’s fair to say that it was as successful as anyone could possibly have hoped, I couldn’t wait to get it then not least because of all the press buzz, and spent weeks of convalescence making lists of things to look for when I was out and about again. The new paperback edition is far better, 451 extra fragrances have been reviewed (bonus) and everything has been generally streamlined and improved, but what really makes the book indispensable – as with any great book- is the writing.

Neither Turin nor Sanchez feels the need to pull their punches and both are evangelical about their subject, Reviews range from a few words to several paragraphs from brutally honest to ecstatic; they are also funny. Estee Lauder’s Spellbound is treated thus “medicated treacle. Powerfully cloying and nauseating. Trails for miles. Frightens horses. Gets worse.” Clearly they are also personal and subjective (by which I mean they don’t care for my personal favourite ‘Tabac Blond’) yet all the history and romance of perfumery are also contained here.

For me this is a book of pure escapism, already I am making new lists of things to seek out, hopeful of finding one of those elusive scents which will make me smile on the dullest day, but for when I can’t find anything, can’t go out, or can’t afford it then I can always turn to the description of YSL’s Kouros. I won’t quote, but beg that anybody reading this take the trouble to look it up next time they’re in a book shop, if the sheer lovely over the top nonsense doesn’t make you want to find a man in Kouros to smell then I am sorry for it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Howards End is in the Landing

I have purposely tried to take my time on this book rather than swallow it whole because there just feels like such a lot of things to take in. I also know a lot of people are reading it or anticipating reading it and so I want to have my thoughts in order before holding forth. I had intended to get up early and finish it this morning. (I’m practicing getting up early for new job, the book was the carrot to sweeten the stick of not being a morning person – and it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me to discover that I woke up, thought about it, and then went straight back to sleep).

I’ve seen 'Howards End is on the Landing' described as blog like, and I understand that, although the more I read of it the more it feels like a series of essays or lectures, maybe even a correspondence. I feel like I know things about Susan Hill now, but not that I know her – which is how I like it. She is proving to be an entertaining thought provoking presence in my home, but I like being able to close the book and put her away before her presence becomes to formidable.

The beauty of the format is that whilst each chapter leads towards a final point – a list of 40 books Hill wouldn’t be without, each one stands alone too and there are a number of them I will be revisiting time and again – either because I find them so in tune with how I think, or so out of tune. ‘Writing in Books’ is one of those chapters – and actually it gets me both ways.

Like Susan Hill I used to write my name in my books until I was about fourteen and then stopped, I have never possessed Bookplates. The Bookplate issue is one of a handful of moments when I feel like I’m really meeting the author – she doesn’t like them:

“Happily, I can go among all our books without finding a single volume bearing a bookplate. Bookplates are for posers, even when beautifully designed by real artists and engravers, though most people claim they are only there to identify the owner in case of loss. I don’t believe that. Do people put ID plates inside their handbags and wallets, or etch them on the family silver and China? Of course they don’t...”

But they do Susan they do. I think of bookplates as a particularly Victorian thing, all part of a passion for embellishment. The family silver isn’t really family silver without some sort of monogram or crest – it’s just silver. Any Victorian gentleman with pretensions to gentility would have furnished himself with a library, all his books neatly plated; I grew up with my great great uncles. If there were ever any valuable books they were gone before I was aware of them, what I remember are bound volumes of Punch, and rows of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and some racy looking stuff in French and white leather. I read some of the Collins, cheap editions with uncut pages so I knew I was the first person to open them with any serious intent. They’re all gone now but I hope I stumble across one again sometime in a second hand shop, it occurs to me as well that my name scribbled across a page would be a silent (but hopefully powerful) reproach to any book borrower lax about returning things.

I don’t write in my books, or at least never about the text, not since being mortified by rereading my youthful ‘insights’ into T S Eliot. I still have my A level English books and I know they’re heavily annotated but I can’t bear to open them again. Not yet anyway. I like coming across others annotations though, especially when they’re far more insightful then me, I’m happy to underline things and dog ear corners, and it fascinates me to listen to what other readers do with their books and see how they fit into their lives, all of which is why ‘Howards End is on the Landing’ is turning into such a perfect peach of a book for me.

