Monday, October 29, 2007

Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke and illustrated by Charles Vess

I started the R.I.P. Challenge II aiming to read just one book. It’s now nearly the end of the challenge and I have exceeded my target. I have read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott, several short stories from Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, from the Great Ghost Stories collection published by the Chancellor Press and today I finished reading The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke. I’m glad I took this challenge as it has made me read Poe’s Tales after years of wondering what they are like, but I am a little disappointed that they are not as spooky as I imagined them to be and I don’t like the gory elements and Poe’s fascination with premature burials. I’m probably in a minority on this.

Ghostwalk was to my mind a much more satisfying read and I'm pleased that The Ladies of Grace and Adieu was as fantastical as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (also by Susanna Clarke), which I read about two years ago. I was entranced by Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is set in a parallel nineteenth century England and tells the story of two magicians, full of mystery, magic, fantasy and faerie tales and The Ladies, although much shorter, is another book full of fantasy stories.

As a child I read all the fairytale books I could find and The Ladies collection takes me back to the magical world of those stories. They are full of deep dark woods, paths leading to houses that seemingly move locations, ladies who are never what they appear to be, princesses, owls, and above all fairies, including the Raven King.

The stories are all captivating and strange and set up echoes in my mind of such fairytales, as Rumpelstiltskin (in On Lickerish Hill). My favourite stories are The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Mrs Mabb, and The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. The Ladies explains why Jonathan Strange prevented his clergyman brother-in-law from an engagement with Cassandra Parbringer as Strange discovers that his magic is no match for Cassandra and her two friends, the three bewitching ladies of Grace Adieu.

Mrs Mabb is a fascinating story in which the heroine, Venetia Moore contends with the mysterious Mrs Mabb who has stolen away Venetia’s fiancé. Whichever path she takes to get to Mrs Mabb’s house she cannot find it, although she catches sight of the house and wonders at the smallness of it. She is surprised to realise that she remembers little of what has happened to her after she is found in a state of confusion, with her clothes in tatters. On another occasion after trying to get to the house she dances all night until her feet are bleeding, and finally she is attacked by what seems to be a great crowd of people with glittering swords. This reminded me of a book my mother used to have full of strange and wonderful stories and poems, one of which was about Queen Mab. I wish I still had that book. I have tried to find what the poem could be – as I remember it, Queen Mab was a fairy queen, full of malice and mischief, who turned out to be not what she seems. I think the poem I read must have been from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Mercutio’s speech in Act 1 scene iv:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s watery beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone, the lash of film,
Her wagoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not so big as a round little worm
Prick’d from the lazy finger of a maid;
Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse. I have not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books, but I think I really should. The story of the Duke’s horse is set in Wall, a village in the world created by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, where there is an actual wall dividing our world and the world of Faerie, guarded by burly villagers with cudgels. The proud Duke, the Nation’s Hero, passes unchallenged by the intimidated villagers into Faerie, in pursuit of his horse. His fate is then seemingly set in stitches in a magnificent piece of embroidery in exquisite pictures. I wonder if the creator of Heroes has read this story – there are similarities with the painter, Isaac, who has the ability to paint the future? The Duke’s fate depends on whether he can alter the future shown in the embroidery. The ending has a satisfying twist.

I have enjoyed this Challenge and although it ends on 31 October I shall carry on reading "R.I.P." books. I have Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture and Raold Dahl's Completely Unexpected Tales waiting in line.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ghost Stories R.I.P.Challenge II

Great Ghost Stories

This is a collection of ghost stories by different authors including G.K. Chesterton, Walter De La Mare, O. Henry, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, R.L.Stevenson, and H.G. Wells. So far I have read just a few of them and I'm looking forward to reading the rest. It's a good book to dip into from time to time.

Berenice by Edgar Allen Poe
Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood
Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett

Berenice is not included in Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. According to Wikipedia it was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1835 and due to public outcry an edited version was published in1840.

