Sunday, February 28, 2010

Miss Hargreaves – Frank Baker

“The correct pronunciation of her name is, of course, ‘Hargrayves’. Astonishing as it must seem, there exist people who refer to her as Miss ‘Hargreeves’. Doubtless they belong to the ranks of those who ‘Macleen’ their teeth”

There are so many tangents I want to go off on tonight but I’m going to try very hard to stick with the book and leave the wider musings for another day. I’ve been in a book group (on line) with Simon from Stuck-In-A-Book for quite a while, and for quite a while he’s been recommending this book (strongly recommending at that). His enthusiasm for it was such that he’s managed to get it back in print with the Bloomsbury Group project, which I think I’m safe in saying, is very enthusiastic indeed. Dutiful to instruction I bought a copy but it came with such a weight of expectation attached that I’ve been unwilling to read it. I find nothing more of putting than the words ‘you must read this’, especially when followed by ‘You’ll love it’ (credit to Simon he said neither, though he did come down strong on buying it).

Reservations caused by strong recommendations aside I found the amazon description vaguely intriguing, but not must read stuff – or at least not of the stuff I normally feel I must read - what swung me in the end was how much I’ve enjoyed the other Bloomsbury Group books and it turns out I was right to trust both Simon and Bloomsbury.

‘Miss Hargreaves’ is an extraordinary book, and somehow not really what I expected, much darker in fact than I imagined. Two friends, both prone to flights of fancy, find themselves in an exceptionally ugly church whilst sheltering from the rain. In a harmless kind of way they make up a little old lady complete with travelling hip bath, parrot, harp and lapdog. The joke carries on when they write her a letter, and she not only replies, but turns up in person to stay, complete with travelling hip bath, parrot, lapdog and harp.

So Miss Hargreaves is born, and the mystery of what she is and where she comes from deepens – naturally nobody believes she’s made up. Not even her makers entirely accept that at first, meanwhile as she becomes more real she becomes more powerful until one dreadful night when she is endowed with a title (attitude to match) and cast of by her chief creator. No longer subject to his creative whims she uses her independence to wreak havoc upon his life, and he poor boy, cannot accept that he’s no longer in control of what he feels is his.

Norman and Henry’s (the Hargreaves perpetrators) biggest problem is the affection they feel for their masterpiece. She charms as much as she infuriates which makes it hard to take the necessary firm line; it’s partly hubris, and partly sympathy for an elderly and vulnerable being. The reader feels the same because Norman and Henry are far from perfect and they rather deserve Miss Hargreaves.

I really fell for the book on page 13 with this paragraph
“Suddenly the sexton whipped aside the dust sheet and disclosed the lectern, obviously a favourite of his. We saw an avaricious-looking brass fowl with one eye cocked sideways as though it feared somebody were going to bag the Bible – or perhaps as though it hoped somebody were going to. You couldn’t quite tell; it had an ambiguous expression.”
It’s a book I know I’ll read again and again for just such passages.

It also has a fresh dashed off feel as if conception to page was the work of a moment. Norman who narrates rants and goes off into flights about music and books which makes it all the more real which is good going for a book about what happens when the created character steps off the page and goes their own way; a dilemma I imagine most writers are familiar with.

Anyway I won’t tell you ‘you must read this’, but I will confirm that I liked it quite a lot (loved it), and definitely say that it’s a very hard book to quantify – you need to open it to get a real idea of it, and I would very strongly recommend that course of action...

The Masked Fisherman

Due to technical problems yesterdays book picture refused to go up; but now here it is!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Masked Fisherman – George Mackay Brown

(And other things)

It’s been a long week, and with more training in the offing next week is likely to feel longer. This time I’m off to a golf course somewhere outside of Reading for three nights. Days will be spent incarcerated indoors learning the professional equivalent of sucking eggs. Nights I can at least read, unless I’m forced to socialise with colleagues (small talk with strangers or reading? It’s a choice that will bring out my inner misanthrope every time.)

Three nights is longer than expected so I’m wondering exactly what to take to read – I have a pile of tempting things and a pile of things I feel I should read but which will require more effort. Still I have twenty four hours to decide, a possible trip to the book farm tomorrow - so plenty of potential for impulse purchases, and will have to walk past (into) Foyle’s at St Pancras on my way to the course...