Friday, October 16, 2009


For years Elizabeth Von Arnim didn’t really appeal very much to me but people whose opinion I respect a great deal kept recommending her and so eventually I bought a copy of ‘Vera’. I was in a very big bookshop at the time, and I vaguely remember there being quite a choice but I was sold by the blurb on the back which declared this:

“Elizabeth Von Arnim’s masterpiece, Vera is a forceful study of the power of men in marriage – and the weakness of women in love.”

After all masterpiece seems like a good place to start, and forceful study sounded interesting, furthermore the cover was vaguely optimistic – open spaces and warm yellows. Yes, yet again judging a book by its cover turns out to be a mistake. This must have been five or more years ago, I tried reading ‘Vera’ then and got nowhere with it. This spring I rediscovered Von Arnim when I picked up the altogether more typical ‘Elizabeth and Her German Garden’ in a charity shop, I followed that with 'The Enchanted April' and wondered why I had waited so long – here was a delightful writer funny, observant, light and perhaps just a little wicked – and then I got round to ‘Vera’ again.

I notice that previous covers Virago used for ‘Vera’ give a better impression of its contents, this book is undoubtedly a masterpiece but I would describe its contents as explosive rather than forceful. It is certainly one of the best most empathetic descriptions of domestic abuse that I’ve ever read and it chilled me to the core. I found this book far more worrying, frightening, and downright spooky than ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ for example, and can’t help feel that the horror section might be its natural home.

Vera’ turns out to be the deceased wife of Mr Wemyss, only 2 weeks dead when he meets Lucy Entwhistle on the day she is orphaned. Poor Lucy is young (22) and cherished, the death of her father leaves her with nothing and almost nobody, so when the much older Wemyss simply takes over she lets him. The brilliance of this book is also the thing that makes it most chilling and likely. Lucy’s is a pleasant but still unformed personality; Wemyss is a monster of selfish determination with apparently no awareness beyond what he wants. His behaviour isn’t entirely rational and certainly falls short of what society expects, nobody seems to like him very much, but nor do they dislike him enough to really see what’s wrong with him, everybody likes Lucy but not enough to understand how vulnerable she is, or how in need of protection.

In the end Lucy is married to Wemyss, increasingly isolated, with a dawning realisation of what her situation is, and what most likely happened to ‘Vera’ who’s death looks less and less accidental. Wemyss behaviour becomes increasingly shocking not because he’s evil, but because he so totally believes that what he wants is right and anything that runs contrary to his will is wrong. The conclusion left me hanging with the certainty of tragedy to come, and wondering at what point it should have been possible to stop it. Probably a book best read by single people who can then count their blessings- and definately should come with a warning!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Short and sweet

For a woman who swore off buying books for a week or two I’m spending an unhealthy amount of time in Waterstone’s, excuses that I’m only there for the coffee, or ‘honestly, it’s a shortcut’ are wearing rather thin as I spend most the time hovering around the fiction and cookery section. Only the promise of a trip to Astley book farm at the weekend and the possibilities for second hand bargains contained therein are allowing me to exercise any self control at the moment, that and the stubborn refusal of large book chains to tailor their 3 for 2 offers entirely to my reading pleasure.

Actually my local Waterstone’s is a shortcut, which would be far handier if the time saved walking through it wasn’t spent on browsing, but it’s hardly my fault that yesterday I noticed a big stack of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery and Other Stories’ had finally arrived, and not really my fault that I had to stop and look. In fact it’s a positive testament to self control that I didn’t opt to spend every last penny on my person there and then. The Lottery will wait, I want some Jackson to look forward to, but I also noticed the ‘Oxford book of Gothic Tales’, and now is the time for all things ghostly.

I’m a big fan of short stories, especially compilations – they make such good travelling companions for shorter journeys and sit so happily by the bed and bath. A look at the Oxford collection revealed an F M Mayor short. This time last year I hadn’t heard of Mayor, but when I finally discovered her novels I found them profoundly moving. 3 perfect books which left me wanting more... Fortunately ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’ was sitting right next to the Oxford and it also had the Mayor story, and I already have it, so I was able to hot foot it home without spending anything.