The opening sentence sets the scene “Misery is manifold.” From then on you know that this is another of Poe’s tales of unrelieved tragedy. There is no escaping it. The narractor is Egaeus, an obssessive intellectual who falls in love with his cousin, Berenice. She is his opposite, beautiful, agile, healthy and full of energy. His obssession is monomania;he is fixated on objects to the exclusion of everything else around him. Alas, disease befell Berenice and she wasted away until all that was unchanged were her teeth. Egaeus as you would expect is devastated, but is totally obssessed with her perfect teeth and he sees them everywhere. She dies. He comes to as though “awakened from a confused and exciting dream” to an horrific discovery …

This story is very much what I’ve come to expect from Poe and repeats a number of themes he uses in other stories – death, burial and mental illness. To me they lack suspense, maybe because they are so short. When he revised Berenice Poe wrote in a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger on April 30, 1835: "I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste -- but I will not sin quite so egregiously again." I not sure that he succeeded.

Keeping His Promise by Algernon Blackwood is a story with a supernatural twist; he builds up a tale of gradually increasing tension. Marriott is a student at Edinburgh University studying for his exams. He is disturbed in his room by the arrival of a Field, who appeared to be starving, thin as a skeleton, exhausted and under the influence of drugs. Marriott gave him a whisky and they had supper together before Field dropped with exhaustion on Marriott’s bed where he slept the night. Marriott could hear his heavy deep breathing in the next room as he resumed his studies. When morning came there was no sign of Field and Marriott feels a sensation of fear, his left arm throbs violently and he trembles from head to foot. There is the impress of a body on the bed and Marriott can still hear the breathing.

The pain in his arm is caused by a scar on his wrist and he realises that it is now bleeding. Then he remembers how the scar had been made and why, which leads him to discover the truth about his nightmare experience. Had Field really been there? Marriott had fed him and seen him eat and drink– but in the morning the food was untouched, although he could still hear the breathing...

In contrast Honolulu is an amusing but sinister tale of a little fat sea captain, who tells of the strange events that had overtaken him whilst sailing in the South Seas between Honolulu and various small islands. An enjoyable tale of love, betrayal and voodoo.

The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant is set in the High Alps in the depth of winter. The Schwarenbach Inn is left in the care of two mountain men as the family descend to the village below. De Maupassant’s description of the freezing conditions as the snow falls and the two men are isolated on the mountain sets the scene for the events that follow. When one of the men goes out hunting and doesn’t return the other is alone in the inn. He can’t get out because something is trying to get in!

The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett tells the story of a young wife with an unimaginative and controlling husband, set in one of the Pottery towns in Staffordshire. She wants a belt to enhance her ball dress, which leads her to a strange experience connected (or is it?) to the death of a mandarin in China. This is not a scary story. It’s a study of how an ordinary situation can become seemingly extraordinary through the power of imagination.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Me and My Blog (Or Who's a Silly Blogger Then?)

I’d been thinking about writing a blog for some time and when my husband set one up for me last year I felt I really should use it. So, feeling extremely nervous and self-conscious I wrote my very first post on 22 July 2006. I was still working full time then and didn’t write anymore until April this year after I’d retired.

Basically I am a shy person and at first I found it really difficult to write about what I thought. Who on earth would want to know what I think anyway and why should they? I go to a book group and another member usually asks when we’re deciding which book to read next “who is this person and why should we read what they’ve written?” Thoughts like these were going through my mind and then I thought well no-one will know what I’m writing unless I tell them about the blog and I’ll just write for my own satisfaction and so I began.

Soon I thought this was a bit self-centred and as I got a bit more confident I very, very occasionally dared to add a comment on someone else’s blog, using my blog name as the contact. I was amazed when someone actually added a comment to my blog and that person was an author – Linda Gillard, whose book
Emotional Geology I’d mentioned in the post! Brilliant. I didn’t feel I was writing in isolation anymore and I realised I actually like people to read what I’m writing and to add their comments.

Stuck In a Book asked in one of his posts what do you call people you only know through blogging? He suggested “e-friends”. Like him I feel a bit embarrassed talking about FRIENDS when I've never met them, but what else can you call them? I feel I do know a bit about some of the people whose blogs I visit, well I know what books you like, what food some of you like to eat and to cook, which places you like to go on holiday, and what your other hobbies are apart from reading and writing. I do think of you as “friends” and I am so pleased you visit my blog.

Through Site Meter or Google Analytics I have some idea of where you live and how you found me. It’s broadened my horizons. I now have a much better idea of where countries are and where for example Connecticut is in America and that there is a town called Cheshire in Connecticut (of interest to me because I was born in Cheshire, a county in the north west of England). I am amazed when I see that people from Cyprus, Scandinavia, India, Italy, Australia, Iran, Singapore, Peru and so on have visited me. I feel so much more cosmopolitan.

