Monday, 30 November 2009
In the first chapter we meet Liam, who is in the process of downsizing into a new apartment after being made redundant from his job as a teacher. He unpacks, has some dinner, and goes to bed. At the start of the next chapter, he wakes up in hospital, and has no memory of how he got there. It turns out that he failed to lock one of the doors to his new apartment and was attacked by an intruder. Liam is hugely traumatised by the fact that he can't remember the incident and sets out to try to come to terms with it whilst struggling to make sense of his life until the incident and his relationships with his children and ex wife. One of my favourite parts of the book was that when Liam spends time with his grandson who has been given a heavily Christian upbringing by his daughter; Liam helps with biblical colouring books and struggles to answer questions such as how Noah steered the ark (hence the title of the book).
What I love about Anne Tyler's books is the gentle story telling which actually cleverly deals with lots of serious issues. There is always a strong cast of characters and the books give insight into small town American life in a way that is easily accessible for a British reader.
Overall, it wasn't quite my favourite Tyler novel, as it felt a bit "slighter" than some of her other novels; if you haven't read any Tyler before then I'd start with Digging to America or Back when we were grownups. I'd be interested to hear which other Tyler novels people have read and which are you favourites.
Friday, 27 November 2009
On the plus side, I have made good inroads into my TBR bookcase, which now stands at 48 books, plus 25 Virago modern classics. Despite continuing to get library books at a rate of knots, I hope to get that down to 40+20 before I go on my holidays (and packing holiday reading should deplete it a little futher); the only thing that stops me from reading more things from it is that there are books on it which I will eventually want to read but now is not quite the right time. Frustrating for someone who likes to keep things tidy!
I am hoping that there will be a new Susan Scarlett title from Greyladies for Christmas; if so, this will be the book that breaks the book-ban. But back to the ban in 2010 I think, certainly for Lent if not before.
Non essential spending has gone less well this week as I succombed to some Nativity shaped cookie cutters so that I can make a nativity out of shortbread. Watch this space...
Thursday, 26 November 2009
I thought it was time to flag her up after enjoying A long way from Verona last week. Many of her books are written for a crossover/teenage audience, and this fitted into that category. Two other teenage novels are Bilgewater (a story about a girl growing up in a school where her father is housemaster) and The summer after the funeral (about a girl sent off to relations the summer after her father has died). A long way from Verona is a wonderful story about Jessica, an 11 year old girl who aspires to be a writer. It's set during the Second World War, but the war is very much in the background - deprivations are mentioned (both food and clothes)
I have not yet read many of her adult novels, with the exception of The flight of the maidens which is the story of 3 schoolgirls, set in Yorkshire, as they hit adulthood (I guess that one of the reasons I like her work so much is that she does write a very good coming of age story). Jane Gardam is probably most famous for her novel Old filth which was shortlisted for the Orange prize a few years ago. I wasn't sure that I would enjoy this, but picked it up last weekend after drafting this post and LOVED it - I am now desperate to read her latest, The man with the wooden hat which tells the same story from the protagonist's wife's point of view. I also own copies of her novels Faith Fox, God on the rocks (which was her first adult novel), and The Queen of the tambourine. I am definitely looking forward to working my way through these.
She's also written a number of short story collections, including The people of Privilege Hill.
There is an interesting feature written by the Guardian in 2005 about her here.
Have you read anything by Gardam, and if so which are your favourites?
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Whilst I have a number of second hand books, many inscribed with the names of the previous owners, the provenance of my books is not an especially interesting facet of my book collection. I have inherited a few of the books which my mother had as a child (it seems to be children's books that are most often passed on between generations); my father has hung onto his as he still likes to reread his Jennings books.
However, this summer I was given a wonderful heirloom by my godmother - a bible which has been passed down the female line of her family. As she has not had any children, she decided to pass it on to me.
As you can see, it has been inscribed by those giving the book, and now includes an dedication to myself.