Getting the book of the shelf was one of those great moments of discovery and rediscovery. I originally bought it a year ago because it had Richmal Crompton, E. Nesbit, May Sinclair and Stella Gibbons and a whole lot of other stuff that looked interesting. A year later I’m looking through the index getting excited by F.M Mayor, Mrs Henry Wood, and Margaret Oliphant. There are a couple of names I don’t recognise but how intriguing does Margery Lawrence’s ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ sound? I’m saving it for tonight, and if I happen to find myself in a bookshop again today I might do some proper looking for a new collection – there was a tempting anthology of Victorian ghost stories and I am going to be spending a lot more time on buses...

By the by the F M Mayor story was 'Miss De Mannering of Asham', it has one of the most horrible images I've ever read in it, and the first indication of haunting is surprisingly similar to my experiance, although on the whole it's more sad than frightening - best read at night!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Love on the Supertax

I’ve read some fantastic books this summer but a lot of them have been about surplus women, unhappy marriages and frankly abusive husbands. The overall effect has been slightly depressing at times (Elizabeth Von Arnim’s ‘Vera’ made me so prickly I couldn’t be nice to my partner for 2 weeks after) so in a bid to read something more cheerful and in honour of the immanent new Marghanita Laski release from Persephone I dug out ‘Love on the Supertax’.

I found this book in a charity shop in the section labelled oddities, which is a pretty fair description of it. A slim volume of not quite 130 pages published in 1944 it starts like this:

“This is a story of the spring of 1944. But it does not tell of that jocund season as you know it in Finsbury and Hoxton, where, after their days work is done, clear-eyed, confident men and women meet to discuss the Trades Disputes Act or to visit the latest exhibition of paintings by Left-Wing artists at the Klassical Kinema; nor of spring where the first warm rays of sun strike down on the bountiful barrows of Bermondsey, the colourful backyards of Shoreditch. This is not a story of that spring of 1944 as it came to strong vigorous citizens with an ample present and an assurance of the future, but of spring as it came to the needy and the dispirited, to the fallen and the dispossessed, spring as it came to Mayfair.”
which pretty accurately sets the tone for the rest of the book. Both ends of the social scale are attacked with an acid pen, the aristocracy for trying so vainly to cling on to a departed past, and working class socialists for a sort of closed shop unionism which is just as resistant to progress and change.

The heroine of the story Lady Clarissa indulges in dreams of being born poor and untitled with all the privilege and opportunity that brings, and so is delighted to meet a young worker. He is able to introduce her to the forgotten delights of enough to eat, and the wonderful certainty of public transport after the vagaries of nonexistent taxi’s. One of the funniest passages in the book is the meeting between Clarissa and the young man’s parents; it’s beautifully drawn and perhaps a bit less cruel then the rest of the book.

Eventually Clarissa ends up with the sinister Sir Hubert, the saviour of his class; a black marketer and fascist who I presume is modelled on Oswald Mosley, there were a few details that felt like Mitford references, especially to Nancy Mitford’s novels, although it’s long enough since I read them for me to be unsure of how much of a mark she was meant to be. I definitely got the impression though that Diana Mosley and her like where an intended target.

It’s a funny little book, amusing with a definite edge to it, and certainly something of an oddity compared to the other books of the period that have come my way. Well worth picking up if you find a copy and have an hour or two in which to read it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Is this really the begining of the end for the book?

My passion for the printed word really took hold when I was about 14 and found a clipping from The Times carefully stored in an attic box. It dated from June 1815 and reported allied victory at Waterloo. I had never felt so close to history as a living continuing thing. When the clipping was put away it must already have been eighty or more years old, I don’t know why it was kept, but I do know someone else is likely to find it like I did, maybe not for another 80 years and I wonder how it will make them feel?

Browsing through Susan Hill's ‘Howards End is on the Landing’, a book about books (once again see Stuck in a Book for a proper review) and our relationships with them, reminded me of that clipping. ‘Howards End is on the Landing’ has gathered a real buzz amongst bloggers; clearly a much anticipated book but reading the comments after Simon’s review I can’t help but notice a lot of the excitement is about the appearance of the book, and it is a lovely looking thing; it glows like a ruby on the shelf in my local bookshop – ridiculously seductive.