Most visitors to my blog are from the US and the UK, but surprisingly after that comes Romania. How did they find me? I noticed that the number of visitors rose quite steeply after I wrote about Lewis Carroll and his interest in photography and all the people from Romania had arrived at my blog to read this post, directed from a site called Fototarget, but how did Fototarget find it? Anyway if you’re reading this in Romania, welcome and I hope you weren’t too disappointed. I knew very little about photography before but now I’ve realised that I am very interested in it and its history. If you can get BBC Four a new series started last night called
The Genius of Photography. It’s brilliant and well worth watching.

Another intriguing question is related to some of my posts that have been translated into German and posted on other blogs – why on earth do they want to do that? My post on
Astrid and Veronika is in German on “Travel” blog, I can’t imagine why, the book has nothing to do with travel. My last post on the Verneys of Claydon has been translated and put on “Hugh Health” blog. It’s called “Das Verneys von Claydon” and this has such a nice ring to it that the book may become called that in my mind from now on. But I think people reading it hoping to find out about health will be surprised to read about the medical practices in seventeenth century England that are described in the post.

So to all my e-friends thank you for visiting and I do hope you’ll come again and I really like to read your comments.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Verneys of Claydon

I became very fond of the Verneys as I read Adrian Tinniswood’s book The Verneys, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2007. If you’re interested in seventeenth century England you simply must read this book, or if you like reading biographies and family histories read this book. I think it would make a fantastic film or TV series.

It is a tour de force, a mammoth of a book. It is huge, both in its scope, its extraordinary detail and its length. It is also heavy, but only in weight. It is impressive in its coverage of not only the lives of the Verney family but also of the seventeenth century itself.

Of course every century is a time of change and none more so than the seventeenth century in England. If we disregard the last years of Elizabeth I reign it was the time when the Stuarts ruled England, violently interrupted by the Civil War and the Interregnum, which was in essence the reign of Cromwell. It was a time of political and social upheaval, revolution, war, plague, famine and fire. This book covers the lot. What makes it so very good is that the Verney family correspondence has survived – tens of thousands of their letters and Adrian Tinniswood has made a superlative job of weaving together their family story from the family archives and placing it within the national context.

The sub-title is a summary in itself: ”A true story of love, war and madness in seventeenth century England.” The Verney family has lived at Claydon in Buckinghamshire since the 1460s. The book starts with the death of Sir Francis Verney at Messina in 1615 and moves through the seventeenth century to the death of Sir Ralph Verney at Claydon House in 1696. There are many Verneys, fortunately their family tree is given at the beginning of the book and I found it invaluable in keeping track of who was who.

Sir Edmund Verney, the half-brother of Sir Francis, was Charles I’s Standard Bearer at the battle of Edgehill. His body was never found and the story goes that he died still clutching the standard. His oldest son, Ralph was at odds with his father, supporting the Parliamentary cause, but during the Cromwellian period he was suspected of royalist connections and went into exile in France. Ralph’s brothers were very different – Mun was a professional soldier, Henry a gambler and obsessed with horse racing, and Tom was a villain, a crook and a sponger. Ralph’s son Jack, who eventually succeeded Sir Ralph after the deaths of the his elder brother, Edmund (another Mun) and his sons, was different again. He went into commerce and spent eleven years as a trader in Aleppo with the Levant Company, before returning to England.

There is so much in The Verneys – the horrors and atrocities of war, the ordinary day-to-day life of the landed gentry, the London social scene, Parliamentary elections, the cultural scene on the continent in Italy and in particular in France, where Sir Ralph and his family lived for a while in voluntary exile; life in the plantations of Barbados, in the forests of Virginia, in North Africa; and trading in the souks of the Levant. When Jack returned to England in 1674 it was to a London he didn’t recognise; all the landmarks he had known, including St Paul’s Cathedral, the Guildhall, the Custom House by London Bridge, warehouses, churches and many houses had all disappeared, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and a new city was being built. I could imagine Jack’s shock at seeing this new London as the devastation was being cleared and new and renovated buildings rose from the ashes.