So: ‘The Masked Fisherman’. I was reading this whilst waiting for ‘The Chapel at the End of the World’ to arrive partly to get me in the mood, partly because I find myself drawn to Mackay Brown as the seasons turn, and by the by in direct contradiction to my assertion that Orkney isn’t always grey, the cover of this book is exceptionally monotone, also a lot of the stories take place in the dark of winter –and yet I still find it somehow uplifting. I’m going to quote the back cover blurb at this point as its apt and in Mackay Brown’s own words: “Many of the stories in this book are set in winter, round about the solstice and Christmas and New Year. In the north, winter has always been the time for storytelling... Winter, season of storm and dearth, is still a might quickener of the imagination.”

In the past I’ve struggled with Mackay Brown’s novels, but I can’t think of a better short story writer (plenty that are as good, but no one to beat him). ‘The Masked Fisherman’ has encouraged me to try again (I my well take him away with me to see what he makes of the Reading golf course) but there’s a magic in these short stories that I think comes partly from their brevity. This was a grand collection to get me in the mood for ‘The Chapel at the End of the World’; they share many of the same themes – patience, acceptance, endurance, hope, faith, timelessness – the sort of thing I feel in need of to get me through the last few weeks of winter.

There is always a cycle of tide and season in Mackay Brown’s writing, never more than in this collection which is what makes the dead of winter seem so hopeful – winter means spring is on its way; the light of a single candle is a forecast of the sun to come. I have to slow down to read these and feel my way into his sense of time; ease myself into a rhythm controlled by light, dark, storm and calm.

I’m aware that I’m not expressing myself very well here – the charm with Mackay Brown is that he does – the images he creates on the page, with really astonishing economy, are vivid before me as I read them. I don’t consider any bookshelf well dressed without at least one volume of his stories up there. Even if the subject isn’t your cup of tea he should be read for the style, and if I manage to convince at least one person of that I’ll be very happy.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Chapel At The Edge Of The World

I’ve only visited the Italian Chapel on Orkney once – and that was almost twenty years ago but it’s a place that makes an impression. I tried to find some decent pictures of the chapel to decorate this review with, but none of the one’s I found on line came anywhere near to doing it justice. (Highland Park whisky used to have a decent one on their website, but it’s gone now.)

The thing about the chapel is that outside it really is just Nissan huts with a cement facade. It’s a pretty facade, but it doesn’t really prepare you for what’s inside. When you step through the door though you leave Orkney and enter Italy; the Chapel boasts some really impressive trompe l’oeil – at seventeen I’d never seen anything quite like it – and nor have I since, but sadly it seems you have to go and see it – I can’t show you.

Anyway all this and more was at the back of my mind when I picked up Kirsten McKenzie’s book. Reviews have been mixed, or at least mixed enough to make me think twice about buying so I phoned the nice people at John Murray and pushed my luck for a copy. They very kindly promised to oblige and I waited hopefully, sadly no book appeared so I phoned again and they obliged again. I have long held dark suspicions of my posty – an unnaturally cheerful man who whistles whilst he works, it’s disarming but sinister (in my opinion) but second time round the book arrived and even better proved to be worth the wait.

‘The Chapel At The Edge Of The World’ is Kirsten McKenzie’s debut novel which I think shows, but she’s definitely a writer worth watching. This is one separated couple’s war – Emilio sets off to fight and soon ends up a prisoner first in North Africa and later On Orkney. Rosa left at home has a slightly more eventful time fending off amorous Nazis and almost accidentally becoming involved with the resistance.

Emilio deals with imprisonment by ignoring it and trying to ignore news of the war – instead as an artist he immerses himself in creating the chapel, and holding on to the idea of all he’s left behind in the hope that it will still be there when he returns. Rosa says goodbye without any real expectation of getting Emilio back assuming he will be lost either to another woman, to a wider experience, or possibly killed. What she isn’t really prepared for is what happens – his being taken prisoner which leaves her in a sort of limbo for the duration of the war. To say much more would be to give too much away about Rosa but her part of the story is excellent; I like that it’s the woman who has gone to war here – or at least had the war come to her, whilst the man stays locked up, uncomfortable but basically safe. It’s an effective role reversal and makes a nice change from reading about life for the girls left behind on the home front.

Emilio’s story I had a bit more trouble with. I think McKenzie does a convincing job on the P.O.W experience but I felt she got a bit carried away with the greyness of it all – to the point that it started to niggle. Everything about Orkney is grey in this book – over four years it seems never to be summer – just one endless grey winter. The sky is grey with stars, the Aurora creates a kind of grey dawn, the long summer nights (on a rare appearance) are grey, and the ground is covered in dead grey heather. I get it, I really do, I believe in the grey, I’ve seen the grey, I feel the grey, but I also know the aurora as a great sweeping curtain of billowing coloured light (not at all grey) and I’m not having a sky greyed by stars either. The sun does shine in the north albeit rarely and the insistence on grey seems heavy handed – more obvious perhaps because the rest of the book is so spot on. Still it’s a tiny niggle about an otherwise absorbing read. The Orkney side of the story although fictionalised closely follows actual events and the Italian half reads as equally likely. I think this is a more than promising debut – I await McKenzie’s next novel with interest, she’s certainly challenged my prejudice against contemporary writers. (A quick look on amazon suggests that book number two is a ship board romp with pirates and a strong female lead – normally I’d be suspicious but as ‘The Chapel At The End Of The World’ was so good I’m actually enthusiastic. Both books have fantastic cover art too.)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What do I think I know?