I don’t have an internet connection at home, so generally online time is confined to an hour or so visiting a few favourite places with a fairly specific purpose in mind, but for the last 2 days I’ve had unlimited access and few distractions so have actually browsed. Persephone books pointed me in the direction of an article John Sutherland wrote in the F.T. back in August, and one from Lucy Mangan in The Guardian. Lucy had readers block and decided the best way to fix it was to rearrange her books, to take back ownership of them. Susan Hill decided to spend a year exploring her own collection for much the same reasons. John Sutherland talks about the arrival of the E-book.

In all honesty I don’t get the E-book concept. I’m far to in love with the book, especially the novel, as an object (it’s accepted in retail that once the customer holds something they’re likely to buy it) more than half the excitement of ordering from amazon is in waiting for the post man to deliver something other than a bill. I can’t imagine not picking up and physically handing over a book to lend, or the equally physical pleasure of getting it back. Nor can I imagine not having shelves of books to browse until something just the right size and shape presents itself to my hand, eye and mind. I’m proud of my books, happy to expose my personality through them just as much as through the cloths I wear.

Perhaps more to the point I can’t imagine relying on something that need batteries, and will be prone to break when I inevitably drop it, or just when I’m in the middle of something. Presumably the technology will develop to a point where it’s possible to be reading half a dozen things consecutively on the same machine, and in a format that won’t be obsolete within months of you buying into it. I suppose it’s possible that I’ll overcome my dislike of reading large amounts on screen, and loose my romantic affection for the creases and marks on a book that remind me of our history together. I would miss the bookshop haunting that anticipates a long awaited new release, and the Harry Potter levels of excitement on those rare occasions when something really takes off, I’m not sure what authors would sign but so be it. Admittedly I’m prone to lose things, and misplacing my entire library, or worse, having it stolen wouldn’t amuse me, but if it’s the future I suppose I’ll have to get used to it. Even I can see some positive possibilities in being able to download books like music, especially if it improves availability and price for rare and out of print texts.

What really intrigues me though is that on the one hand I see more books about books than ever. From coffee table tomes on cover art to autobiography by book (‘Howards End is on the Landing’ again), to writing about books (which isn’t just confined to what’s in them) via blogs and columnists than I might ever have imagined. On the other hand booksellers are aggressively promoting E-Books in a way that suggests they see the writing on the wall. Will we be part of the last generation to own books in much the same way that we’re part of the last generation to write letters, or will the book in its paper form remain as popular as ever?

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Haunting of Hill House

Sunday was spent ignoring domestic matters as I couldn’t put this book down. Straight off I would have to say that I don’t think it’s as good as ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’, but given the quality of the competition that’s hardly a criticism. A few things struck me about ‘The Haunting of Hill House’; first off it has a simply stunning beginning, which is also the end:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Jackson uses repetition throughout the book, sometimes the effect is darkly comic, sometimes disorientating, and sometimes creepy, which pretty much sums up the whole book. I’m not yet well acquainted enough with American Gothic to get over the altogether foreign feel of it. The small town world encountered here, or even in ‘Peyton Place’ is dissimilar enough to not entirely translate into my English experience, close enough to understand, but different enough to make me wonder. One of the things I’m never really sure I can imagine properly is the sheer amount of space and isolation, the full weight of wooded hills pressing down in and around full of god knows what. The countryside I know, even at its wildest is much tamer, much more manageable, much smaller than that.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in a house which had a reputation for being haunted and I could recount plenty of ghost stories that the tellers (including me) swore where true. Looking back honestly there was only one occasion that I genuinely can’t explain, it took place in the middle of the day and it was more disconcerting than frightening, what could be frightening was that the house was on an Island, At its closest point we were only separated from the mainland by a few hundred yards, but in bad weather we were genuinely cut off and of course; nobody could hear you scream!

The last inhabitant before us had a not entirely happy life, legend does not as yet have much to say about her, but she spent the last few years of her life a recluse, bed ridden with MS. She had a lovely view and a deep Christian faith which she would have needed, without them it would be all too easy to imagine a creeping insanity and this brings me back to Hill House. The actual haunting bits swing between genuinely scary (whose hand is that you're holding in the dark?) and to my mind slightly overblown, but the really frightening element is that of what happens when an unbalanced mind meets an unbalanced house filled with generations of unspent malice.