The most vivid and to me the most interesting parts of this book are those dealing with the family and their personal relationships and the light that throws on the society in which they lived. The Verney women show that the accepted view of how the ideal woman should behave was not the norm, but was just that – an ideal. Whereas it was accepted that men would be unfaithful and their wives ‘ reaction was to be a dignified silence, women were supposed to be faithful, meek, modest and pious. With the exceptions of Mary, Sir Ralph’s wife and his mother, Margaret who were in successful relationships and held positions of power within the family, the Verney women just didn’t conform to this ideal. Some eloped, one slept with her sister’s unsuitable boyfriend, one separated from her violent husband, and some became pregnant before they were married. They were spirited, passionate women who refused to do as they were told.

Tinniswood recounts the terrifying details of medical practices and treatment. As doctors began to discover the circulation of the blood, not everyone accepted it and still treated patients by blood letting under the tongue, for example, to relieve a fever and restore the balance of fluids in the body. The treatment of hysteria and madness is also fascinating, if somewhat extreme. The treatment included bleeding, purges and emetics – cures such as taking pimpernel juice through the nostrils and using suppositories of Castilian soap were recommended. Even more extreme was the practice of ducking the patient, stripped naked and bound, backwards suspended by the feet into a big tub of water, an “advancement” on the medieval practice of ducking witches.

Mun’s wife, Mary suffered from depression and eventually was diagnosed as mad, but fortunately her treatment was much more humane, although she did have to suffer having the head of a hare bandaged to her forehead for a few days, the idea being that the “melancholy hare’s brain would draw off the melancholy from hare-brained Mary, after which it must be ‘put into the feathers of a pillow whereon the party grieved must lie as long as they live.’” This was not prescribed by her doctors but was suggested by a local “wise woman’. She was looked after at home, although the doctors really had no idea of how to treat her and she spent most of her married life in fear and misery.

A panacea much more to my liking is chocolate. It was a rarity in Western Europe at that time but was considered to be a cure for all sorts of illnesses such as consumption and the ‘cough of the lungs’. Sir Ralph thought that his wife, Mary should try it when she was terminally ill and he “began to fret over the right dose, the best time of day to take it, the length of time to wait after one meal and before the next.” The family doctor advised that she could drink chocolate whenever she liked, as he knew it would make no difference whatsoever. Mary’s death devastated Sir Ralph; he had her body embalmed which then remained in the house for six months whilst he was arranging for it to be transported back from France to Claydon for burial in the family vault.

The Verney family monument still dominates the interior of Middle Claydon church. It contains portrait busts of Sir Edmund and his wife Lady Margaret with those of Sir Ralph and his wife Mary below them, flanking a drapery with an inscription to Sir Edmund and Lady Margaret, whilst below that is a black marble panel commemorating the life of Mary and announcing that this is also where Sir Ralph ‘intends to be buried’, as indeed he was in October 1696.

When I visited Claydon House recently I saw the portraits of Sir Edmund, Lady Margaret, Sir Ralph and his wife Mary, Thomas, Edmund (Mun) Henry and Jack who became Viscount Fermanagh in 1703.The present house is not the house they lived in, as it was almost entirely rebuilt in the eighteenth century, with major alterations in the nineteenth century. The portraits and of course their correspondence and family records are probably all that remains of the seventeenth century Verneys. I like to imagine what it was like when they were there.

Booking Through Thursday - Read with Abandon?

Today’s suggestion is from Cereal Box Reader

I would enjoy reading a meme about people’s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So . . . what books have you abandoned and why?

There are only a few books that I've abandoned recently, although there have been quite a few that I've taken back to the library unread. That's not because I've abandoned them, but because they've been due back and I haven't even started them. My eyes are always optimistic in the library, or greedy may be a better description and I nearly always come home with more books than I can possibly read during the loan period.

There was one library book I did completely abandon completely and that was Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates, a book of short stories that I just couldn't read as the first couple were too nasty.

Another book I've started but not finished is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, because I kept starting it and putting it down; frankly I found it just a bit boring. Maybe I'll have another go sometime as I know that other people think it's a good book, but it's not on my radar right now.

Mostly the books that I've started but not finished are those that are long and detailed, like Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy. I don't consider that I've abandoned it because I do intend finishing it, but not just yet because I want to read more of Hardy's own books first. I'll go back to it and probably have to start it again.