I think this is a wonderful thing to own, and it took me to a whole new level of receiving books as gifts.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
An absolute favourite which I discovered earlier this year on the Waitrose website - this is an almondy cake, filled with cherry jam before baking and swirled with a fork to distribute cherry jam throughout the mixture. Mine doesn't look quite like Waitrose' picture, but it was extremely tasty and earned full marks from my boyfriend.
Monday, 23 November 2009
As part of my rather successful attempt to buy less books, I have been making a heroic onslaught on my TBR bookcase - I have removed a couple of titles which I really don't think I will read, and I am trying to get through some of the backlog. My goal is to go into 2010 with only two shelves of TBR books - one for Virago Modern Classics, and one for everything else. I think this will be possible, certainly once I have packed some books for my skiing holiday! The trouble with the TBR is often I can't remember quite why I bought a certain book.
It wasn't until I looked properly at Something beginning with by Sarah Salway that I realised the only reason I had picked it up in the charity shop was because the principal character had the same name as me, Verity. Verity is an unusual name, and I've not met very many others in my life. I've not seen many in fiction either, with the exception of Verity-Ann in the Chalet School series.
However, although that might seem to have been a somewhat strange reason for buying the book, it turned out to be a little gem. The story itself could easily be dismissed as "chick-lit" - it is predominantly about the lovelife and affairs of Verity and her best friend, but the way it was told built up a beautiful picture of a slightly naieve girl, struggling to work out her place in the world. Something beginning with has a very unusual fragmentary structure where the story is told through an A-Z glossary; so as Verity shares her thoughts on "ambition", "baked beans", "friends", we learn more about her and her friends. This could have been a very annoying device, but Salway used it to good effect and I found myself intrigued by the words that she was choosing and interested to see how the story would develop in this way.
I am going to seek out some more of Salway's work (from the library!), and remain on the hunt for books with Verity's in them.
Thursday, 19 November 2009
I'm not quite sure how I encountered the Animal series published by Reaktion books, but it is one that I have been meaning to write about for sometime.
According to Reaktion books the series is "the first of its kind to explore the historical significance and impact on humans of a wide range of animals...each book in the series takes a different animal and examines its role in history around the world. The importance of mythology, religion and science are described as is the history of food, the trade in animals and their products, pets, exhibition, film and photography and their roles in the artistic and literary imaginations"
I own the two titles relating to my two favourite animals, The duck, and as I'm sure regular readers can guess, The penguin, which only arrived a few weeks ago despite having been on order for 6 months.
What I love about these books is their wonderfully eclectic take on a single subject. The Penguin, by Steven Martin, describes the natural history of the Penguin, including information about the different species (the smallest is the wonderfully named Little Bee Penguin), and how they live. But what I found most fascinating is the cultural history of the penguin and Martin draws on an impressive range of examples - the film Happy Feet, Pingu (sadly, my favourite children's book, Lost and Found did not get a mention), and of course the Penguins in Mary Poppins. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of real penguins and images of penguins from the media - not just English examples but Russian too.
The Duck by Victoria De Rijke is similarly fascinating. I wasn't too sure about the section on duck as food (even before I became vegetarian I could never eat duck) but I loved reading about all of the references to ducks in popular culture, toilet duck for example, which I used to insist that my mum bought when I was little.
I'm not sure I would be interested in reading the other titles about animals which I am not so interested in, but I am sure there would be at least one title that would appeal to anyone, and they could make interesting Christmas presents.
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
I wanted to read The woman in black for a Halloween read, but unfortunately the copy sent by Vintage got lost in the post. In the end, I ended up reading another Susan Hill, The mist in the mirror, which was quite chilling and wet my appetite to read the replacement copy sent by Vintage.
The woman in black was worth waiting for.
The book tells the story of Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor, who is sent to a small town on the east coast called Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral, and to deal with the estate, of a lady called Mrs Alice Drablow, who lived in a house just off the coast that is cut off each day by the tide.