When I first picked up this book something felt slightly off kilter about it, and know I’ve worked it out I’m particularly impressed with the cover art. A little thumbnail print on the back makes it clear that the picture on the front has been turned upside down, as it’s a reflection anyway it’s not immediately obvious, and I keep finding myself turning the book around. A clue to the nature of Hill House is that none of the angles are true, everything is a little off spatially and consequently the characters perception of space and distance is thrown right out. The cover in its small way does the same to the reader. Genius.

Until I bought this book I was going to wait until Halloween to read it, but actually a sunny October day was probably better, it’s a summer ghost story, all the more scary for the sunshine’s inability to keep the unexplainable at bay, I look forward to finding more Jackson to read.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Shopping Spree

For the last six months or more my book buying has been confined to lucky finds second hand, and although confined only describes where I’ve shopped and how much I’ve spent, it has sometimes been frustrating, especially because of a self imposed ban on amazon. I cracked a few weeks ago with the Sarah Caudwell books to the extent of buying the 3 I could get for 1p (+ postage and packing of course). I still have to track down ‘Thus was Adonis Murdered’; other people are clearly swayed by Slightly Foxed too and the price of UK copies has sneaked up to a princely sum, although I notice today that copies from the US are looking very reasonable...

The thing is that although market place prices compare well with actual high street prices money disappearing from my account without me touching it is not a happy thought – even if a book materialises a few days later I’m no longer really comfortable with shopping on plastic. A year of handing over cash and being sure I have the money to spare has had a profound effect on my buying habits, something I’m actually really happy about, but this week I’ve celebrated good job news with a mini spree. The excitement of waiting for the post to bring books I know I want, of anticipating their arrival by making space on the bookshelves, even of planning when I will read them has been a real pleasure. All the more so because it’s been a while, which just goes to show what a wonderful thing self restraint can be!

All my lovely books have now arrived, the last turning up today, which has made it a top week for post as my father very kindly sent me an adjustable spanner. He very correctly pointed out that no woman should be without one, and immediately set about rectifying this sad deficiency in my domestic arrangements once he discovered it. Dads are great.

I’ve actually managed to acquire a dozen books this week all of which I’m excited by, but the chosen ones (as opposed to the ones that chose me) are:

• Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (sorry; so long anticipated and so intoxicating with its fresh inky smell that I can’t help mentioning it again).

• ‘Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma’ by Diana Birchall, Diana and I are in an online reading group together and she very kindly made me a present of this book after hearing my (generally very low) opinion of sequels. She’s proving an exception to the rule and I can’t wait to finish this one, although Hill House is also clamouring for attention; strange bed fellows.

• Barbara Comyns’ ‘The House of Dolls’, I have mostly loved Comyns in the past, with the possible exception of ‘Sisters by a River’ and I’ve coveted this story of middle aged prostitutes for a while. (Heavens, what Do my bookshelves say about me?)

• Joanna Cannan’s ‘High Table’, I loved ‘Princes in the Land’ and have been on the lookout for another of her books ever since I read it. As I live on the edge of campus a university novel seems very appropriate for the end of fresher’s week.

• Violet Trefusis – two of her books; ‘Broderie Anglaise’ and ‘Hunt the Slipper’, both of these have been on my wish list for ages. I have a fascination for Vita Sackville –West, and these two titles will join a small collection of books connected to her.

• Ah and finally ‘Molly Keane’s Book of Nursery Cooking’. This book has been at the back of my mind for years, Verity's review reminded me, and I am so happy to have it. Already it’s given me an entirely new light on her novels, so another £2.76 well spent.

I will now be ignoring the many temptations of Amazon for some time to come, really I will – even the Caudwell can wait for now...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oh Happy Day

Well the magic £10 has finally been spent; Waterstone’s came through with an example of customer service nothing short of epic and dug out a freshly delivered copy of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ from a pile of about a hundred boxes – I would have fobbed me off until things where calmer, but they were far to conscientious, so conscientious that I didn’t even mind paying full price.

I discovered Shirley Jackson via an Elaine Showalter article where ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ was highly recommended, after some internet searching I tracked down a copy and loved it. I suppose it’s sort of a horror story – horrible things certainly happen, and it’s to be found in the horror section, but the genre tag doesn’t do Jackson any favours, certainly not where ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is concerned. Stuck in a book has done an excellent review so I won’t repeat him, but I will say that Dickens ghost stories are in the classics section which is where I became aware of them, I hope they’re in horror as well. Jackson deserves cross over with literary fiction, she has an audience there that might well miss her snuggled up to Stephen King (although that’s cool company to be in too).