I’m procrastinating tonight – I should be preparing for being trained about training in Colchester on Tuesday, but having finally had a look at the homework I’m having a sulk instead. The trip to Colchester is to take place immediately after work tomorrow which calls for a degree of orgonisation and packing which is encroaching on my day off (worked on Saturday, working tomorrow, don’t want to think about work At All today) and which is also threatening to take a big chunk out of my week. Next week I’m being sent to Reading for two days which I’m equally enthusiastic about.

The sulk is because I have to be prepared to train on a non work related subject – a hobby is suggested, I need to be prepared to do it twice and provide my own props. Props? What do these people think I do with my spare time? And of course now I come to think about it I’m wondering what I do in my spare time (not really aware of having any spare time but theoretically...) that I can demonstrate. I read, and then I write about reading, and then I read other people writing about reading, then I have a look on amazon. When I’ve done with that I cook – so I know when a proved loaf is ready for the oven, and when a cake is baked from the sound it makes – but these aren’t really the sort of things I can demonstrate on the spot. I can identify several different sorts of bird, tell you it will inevitably come on to rain when you go for a walk in Scotland – unless your dressed for it in which case the sun will blaze down.

I can, and do, draw a bit, I can explain the social significance of an enfilade of state rooms, and take a stab at decoding a fourteenth century altarpiece – I don’t have one I can take along though. I can (sort of) assemble flat pack shelves but that doesn’t seem appropriate either. Normally I would have gone down the wine tasting route which is a hobby, but is basically also my job so presumably not allowed. I’m not sure how much the trainer would appreciate hard liquor being introduced to the group either.

Eventually I came up with an explanation of how hallmarks work. This is the best I can do. The Scottish one can tie knots as befits a sailing enthusiast, and talk Swedish – at least enough to impress me – he makes great scones as well (though I did teach him to do that). I clearly watch too much trashy television and don’t get out enough, but seriously – what would You talk about?

I also take picture's of road signs with Otters on...

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Brontës Went to Woolworths

I first saw the virago edition of this book in a charity shop about two years ago when for some reason I didn’t have any cash on me, it stuck in the back of my mind but foolishly when I went back to buy it went to the wrong shop and bought Barbara Comyns ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ instead (you can see why I might get confused). It was definitely serendipity given that the blurb on the back of ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ had not attracted me in the slightest so it’s an amazing book which would have passed me by. I got home, realised my mistake, and hared back into town to get the right book before somebody else beat me to the prize. (I’m sure Leicester really is full of Virago hunting maniacs tracking my every move and just ready to pounce on my rightful prey – after all what could be more likely?)

Fortunately for me I won out and ended up with a brace of excellent books. I read ‘The Brontës Went To Woolworths’ soon after I got it and loved it. It’s a book I’ve meant to write about for some time but it’s particularly forced itself on my attention over the last week – Waterstone’s have the Bloomsbury Group edition on 3for2 (it’s worth a look they have some brilliant titles – I know, I already have most of them and don’t know whether to feel smug about ownership or disappointed about missing out on a bargain). I bravely held out against the lure of spending money I haven’t got on a book I have, only to find a 1940 penguin edition in Oxfam for £1.99, it took me two whole days to give in to temptation and make it mine (maybe there aren’t really book hunters on my trail after all; if there are they’re not doing a very good job).

The only way I could possibly justify the outlay (yes I am that badly paid) was by reading it straight away which has been something of a revelation. I don’t know much about Rachel Ferguson beyond scant biographical details, Persephone published ‘Alas Poor Lady’ which I didn’t initially associate with ‘The Brontës Went To Woolworths’; ‘Alas Poor Lady’ is one of the angriest books I’ve ever read, it makes an important point and there is absolutely nothing light hearted about it. ‘The Brontës Went To Woolworths’ is a different matter, on first reading my impression was of a sheer flight of fancy; a fantastical ghost story. Second time round and I’m picking up altogether more.