At the funeral, Kipps spots a strange woman, dressed in black, with a pale, wasting face:
"She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of mournoing that had rather gone out of fashion...it had clearly been dug out of some old wardrobe, for its blackness was a little rusty-looking. A bonnet-type hat covered her head and shaded her face, but although I did not stare, even the swift glance I took of the woman showed me enough to recognise that she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin, and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious blue-white sheen"
In the days that follow, he travels over to the house to sort things out and finds himself the victim of a series of hauntings, strange noises and mysterious disturbances. He again sights the woman in black. Kipps attemps to find out what is going on, but the inhabitants of the town are reluctant to reveal any information and try to dissuade him from being involved.
I won't give any more of the plot away, suffice to say that Kipps discovers the story behind the woman. And in a chilling conclusion himself becomes victimised.
This is the only book that I have read in adulthood which has given me nightmares - I woke up two nights later and had to wake up my boyfriend to reassure me that the wardrobe hadn't become a woman wearing a black veil. He wasn't too impressed and had gone back to sleep by the time I returned from getting a drink of water which led to me scurrying back into bed and hiding under the pillows.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Nigella's lemon gems have been on my to-bake list for quite sometime - they are very attractively pictured in her book How to be a domestic goddess and they sounded like quite a different sort of biscuit to the ones that I normally make. They are little ball-shaped biscuits, which are flattened slightly so that they can be filled with lemon curd (Nigella says that her children call them fried egg biscuits). I was a little disappointed by the results - they needed far more lemon curd, so I should have made much bigger indents for filling them with, and the base turned out a bit dry and wasn't really sweet enough (in fact I had wondered about the amount of sugar in the recipe when I baked it).
Monday, 16 November 2009
I came across Ex Libris on Stuck-in-a-book 6 months ago, when I first found Simon's blog, and added it to my wishlist. It was also recommended to me by a colleague when he discovered my blog. After the disappointment of Howards End is on the landing, I was keen to read a bookish book to comfort me in my addiction to books and to make me feel that I could justify my reading. So it was time to reserve it at the library and indulge in the thoughts of another book-lover.
It is a little book of essays (I won't pretend that the 10 books I read this weekend were all chunksters!), subtitled "The confessions of a common reader". And I identified with so many of the confessions!
In the essay, My ancestral castles, Fadiman describes how "other people's walls looked naked to me". She grew up with parents who owned over 7000 books and required 1/4 mile of shelving to be put into every house they moved to. As a child I often wondered why the houses I visited didn't have many books and was always glad to return home to my bungalow where there was not space to fit in another bookshelf.
I particularly loved Fadiman's discussions of childhood reading and reading with her children. Reading was incredibly important to me as a child and I think it is crucial that parents spend time reading with their children. In the essay, Sharing the mayhem, she describes coming down for breakfast to find her daughter eating rice crispies while her father reads to her from Dahl's Boy:
"Had I been a better mother I would have said "After breakfast". Instead I joined the audience."
Full of little gems, I really would recommend this book to all book-lovers - another wonderful Christmas present I think.
Thursday, 12 November 2009
I had come across Duff Cooper before in a different context, whilst doing my history degree. Operation Heartbreak was the only novel that he wrote, although he wrote five other books and was more famous for his involvement in government. He had a prominent role in Churchill's Coalition government during the Second World War, and held a variety of posts including Minister of Information. I was required to read his diaries which were particularly entertaining as he started out as a bit of a playboy and then grew into his role in supporting the war effort. His experience I am sure helped to contribute to this book which begins at the end of the First World War and ends in the Second.
The book is about the life of William Maryngton who is absolutely desperate to become a soldier. Coming of age during the First World War he enlists for battle and is excited at the thought of going to the front and proving himself. Unfortunately, his dreams are dashed when the Armistice occurs just before he gets this opportunity. He decides to pursue a career in the army, but finds it difficult being surrounded by men who saw action and have stories to share in the mess. His embitterment continues into the 1930s when the changing nature of warfare destroys his role as a cavalryman - something which he is very good at - and he finds it difficult to adapt. By the time the Second World War comes around, he is old, and he is left behind training officers rather than seeing action on the continent. He is devastated. At the same time, Maryngton is extremely unlucky in love. He proposes marriage to Daisy; it is not exactly a love-match but the pair seem to suit each other and offer Maryngton hope for the future - until she elopes with a married man. He hopes to marry Felicity, the daughter of the woman who brought him up (he was an orphan) but she is reluctant to commit.