I stayed up as late as I could, desperate to start reading ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, fortunately for my night’s sleep that was only about 10.30 and it hasn’t started to get creepy yet, I’m only 20 pages in (it was a case of go to sleep then, or read until 2am and be very sorry for it today) but already the tension is building, Jackson is really very good at showing the mean and petty side of people; all the small frustrations that build up to create despair, vulnerability and desperation, all the things in short that make small town life so unpleasant even without spooky goings on in the big house.

It was also a happy day because the reality of being offered a full time job has sunk in leaving me with a tremendous sense of relief. I have about 10 days of part time employment left in which I can fully enjoy the pleasures of free ish time. The last half hour of yesterday spent with an excellent and long anticipated book, cup of tea and very good sticky bun was particularly satisfying. Bun making being a drawn out stop start process I imagine these ones will be the last I make for a while, but if anybody feels inclined to make them here’s the recipe. (It comes highly recommended and appreciated)


12 bun muffin tin
500g bread flour
50g castor sugar
½ teaspoon of salt
7g (1 sachet) easy blend yeast
150g unsalted butter
150ml milk
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon castor sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons of maple syrup
2 tablespoons of golden syrup
Mix the flour, 50g of castor sugar, salt and yeast in a bowl, melt 75g of the butter into the milk and add to the dry ingredients with the 2 eggs. Either need by hand for 10 mins or use a dough hook for 5 until springy and satiny to touch. Form into a ball and put in an oiled bowl covered in cling film to rise until doubled in size (45 mins to an hour+).

Mix the rest of the butter with ½ the brown sugar, the maple syrup and the golden syrup into a gloopy mess, spoon into the bottoms of the muffin tray.

When the dough has risen knock it back and form into a large rectangle, spread it with the remaining brown sugar, cinnamon and caster sugar, role into a sausage and cut into 12 rounds, place in the muffin tray

Heat the oven to 180/ gas 4 whilst the dough has a final prove in the tin (for about 20 mins) bake for 20-25 mins placing a baking sheet under the muffin tin to catch the syrup which will erupt in the manner of molten lava from under the buns and try and weld itself to the bottom of the oven.

Allow to cool for a few minutes before turning out, a spoon to get left over syrup out of the tins is handy, and eat as soon as possible.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What to read next...

I feel at a bit of a reading loose end today. The weather is putting me in the mood for something properly melodramatic and gothic to which end I’ve been waiting patiently for the penguin reissues of Shirley Jackson to hit the shelves. The bookshop assures me they’re due in any day which has put me off ordering online, and now I realise I could have had them a week ago, but then a week ago the weather wasn’t saying gothic melodrama, and if I order them now by the time they turn up I’ll most likely be deep into something else.

I have no shortage of books waiting to be read, but I can’t find anything under 600 pages which suits my mood and that’s more commitment then I can handle today. Help is at hand though. It turns out I live not 200 yards from a university bookshop, a fact I was oblivious to until last night, but thanks to road works I was led right past it, and couldn’t help but notice a juicy looking fiction section through the locked doors. I’m going to have a look this morning hoping to find something short and possibly 19th century, after making cinnamon buns (also something the weather is calling for) to help me enjoy my last few days of under employment.

For inspiration I turned to John Sutherland’s classic fiction puzzles. I’ve had these books for years and pull them out semi regularly for inspiration at times like this. The general result is that I end up reading Austen again. I like Sutherland’s books, literary criticism normally has me jumping up and down in indignation over something that I disagree with, but the puzzle approach is fun (if not really criticism). For a non English student it feels like an appropriate level of speculation and examination, enough to make me pick out more from a book, but not so didactic that I feel uncomfortable with the conclusions drawn.

It has however been a while since I’d picked up any of the Sutherland books and it came as a surprise how limited the number of novels and authors discussed are. Since I last looked inside one of them I’ve discovered Margaret Oliphant, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood and George Gissing and it was something more along these lines that I was after (Though Austen is sorely tempting again). It makes me realise how much more accessible the literature of previous generations is becoming to any interested reader, rather than being limited to dedicated English Lit students.