Basically it tells the story of a household of women – the three Carne sisters, their mother, and a governess. At some point Mr Carne has died, and whilst he seems to have left his family with enough money to live reasonably comfortably I sense economies are being made. The family live on nerves and make believe, weaving terrifically complicated stories around figures that take their fancy; this also includes behaviour that’s essentially stalking by modern standards. On a trip to Yorkshire they engage in table turning which brings unexpected consequences, the repercussions of which follow them back to London. They also manage to make the real acquaintance of a couple whom in imagination they have been entirely intimate with – this merging of fantasy and reality brings its own problem, and the way Ferguson makes it all seem eminently possible is truly masterful.

Looking beyond the fantasy there’s the equally real problems faced by a family of women bereft of men folk in the 1920’s. Dierdre, the oldest girl (probably in her mid to late twenties) earns her living as a journalist and refers to herself as the man of the house. She’s turned down one (presumably eligible) offer of marriage – on the grounds that she was in love with Sherlock Holmes at the time – but I suspect that it’s through a sense of responsibility to the family; it seems likely that her salary contributes to the household and it’s unlikely that a married women would be able to go on working to provide for her mother and sisters, moreover she takes on the role of protector to the family. The Carne’s have a close and happy relationship, but they also seem somewhat isolated – Dierdre who could leave has chosen not to, and this is in stark contrast to Miss Martin the first governess we meet. Her home has been broken up due to an impecunious father, leaving her unhappily adrift in a life that offers little scope for personal fulfilment. The Carne’s intimacy, and rich fantasy world puts her well out of her depth, adding immeasurably to her unhappiness and frustration. Something Dierdre is certainly aware of, and sympathetic to, but unable to help.

I love this book, it sometimes verges on the disturbing and uncomfortable, yet is full of optimism and bravery. Essentially a Cinderella story – by the end fairy god mothers in the shape of an elderly judge and his wife have appeared along with an explanation of the title. It is nothing short of remarkable, not least because of how fresh it still seems. Bloomsbury did a good deed in reprinting it and I’m adding my name to the list of ringing endorsements it’s already got.

By the by I notice that Ferguson published several books few of which are easily available – if anyone has read any I’d love to know more and get recommendations of which ones to save for.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mapp and Lucia

In the manner of a dog with a bone I’m sticking with E F Benson – just in case nobody picked up on how good I think he is... 'Mapp and Lucia' is probably my favourite from the series, its number four of six and everything about it (in my opinion) is perfect.

It’s all a question of balance - Lucia is an arch snob and social climber – a woman of extraordinary energy and determination with a passion for organising others (entirely for their own good of course), in short she’s a benevolent dictator as compared to Miss Mapp who is altogether less benevolent although every bit as dictatorial. The action opens with widowed Lucia beginning to come out of mourning and looking for new challenges. New challenges take her to Miss Mapp’s Tilling, indeed right into Miss Mapp’s house which she rents for the summer and where she proceeds to usurp Miss Mapp’s social crown. The battle lines are drawn.

For the rest of the Tillingates life has never been as exciting – a whirl of competing social events and withering put downs as Mapp sinks to new lows in her attempts to exact revenge and Lucia pushes her luck as she tries to organise the town to within an inch of its life. Mapp is horrendous but human – in our less pleasant moments we must all have a little Miss Mapp in us so it’s possible to sympathise with her, especially as Lucia frustrates her again and again.

As for Lucia she’s a wonderful creation but even better compared to Miss Mapp – it throws into relief her better qualities without entirely hiding her less endearing foibles. Like the Tillingates I want Lucia to win, but not without a battle - without Mapp to take up some of her energies who knows what she might have organised the community into. Fortunately she’s distracted by the need to outmanoeuvre her nemesis who tries everything to catch Lucia out – the light aluminium opera glasses are taken to the top of the church tower for a little surveillance, desirable recipe’s are purloined, tables are set sail on, and one poor soul is entrapped into marriage. In short it’s all go.

I’m impressed that Benson rights women so well – and intrigued at how marginal the men are to the action. In truth men are peripheral to ‘Society’ it’s wives and womenfolk who run it, deciding who’s acceptable and who’s not quite ‘quite’, men can escape to the golf course or the club (or the pub) but tea parties, bridge evenings, dinner parties, lunches and suppers are the preserve of the ladies in this leisured world. Even so the men here could almost not exist at all – it makes me curious about Benson’s background in a half heartedly Freudian way – specifically I would love to know more about the important/influential women in his life.