However, in a surprising twist at the end (I will not say anymore because that will completely spoil the story) Maryngton DOES get to play his part in the Second World War although not in the way that he anticipated it.
I wasn't expecting the ending at all and it rounded off a book that I had very much enjoyed reading. So, many thanks to Dovegreyreader for mentioning this on her blog and reminding me that I had it. And thanks to Persephone books for republishing this book which I'm sure wouldn't have made it into my consciousness otherwise.
Wednesday, 11 November 2009
Unfortunately I hadn't got round to reading anything suitable in time, but was inspired earlier to read Operation Heartbreak, one of my unread Persephones after reading about it on DoveGreyReader's blog - set in the Second World War it sounds like a wonderful read for tonight and maybe I'll have a review of it tomorrow if you like.
I have read a number of excellent books set in the second world war this year, predominantly published by Persephone and Virago*, and the bonus of reading titles from these publishers is that they often offer a woman's perspective into life in wartime. Until the 1990s it was very unfashionable to look at war from the female point of view, but since then there has been a proliferation of literature looking at women's experiences - at home, in the factories, and on the land. This was one of the most interesting things that I studied at university, and two anthologies of women's writings which I would recommend are Wartime Women, edited by Dorothy Sheridan which utilises Mass Observation's research during the second world war, and Hearts Undefeated, a collection published by Virago.
At this time of year, I always like to get out my little book of Poems of the Great War - I think the war poets give a great insight into the futility of the First World War. I was hugely privileged to visit the First World War battlefields in 2002 and this little book was the perfect accompanient to the travels as it helped to contextualise the endless cemetries and what is now just countryside. One of my favourite poems is one of the most famous ones, but I like it because
it reminds me why we wear poppies to remember, and also because I saw the ambulance station at Essex Farm in Belgium where the author, John Macrae, reputedly wrote the poem for the funeral of a friend.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
2oz butter (softened)
2oz clotted cream
2 oz caster sugar
6oz plain flour
Preheat oven to 180C. Mix together butter and clotted cream and mix in the sugar. Then rub in the flour and bring it together to form a dough. It's up to you what you do at this stage - you could press it into a tin or make shapes as I did. If making shapes, it's best to chill them in the fridge for 30 minutes before baking otherwise they tend to overswell. Bake for 20 minutes or so until starting to turn golden.
Monday, 9 November 2009
I spotted the green spine of Helen Garner's Cosmo Cosmolino in Oxfam at the beginning of the year. This was just after I had begun reading Virago books in earnest, but before I had learned much about the imprint or embarked upon my crazy challenge. I thought that the green spine meant that it was a VMC, I later discovered that Virago published a fair amount of fiction in the 1990s with green spines. However, I am glad that I picked it up as I am sure I wouldn't have bothered otherwise.
Cosmo Cosmolino tells the story of Janet, who lives alone in a crumbling house. She married late in life at 40, but her husband left after 5 years and now she has it to herself again. She takes in two homeless lost people - Maxine, an artist, and Ray, a born again Christian who convinces Maxine that he is a reborn angel. They live a somewhat uncivilised existence - food is rarely in the house and they keep to odd hours. The book also contained two wonderful short stories by Garner; much of her work seems to be in short story format and I, the short story disliker, found myself gripped by the first, entitled Recording Angel, where a woman visiting an old friend in hospital wishes he was dead, and reveals this to his wife.
The other VMC inspired reading this week was The juniper tree by Barbara Comyns. I've read a couple of her books for my challenge - The Vet's Daughter, Who was changed and who was dead, and Sisters by a river. and have loved her extremely individual style. She has two further titles in the Virago Modern Classics series which I am hoping to read soon, but also this title which is not a VMC.