I am off to explore the bookshop now whilst the buns are proving, and am feeling pretty optimistic about finding something to spend money on (this by the way is the same £10 that’s been put aside for buying a new book for 2 weeks now, fingers crossed this unprecedented inability to spend money is about to come to an end).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Emma v Lucilla

I think this is a good time to confess that I enjoyed Desperate Romantics’. I thought it was fun television - it looked good, was often funny, showed a lot of paintings (which appealed to me at least) and relied on source material which was if anything more salacious than the screen version, and it was new. It might have been the new bit which made it so much fun, or that it wasn’t very serious but whichever it was I wish they would make more like it.

This is what I was thinking when I watched the new BBC version of Emma on Sunday with increasingly mixed feelings. On the one hand the performances where excellent and it’s all but impossible to beat Jane Austen for humour and perception, on the other hand there’s hardly a shortage of high quality Austen adaptations, many of them from the last decade. Do we need or want more? Clearly the BBC thinks so but I’m wondering why. In some ways Emma has to be a safe choice, but for all the people who turn on to watch something comfortingly familiar their must be at least an equal number who turn off from something too familiar, and then of course there’s the large part of the audience (like myself) who will watch anything of sufficient quality in that slot.

I read Margaret Oliphant’s ‘Miss Marjoribanks’ earlier this summer and was reminded at the time of Emma, watching Emma on Sunday reminded me of Lucilla Marjoribanks. There are similarities between the domestic settings, the relationships and rivalries in small town life, and in the father daughter relationship. Lucilla’s stated aim in life after the loss of her mother is to be a comfort to her father (whether he wants it or not). Beyond this point the similarities become more superficial, but the characterisation is excellent, Lucilla’s ongoing failure to marry complete with a set of near misses with eligible bachelors, her energetic determination to bend society to her will, her good works – she could be infuriating, but Oliphant is so adept at mixing failure and tragedy with triumph and success that it works.

Miss Marjoribanks occupies a social scale a notch or two down from Emma in a firmly Victorian landscape. The resulting preoccupation with status is if anything even more obsessive then in Austen. The real strength of this book for me though is in the relatively long time we spend with Lucilla – a good ten years – and what that time means to her as a woman. Initially she takes control of her father’s house as a very young woman. It’s assumed she’ll marry soon but when an early offer comes it’s unattractive. At this point Lucilla is in the enviable position of already being in control of a household, wealthy, respected and on the cusp of leading local society – a husband would be no particular asset, but as she ages her position becomes more precarious. Her scope as an unmarried woman is limited especially when she’s threatened with financial distress.

Lucilla is a heroine who could and without doubt would go out and earn a living and do it well; it’s not pity for her situation which makes the reader long for an unqualified happy ending, but empathy. Lucilla and Emma must both be triumphant, they deserve nothing less but I feel more for Lucilla because her path is longer and harder. I would love to see what a decent actress made of her on film.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Charity begins at home.

An interview with Waterstone’s this week, the ongoing rumblings about Oxfam and others undercutting the independent sector, The Guardian list of the country’s 10 best second hand bookshops and a thought provoking blog on the subject from Other Stories have all made me think about bookselling far more than I ordinarily might. My city centre used to have an excellent choice of second hand, charity, discount, independent and chain bookstores. Times have changed and all but one of the second hand shops have moved from the city centre, either to more picturesque surroundings, or onto the internet. With the exception of The Works all the discount shops have gone, and what was once 3 floors of Dillon’s is now 2 floors of Waterstone’s with a travel agents and a cafe.

Two years ago this was all a bit depressing; Waterstone’s was not in my opinion enjoying its finest hour, the best of the second handers decided to save on rent by moving the good stuff online and the rest onto a market stall and a decent independent finally shut up shop. Since then however things have improved tremendously; Waterstone’s has begun to resemble its heyday once more and a dedicated charity bookshop (Age Concern) has moved into the town centre. Moreover a collection of second hand (charity and independent) bookshops seem to be coexisting in mutual benefit around both the cities universities.