Vague psychological speculations aside this is a polished jewel of a book – it’s not a bad place to start with the Mapp and Lucia books, It’s the one I would most want to rescue in a fire and is about to be added to my list of books I wish everyone would read. I think it can easily stand alone and if you fall for it you can work back through the first three than forward for the last two (as a matter of interest who minds where they start in a series – do you have to begin at the beginning or are you happy to jump in wherever?).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Capuchin Classics

I’ve sort of followed Capuchin Classics since they started up in spring 2008 but somehow they have stayed on the periphery of my buying and reading habits (this has more to do with my limited means than Capuchin’s list) but amazon keeps reminding me that Nancy Mitford’s ‘Highland Fling’ is out in a few months. Okay so I don’t actually need reminding – I’ve been waiting for this for the last eighteen months with virtually bated breath – thanks to the imminent release of ‘Wigs on the Green’ from penguin and ‘Highland Fling’ from Capuchin this is going to be quite the year for Mitford fans.

Whilst I was ordering my missing E.F. Benson’s amazon was trying it’s best to make me pre order Mitford’s with the end result that I went straight to Capuchin for a good old browse. I warn you now I’m about to be unashamedly enthusiastic. I called Capuchin (to shamelessly beg for a book) and spoke to a very nice man who was exceptionally helpful - generally and not just regarding my begging – so all in all it’s left me with an excellent impression. I like their blog as well, and not just because it mentions me!

It was intriguing talking to a man; previously I’ve only ever spoken to women in publicity departments but it seems fitting with Capuchin. If Virago books are broadly feminist and Persephone books are feminine I’ve always had a sense that Capuchin are somehow more masculine – they make me think of well made leather shoes, trilby hats, and trench coats; maybe even a hint of cigar smoke about some of the titles. I’m hoping that doesn’t all sound to deliberately whimsical; I’ve put a bit of thought into it and still haven’t hit on a better way to express what I mean. Either way it’s what I seem to be in the mood for after a good eighteen months to two years of reading books almost exclusively by and about women.

My browse turned up a few things I’m interested in – A A Milne’s ‘Two People’ and Eric Linklater’s ‘Juan in America’ have jumped to the top of my wish list. If I ever read (and turn out to enjoy) the Storm Jameson books I already have I’m also intrigued by ‘Love in Winter’. They have a Saki coming out ‘The Unbearable Bassington’ (there cannot be enough Saki on the bookshelves) and then there’s ‘Scenes From the Latin Quarter’ (Henri Murger), ‘South Wind’ (Norman Douglas), and ‘The Undiscovered Country’ (Julian Mitchell) – all very tempting and just a slight departure from what I have been reading, so fingers crossed for a good bonus and a huge splurge on books.

Even more interesting is the invitation to suggest titles for publication – if you propose one that gets taken up Capuchin will provide a whole year’s worth of books – I tried to think of something but sadly my mind went blank – worth checking out by anybody with a book to champion though...

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I know it’s a pun so old it deserves to be left in peace but I’m dusting it off and bringing it out anyway. Today’s post should have been a triumphant celebration of brand new (Valentine?) book shelves – like the scholar and gentleman he is the Scottish one took me to IKEA today and dropped me and a flat pack box safely off at home this afternoon. I dismissed his offer of help as befits an independent modern woman, I also dismissed my father’s hint of incredulity – but guess what – pride comes before a fall.

Bits laid out and dust flying (I really out to do something about hovering) I tried to make sense of the instructions. Three hours later having taken the shelves apart once to put in a bit I’d forgotten about, and again because of a bit that wouldn’t fit I am left with some exceptionally wobbly shelves which won’t go where I want them to thanks to floor boards which wouldn’t stand the scrutiny of a spirit level, and the lack of a back board that I don’t have room to slide in. I tried fitting it in other ways but all that achieved was frustration on my part and some damage to the (card)board board. Thank you IKEA.

The blond is coming round tomorrow and has promised some assistance – perhaps two independent modern women will be better than one. The handy (sic) illustrations for assembly suggest that it’s a two person job – which sounds like the beginning of a really crappy joke – ‘How many women does it take to build a billy shelf – two, one to... ah you get the idea. I do feel that I ought to be able to do this myself though.

If the blond and I fail then the Scottish one has promised to come round with his magic man wand and fix the problem – he assures me that this is a euphemism for a screw driver and that screw driver is a euphemism for nothing but screw driver. I probably owe him a bit of feminine admiration for his handy man skills as well as the opportunity to show them off, and I do want the shelves up and usable – it will be nice to have the floor back book free – but it’s still very galling not to be able to do this myself.

On top of all that my choice of bright blue shelves is not as satisfactory as I hoped (as the Scottish one pointed out might be the case and I have now admitted to him). Also my bedroom which was the only place left in the flat bookshelf free (though by no means book free) now not so shelf free looks a little bit to like a student room again. It seems I am destined never to be an adult, just to grow older.