The Juniper tree was quite different to her other books, being written 18 years after her previous novel - the writing itself was less quirky and better punctuated and thus an easier read, but one which was no less gripping - all of Comyn's storytelling abilities were certainly present and there are some elements of "magic realism". It tells the story of Bella Winter, a beautiful but scarred woman, and her illegitimate daughter, who marries a wealthy but distant widower. The book is based on one of Grimm's fairy tales, but I shan't mention which as I didn't know that before reading the book and it might have spoilt it if I had known what was going to happen at the end. Do read this book - it is excellent.
Don't you just love the way that one can pursue a trail of books?
I just wanted to highlight the post that I wrote back in September about a book which Virago very kindly sent me to review - The well and the mine - which I absolutely adored. The author Gin Phillips is currently featured on the Virago home page, here, and I would very much encourage you all to look out for this book.
Friday, 6 November 2009
I have a few small confessions to make this week. I have started buying Christmas presents and they are mainly books - so I have still been able to get a kick out of internet parcels arriving. I have bought a range of lovely children's books for my two small cousins (6 year old girl, 3 year old boy), The cloudspotter's guide for my Mum (requested by her) and The third Rumpole Omnibus for my Dad (we borrowed vols. 1 and 2, and he lamented the fact that there wasn't a third - the Book Depository came up trumps). Book depository had the best price for both of those, and I was able to benefit Paperback reader by using the link in the top lefthand corner of her page. I also picked up 2 books in the library sale for an early Christmas present for a friend; the fact that I also wanted to read them is obviously beside the point as it only cost me 40p. On the plus side, I have only a few more Christmas presents to purchase - notelets for my Gran, and something for my boyfriend.
I have also made two more non essential purchases this week:
I bought an advent calendar for my boyfriend filled with lovely fair trade 70% dark chocolate; presents were off the agenda, but he's in need of chocolate and cheering up.
I had my nose pierced! This is something I have been longing to do for years, but never quite had the courage to do. I had a wonderful outing with one of my oldest friends on Thursday to Selfridges in London, where there is a piercing studio and I took the plunge. I'm keeping it fairly secret as I am desperate to surprise as many people as possible. I have absolutely no idea how my Mum will react when I see her tonight (although I have already told her partner!).
Thursday, 5 November 2009
One of the things I love about reading books is the ability to encounter worlds that one is unfamiliar with, whether they are of a different occupation, different culture or different time. Margaret Powell was a domestic servant, and although I know quite a bit about this occupation from visiting National Trust properties with "below stairs" rooms open, it is hugely fascinating. Below stairs is a memoir of her years spent in service; sent into service at the age of 15 she started as a kitchen maid and worked her way up as cook. It was an immensely popular book, selling 14,000 copies in its first year (yet there are only 12 copies on librarything.com) and this success lay partly behind the commissioning of the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs.
Climbing the stairs tells the story of Powell's life outside of work. It begins with her exploits on her afternoons out (tea at Lyon's Corner house, dances, dates with unsuitable young men) and then tells us what happened next; she fell in love with the milkman and she left service to get married. They set up home and had children; it was not an easy life as they did not have much money but they managed some holidays/
If this is a topic you are interested in, I would also recommend Pamela Horn's Life below stairs in the twentieth century which is a study of domestic service in Britain last century. It draws on lots of accounts, including Powell, and is a thoroughly absorbing read. Another perspective on this world can be found in Monica Dickens' account of her work as a cook-general in a similar period in One pair of hands.
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
I don't often write about films (although I have been going to the cinema quite regularly this Autumn) but I found myself so fascinated by An education which I saw on Monday, that I wanted to write about it here.