In all honesty I’m sceptical about claims that the charities are damaging independents, many of whom manage to sell their stock for less despite having to buy it in. The upside of depending on donated stock must be that your getting the sort of books that (especially when new) reflect what people buy and want to read, the considerable downside is the impossibility of guaranteeing supply, even more critical for specialist retailers

I do believe though that many second hand retailers are out of tune with what customers want. I’ll walk into any bookshop I see but there are minimum requirements I expect to be met if I’m to walk back again, these are a) some attempt at dividing stock into categories, b) alphabetical order or some similar discipline imposed on the books c) service which isn’t actually rude, patronizing or openly aggressive d) regular opening hours that follow some sort of recognizable pattern.

My local charity shops excel at all of the above, the staff might not always be terribly knowledgeable, but without exception they are extremely helpful, choice might be limited but the relatively high turnover of stock make regular visits worthwhile. The best shops I know are opposite each other, nobody goes to one without visiting the other, and it’s rare not to make a purchase in both. The worst shop I know fails on every count to offer or deliver anything approaching customer service, how he remains in business is a mystery understood presumably only by his accountant.

Generally I don’t think it matters very much who’s selling second hand books, as long as we can buy them. For anybody willing to adapt and evolve now is a really exciting time, independent publishers are producing amazing things, the internet has improved availability and awareness of works in a way almost beyond imagination and we still love shops. In short there are still plenty of ways to make money in bookselling, so why shouldn’t the charities get some of it, and why on earth is Oxfam especially being criticised? If they do a better job than their predecessors that’s not a fault, it’s a lesson to be learned and good on them for teaching it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

How many is too many?

The partridges braised with honey and quince turned out pretty darned well, and as it’s not just the season for game cookbooks but also the season for game I think I’ll be cooking them again. (Although catching more quinces might be a challenge) I’m lucky to live near an excellent daily market; game is plentiful and cheap, or at least cheap enough to be appealing and definitely free range. The size of most game birds is appealing as well, just big enough for two or small enough to eat a whole one.

The market is another reason for my cook book obsession; it’s not just seasonal produce, put also Asian and Afro-Caribbean, there’s a lot to choose from, it changes daily and you can never guarantee that you’ll be able to find something so plenty of book based inspiration is handy.

I do remember a time when I thought that the number of cookbooks might be getting out of hand – a few Christmases ago I got nothing but cook books (8) and kitchen gadgets and had to except that everybody thought cooking was my thing. (Endless hints about new socks have fallen on deaf ears - apparently I say socks my friends hear blow torch.) Since then I have learnt to embrace the inevitable, the blow torch has proved remarkably handy and I’m already hopeful about what might be under the tree this year, but I still wonder how many is too many?

Clearly if I use or in any way refer to a book it’s presence on the shelf is justified, and all my cookbooks do get looked at, so that’s ok. I’ve been gathering them for long enough now to begin to see how much fashion changes in food (and in publishing) so they sort of form an interesting commentary on social history, which doesn’t interest me as much as it might. Having said that if the contents of our bookshelves say a lot about us, cookbooks possibly say the most, everything about how I aspire to live is in the kitchen, never mind the fiction.

All my cultural references are there as well as attitudes towards hospitality and entertaining, the books are worn enough to show they’re used and to show which ones are favourites and which ones reflect passing fancies. Even the way they sit on the shelf probably says a lot about my lack of orgonisation and general approach to life. All the wine books give a definite hint as to how I’ve earned a living for the last ten years, and it would be fair to say that baking is a bit of a hobby.

On the whole I can’t imagine ever having enough cookbooks; the perfect recipe for just such and such an occasion remains elusive. As long as I have people to share food with I will want new ways to cook it for them because another thing so many books indicate is that I like the opportunity to show off in the kitchen.

Partridges Braised with Quince and Honey for 4-6

2oz/50g Butter

2 or 3 young partridges

3 rashers of bacon de-rinded and chopped

1 medium to large onion finely chopped

1 medium size quince peeled and chopped (or a large apple)

½ a pint of stock

1 glass of white wine

Salt and pepper


2 tablespoons Crème Fraiche

Heat the butter in a casserole and put in the birds, bacon, onion and fruit. Cook for a few seconds stirring and shaking, then pour in the stock and wine and season. Put in a preheated oven (350F/gas 4/180C) for 1 ½ hours or until tender. Remove and half the birds, reduce the cooking sauce adding honey to taste. Liquidize and add the Crème Fraiche. Make sure the sauce is hot before pouring over the birds.