And hold the press - I managed it, actually managed it all alone - and not as unsteady as in the picture here... So much for IKEA - I win. Right I'm off to arrange victory books without further delay!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Miss Mapp

Reading comments here and in my online reading group it seems that the world is cleanly divided in to those who have read E.F Benson’s greatest creations and those who haven’t. Honestly it slightly surprised me that Benson had managed to slip under the radar of so many likeminded readers until I tried to remember how I came across him.

This was a process of elimination rather than a feat of memory – I know I read all the Mapp and Lucia books when I was about sixteen so I was either attracted by the covers on a bookshop foray or found one amongst my stepmothers books (she and a partner ran a small hotel at the time – their combined books for public consumption formed a fairly eclectic mix with lots of gems and lots of oddities). It’s also a process that reminds me that there are classics and then there are Classics. My Bensons are the Black Swan imprints from the late eighties – basically when I started reading them so I guess I was lucky to pick them up when they were easily available – a happy serendipity.

Because (I thought) I had the whole series at my disposal I seldom gave it much thought that Benson had all but disappeared from high street bookshops, my process of discovery followed by instant reading gratification after a quick visit to the high street isn’t currently possible which makes me curious as to why Benson is out of favour. He’s still in print after a fashion and with any luck The Bloomsbury Groups reprint of 'Mrs Ames' later this year will rekindle interest, but I still don’t understand why interest in classic Benson waned when he’s every bit as wonderful as writers who have remained available on the shelves of all good bookshops.

So – ‘Miss Mapp’, for those of you who don’t yet know one of the most brilliant villainesses in literature; a mean, conniving, spiteful, bullying, gossip obsessed social dictator who rules her social circle with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Frequently the glove comes off as she puts down any attempts to rest the crown from her head but its velvet all the way when she’s found out in some social misdemeanour. I love Mapp for the same reason friends can’t do without her; she’s maddening but she does make life more interesting.

I did wonder when I picked up ‘Miss Mapp’ what I would make of it after such a long time but as far as I can tell my response now is much the same as it was twenty years ago when I first discovered her – the jokes are funny because they’re repeated so many times, the fascination lies in watching a situation unfold and resolve. You could say that not a lot happens, but what actually happens is a form of everyday life and it’s packed full of scandal and interest as well as the more mundane matters of settling bills and saving money whilst keeping up appearances. I think it stays fresh because the situations are so recognisable. I loved the books when I was at school because heaven knows school is a carefully ordered social hierarchy – I love them now because the only thing that’s changed is that I’ve met more Mapps.

For all of you who said you had any of the Mapp and Lucia books but haven’t yet read them get them off the to be read pile dust them down and start reading without delay, you can thank me for the push later.

Au Reservoir...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What – Thursday already?

First off – apologies, I have been experimenting with the delights of internet in my own home via the wonders of mobile broadband. It basically works, but for some reason the connection I get, or my laptop, or some combination of both coupled with who knows what makes the whole set up very very unwilling to let me comment on either my blog or anybody else’s. I have typed out numerous witty, pithy, perfectly spelt and grammatically correct (possibly) comments only to have them rejected time and time again. It’s all very frustrating not being able to get a word in edgeways, and as comments here are every bit as exciting as postcards coming through the letter box I want to make it clear that they’re appreciated.

This week has been a bit of a blur, between getting up early at the start of the day and falling asleep early at the end of it nothing much seems to have been done. The few none working waking hours have been divided between the blond, the Scottish one, and E.F. Benson. Benson has had the lion’s share of my attention and I had meant to write about ‘Mapp and Lucia’ tonight but Simon King’s Shetland Diaries intervened and now time’s getting on and I’m more than half asleep again, essentially all I’m fit for is bed and more Benson so until tomorrow ‘Au Reservoir’.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pure unadulterated Joy

Once upon a time I had all six of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books and I loved them even if it was a long time since I read them. Last year when I started to catalogue my books I realised that at some point six had become three – there was a general wailing and gnashing of teeth. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the three that disappeared had been three that fitted nicely into one of the omnibuses, or if they were still generally in print, or if they came up regularly in second hand shops.

None of these things being the case and there always being a long list of unread (by me) books to acquire when I hit second hand sights coupled with a job that currently just about pays the mortgage and very little else I was beginning to think it would be a very very long time before all the Mapp and Lucia’s would be lined up, ducks in a row, on my bookshelf again. Then happy day I saw a copy of ‘Miss Mapp’ in the same black swan imprint as my remaining volumes for a meagre £1.50 in a charity shop. After I went home to check it was a missing one, and then went back before the shop opened the next day to stand on the doorstep in the freezing cold for quarter of an hour risking missing my work bus in the process I finally got the prize (and to work).