Set in 1960s London, An education is based on a memoir written by Lynne Barber. In the film, Lynne is called Jenny, and aged 16, Jenny was destined for Oxford, driven as much by her father's ambition as her own. One day, she was picked up at a bus-stop by an older man, David. And suddenly her "education" became much broader; he introduced her to a realm of new experiences - real concerts, auctions, seemingly well-to-do friends, outings to nightclubs and eventually sex. Jenny, already astute and cultured, is captivated by the opportunity to do things and see things that did not form part of her stifling upbringing. It is easy to see why Jenny is charmed by David and his way of life, but at the same time, I found David extremely creepy. Eventually she is persuaded to give up her education and Oxford entrance exam to get engaged to David; even her father is happy as ultimately one of the reasons that he wanted her to go to Oxford was to find a good husband, and he has also been seduced by David and thinks that this will save him money in the long run. My instincts about David were correct as it turns out that he is not all what he seems and Jenny is forced to make some difficult decisions.
Film-wise, I thought that Carey Mulligan made an excellent Jenny. I loved the 1960s detailing and the picture of suburban English life which it painted. As usual, I quibbled with the Oxford scenes - cyclists in the courtyard between the Old Bodleian and The Clarendon building, I don't think so!
For once, I had not read the book before seeing the film, (although the book has been on my Amazon wishlist for quite a while) which was actually quite refreshing as I had no preconceptions about the plot. It has made me very keen to read the book; I spent all of last night wondering whether the ending was added by the film makers to give a happy finish to the book, but fortunately one of my colleagues was able to tell me that it was true. One of the reviews of the film that I read suggested that the film didn't really reveal enough about Lynne's thoughts and feelings at the time, so I think reading the book will give the story an extra dimension.
Have you seen the film or read the book? And what is your feeling on reading/watching first?
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
I made up my own recipe for the filling (to fill 20 cm flan tin)
* 2oz margarine (didn't even need butter to get a good taste)
* 2oz caster sugar
* 1 beaten egg
* 2 oz ground almonds
* 1 tsp baking powder
* jam (I used raspberry, but there wasn't quite enough, so one corner had a bit of strawberry in!)
* flaked almonds (should have gone on top but I didn't have any, and am being frugal so didn't buy some specially!).
* Beat together marg. and sugar.
* Beat in egg.
* Beat in almonds and baking powder
* Line the tin with a piece of pastry (DON'T stretch it, or it will shrink - I learnt this the hard way)
* Spread jam over the bottom of the pastry
* Cover with almond/marg/sugar/egg mixture
* Bake in pre-heated oven at 180C for about 30 minutes or until done.
Monday, 2 November 2009
I wanted to read The woman in black for a Halloween read over the weekend; and Fiona from Vintage kindly offered to send me a copy. Unfortunately despite being sent over three weeks ago, it somehow seems to have been mislaid in the post, and the replacement copy won't be here until next week.
I was still keen to read some sort of ghost story, preferably something reasonably modern but I don't know very much about modern ghost story writers, so when I went to the library to get something else, I looked for another Susan Hill. I ended up taking out The mist in the mirror which sounded from the blurb as if it would be a classic ghost story.
I was not disappointed: the settings, Edwardian London and the Yorkshire moors were wonderfully gothic and Hill managed to slowly unravel a mystery which was both gripping and chilling. The book is about the story of Sir James Monmouth, who returns home to England after many years spent travelling abroad. He is on the trail (despite warnings not to) of an explorer named Conrad Vale who he wants to know more about. But Sir James is plagued by ghostly and strange events and happenings; he appears to be followed by a little boy, perpetually sobbing; he keeps seeing an old woman behind the curtain. Yet no-one else can witness these things.
I should really have read this book at night for the full effect, rather than sitting in the flourescent light of the staff room at work on Saturday, as I think that would have made the experience more chilling. My own caveat with the book was that I found that there were quite a lot of loose ends which didn't get tied up which I found ultimately spoiled the book for me; there were a number of ghostly occurrences to which there was no resolution which I thought was a shame; the book is a compact 184p. and it would certainly not have been excessive to write another 50p. or so to wrap it all up properly.
I am still looking forward to reading The woman in black which is supposed to be one of her best works, but I am also wondering about reading some other modern ghost story writers as it's that time of year. Can anyone recommend any?