After a weekend battling with Sofia Tolstoy I couldn’t resist taking refuge in a bit of Benson and so started to read and haven’t wanted to stop since. I got through ‘Miss Mapp’ and have moved on to ‘Mapp and Lucia’. I think if I go without cups of tea at work for the rest of the month than I can safely order the final missing two without bouncing a single cheque so that’s what I’m going to do. (As an aside being poor is becoming really very tiresome – I would really like the chance to try something different now.)

I was trying to remember when I last read these books – I think I would have been about sixteen which seems young now to be reading about the social machinations of middle age ladies. I know I loved these books and at that age I tended to read and re read a book to death but somehow the Benson’s are in remarkably good shape and better yet I find I don’t remember much of the detail. Tilling is familiar but to all intents and purposes I could be reading these books for the first time – and happily it’s one of those meetings with a childhood friend where I find we still like each other and there are no awkward silences.

I think it’s probably common for anyone who collects books faster than they can read them to question if they have time to re read when there are so many new undiscovered things just waiting to be picked up. It never really occurred to me how much of a book I would forget after twenty years, probably because I’m only just now old enough (that’s how I would like to be thought of at any rate) to be finding out. Anyway I’m off to ponder that a bit more and to read more Mapp and Lucia - pure unadulterated joy...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Getting out of bed on the wrong side

After a disturbed and disturbing night’s sleep today has been an annoying sort of affair – due almost entirely to my own bad temper by the end. It should have been a nice day off after a generally good week but starting with over sleeping, and swiftly realising I’d let the washing up get out of control again it’s all been a bit of an uphill struggle since.

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy’ are proving to be very much part of the struggle – following me around in the manner of undone homework. I believe the due date for publication is in about 10 days – but there they were glaring at me from the shelf in Waterstone’s (not even the big one with the helpful staff and the nice books, but the little one were the favourites include vampire Darcy novels). I have tried with these I really have but so far nothing doing. I started at the beginning and found young Sofia tough going so thought that’s ok – diaries – I’ll just dip in and out, find something compelling and work back than forward.

I found Sofia talking about how youthful she continues to look into her forties – not feeling sympathetic since I’ve found a new collection of grey hairs. However I will persevere – I’m sure there’s more to Sofia than an endless litany of complaints about not being able to sit at the piano for hours on end – I just need to find a way in. I’ll be taking her to work with me all week – her Russian sensibilities should chime well with the general atmosphere in the canteen. I’m also looking forward to the film based on her life, as well as reading what others make of her – I see this is being widely read at the moment.

I had meant to write about Simon King’s Shetland Diaries after Thursdays programme but have decided to hold off until the book comes out and until I’ve seen the rest of the series. The first episode was both nostalgic and thought provoking for me and I’m interested to see how it develops – it’s also making me very impatient for my summer pilgrimage north and has sent me straight to George Mackay Brown’s short stories again (Orkney rather than Shetland, but close enough at the moment) I may even tackle one of his novels Sofia permitting. Themed reading isn’t always my thing but I’m inclined to look out for Scottish island books at the moment – it’ll make a change from my accidental run of catholic lady writers.

Finally the disturbing night’s sleep – something that took me right back to ‘The Woman in Black’ – my flat plays some odd tricks with sound sometimes and last night I was woken up by what sounded like hysterical sobbing right next to me, by the time I’d a) woken up properly b) had stopped being absolutely terrified c) realised the noise was in the corridor and someone had knocked at my door whoever was so upset had gone upstairs. She didn’t return but when I woke up again today it was with a horrible feeling of guilt – someone was clearly alone and needed help, I hope she found it from somebody more awake and able than myself.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Appointment In Samarra - John O’Hara

I found John O’Hara through Caustic Cover Critic who did an interview with Tomer Hanuka about some of his covers including the ones he’d done for the vintage reissues of O’Hara’s ‘Appointment in Samarra’ and ‘Butterfield 8’. The covers looked great and the reviews on amazon sounded intriguing so it went on my Christmas list and was kindly donated by my lovely mother, by which time I’d kind of lost interest. However it’s a shortish book and that suits lunch times so I picked it up again last week and ended up being blown away by it.

This is the first time I’d heard of O’Hara and the more I find out about him the more I’m surprised about that (also disappointed that I’ve missed out for so long, and that none of my local bookshops stock either of the recently reissued vintage titles) because he seems so much the sort of writer that I would know about – a friend of Dorothy Parker damn it. First published in 1934 ‘Appointment In Samarra’ charts the fate of Julian English from tipping point to final fall – all taking place over a single Christmas weekend.

I’ve been wondering how to write this without giving away chunks of plot – I don’t think I can – so there will be spoilers. Mr and Mrs Julian English are leaders of the young married social set in their home town of Gibbsville Pennsylvania, outwardly they appear affluent, happy, popular, successful; the perfect couple, inwardly it’s clearly been falling apart for a while before Julian gets drunk and throws a drink in the face of an influential business colleague. From there on things literally fall apart; the fractures in the English marriage widen past repair, Julian’s drinking is revealed to its full extent as is the state of his finances. Caroline English is revealed as a loving but difficult wife – one who leaves her husband unsure of himself and her. Julian compounds one foolish action with another and within forty eight hours the marriage is in tatters – he’s stayed drunk, gotten into fights which will destroy his business, been seen to leave a bar with the local gangsters mistress, and finally takes his own life.

It could be very depressing, and at times it is, but what made this book for me was the way O’Hara looked beyond what was happening to his immediate protagonists and took time to examine what the repercussions of Julian’s actions are on those around him; characters whose lives are peripheral to the English’s but which will overlap in potentially catastrophic ways. Like his contemporary Fitzgerald, O’Hara exposes the tarnish on the American Dream but I warmed to Julian and Caroline more than I ever have any Fitzgerald character. They may be flawed and weak, but they’re also human and recognisable as are the pressures they face. I also found this book a neat contrast with McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ – both are set in the same time period – although McCarthy was looking back and O’Hara is writing what he sees around him – and both deal with many of the same issue’s – careers for wealthy young women, sex out of wedlock, marriage, contraception; it’s all in here.

The other thing that O’Hara reveals, and I have no idea how deliberate this is, is the casual and bitter racism prevalent in small town 30’s America. An absolute hatred of Jews, the divide between wasp’s and Catholics at the higher end of the social scale, attitudes towards Greeks, poles, and Italians – everything in the cultural melting pot bubbles up to the top. I can’t imagine anything post war could be as openly and casually anti Semitic and I find it fascinating to read; it’s a shock to my pc eyes, but to forget that these attitudes existed - where accepted as normal – is surely almost as bad as still quietly holding onto them.

I loved this book, can’t recommend it highly enough, and will be looking out for more O’Hara – first 'Butterfield 8' and then anything I can find second hand.

Simon King's Shetland Diary

Is on tonight at 8pm on BBC2. This is my part of the world and therefor I am recommending anybody who has the BBC should watch it...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Woman in Black

I like a weekend off as much as the next person, but what I like even more is what I have for the rest of this week – later starts. I cannot express how pleased I am not to have to get up at 6.30am and not to have to rush through everything to get to bed on time. It’s an extra blessing after a latish night at the theatre last night – ‘The Woman in Black’ – followed by a broken night’s sleep (I wonder why that would have been). Today, sadly not for the first time, I ran over my own foot with a very heavy cage of wine, I need to sleep.

I suspect most people who read this will have either read, watched the TV version, or seen the play of ‘The Woman in Black’ but just in case I’m not the last to have done so I’m going to try hard not to give away any of the plot...

Susan Hill is a writer who has mostly passed me by until now – The first I read was ‘The Man in the Picture’ a couple of years ago; I was disappointed by it hoping for something altogether more creepy, I did however really enjoy ‘Howards End Is On The Landing’ so when I saw ‘The Woman in Black’ was on in town I thought I’d go and see it, and read the book. I liked the book and loved the play; both were suitably scary without being Stephen King terrifying.

One little niggle I had with the book was that I couldn’t place when it was set – lots of mentions of light switches even in the isolated Eel Marsh house which suggests mains electricity, there’s also talk of cars, yet no suggestion of the war. If it wasn’t for the light switches I would think it was set around the turn of the century but it could be almost forty years later. It shouldn’t matter, but not being able to narrow the action to a specific period distracts me from the plot – which is perhaps why I didn’t find this book as spooky as I know others have. I liked the play so much more because none of those questions arose. Costume set the tone and everything else fell into place.

Grumbles aside it’s a terrific ghost story and this is exactly the time of year for reading such a thing accessorised with hot chocolate and hot water bottles I found it just the right side of unsettling, nice and short too because sometimes it’s a bonus to be able to swallow a book whole – especially I find when it’s of a slightly sinister nature. I would also say that the last few paragraphs are some of the most powerfully sad I’ve ever read – they certainly express the raw abruptness of the aftermath of any accident or sudden tragedy with brilliant economy and impact.