I've also started to read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie and although I've stopped I certainly haven't abandoned it - it looks just the sort of book that I enjoy - it's because I've been reading other books, in particular The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood, which is a library copy and was due back a few days ago. I can't renew it as lots of people have reserved it. It's a great book - a post on it is in progress.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Christine Kringle by Lynn Brittney

Although it’s still only October Christmas is already making an appearance. Christmas catalogues have been delivered through my door, the shops have had Christmas cards and wrapping paper on sale for a few weeks and the superstores have Christmas trees and other seasonal goods on display. In the light of this it seems appropriate to write about Christine Kringle, which the author Lynn Brittney kindly sent to me.

This is the story of a potential disaster when it is announced that the Town Council of Plinkbury, a town in England has banned the celebration of Christmas – no Christmas tree in the town square, no Christmas lights in the shops and no carol singers in the streets. (As an aside I’m reading The Verneys, set in the seventeenth century English Civil War period when Christmas celebrations really were banned).

Although the myth is that there is one Santa who flies all round the world delivering presents this book reveals that there are many Santas, known by different names in all the different countries, world–wide. They are gathered together at the Annual Yule Conference when news of the ban hits the headlines. They are busy debating a number of controversial issues – the introduction of some extraordinary Christmas Lights, fuelled by flying reindeer droppings; choosing an International Gift-Giving date; and the most controversial of all – that a female can inherit the role of Gift-Bringer if there is no male child to carry on the family line. This is the suggestion from Kriss Kringle from the US as he has no son and wants his daughter Christine to take over his “job” when the time comes. However, the news from England throws everything into turmoil.

Christine and her friends, Young Nick from England (son of Santa Claus) and Little K, the son of Santa Kuroshsu) from Japan (who invented the Christmas lights), fly to England in Babbo Natale’s (the Italian Santa) red Ferrari (the latest in sleighs) hoping to re-instate Christmas and also to show that females are capable of being Santas. Helped by Nick’s beautiful mum Zazu (a tall elf) and her charming brother Egan they descend upon Plinkbury to carry out their plans to foil the Town Council’s ban. I really liked Zazu, the inspiration behind Barbie dolls, with her jewellery, beautiful clothes and most of all her impossibly high heels.

This story, aimed I think at young adults, kept me fascinated right to the end. There’s plenty of magic and I was quite taken with the idea of a car boot that’s enormous inside, a bit like Dr Who’s Tardis and a magic cleaning fluid that really does remove all stains, even squashed blueberries, not to mention chocolate liqueurs filled with real Christmas spirit. The story also brings out various issues, that I found interesting, not only the prejudice against women entering into what is considered to be a male preserve, and the distinction between the elves and the Santas, but also the way commercialism has become a dominant theme of Christmas, and the position of people of other faiths at Christmas time.

I particularly liked Christine’s speech on the meaning of Christmas and give just a short extract:

“… Christmas unites everyone, of every creed, race and colour, in a winter celebration of love, peace, light and joy. Over the centuries, the day of Christ’s birth has become a universal symbol of hope, fellowship and reunion.”

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Country Walk on Public Rights of Way

Being a bookaholic means that I spend a lot of time inside, as I don't really like reading outside even on sunny, warm days. But I do love walking and maps. Although we haven't got nearly as many maps as books we do have quite a large collection of maps because every time we go to a new place we buy a map and explore the countryside and towns. The photo shows a small selection of our maps.

I've been meaning to write about walking since I started this blog. England is criss-crossed by many, many miles of public rights of way and my husband and I spent many years working as rights of way officers dealing with the maps, landowners, walkers, horse riders and cyclists, and not forgetting the trail riders. We love walking, although now we don't walk as much as we used to do. We went for a walk today and although the sun wasn't shining it was a perfect autumn day. The trees are just turning bronze, yellow and gold and the views were beautiful. The fields have been ploughed and the new crops are just showing through. It was so peaceful; we were alone in the countryside, apart from the birds, cattle and sheep and not another soul in sight.

These are some of the views from our walk.

When we go out walking we can't help looking at things from a Rights of Way point of view. The public footpaths are all open and easy to use, but the photograph below is a good example of what I mean. It should have been marked out at least 1 metre wide by the farmer as it is a cross-field path. But it's really narrow and because it's only been walked out through the crop by people using the path it is only just wide enough to walk along in single file. Anyway, as we're retired now we just moan about it to each other and carry on - it's still walkable after all. We can't help noticing when paths are not quite in the right position either and that's another little gripe.

There were cattle in the next field. They weren't the slightest bit interested in us and carried on munching the grass as we walked by.

Further on our walk we left the fields and continued down a little enclosed path, the ground covered in fallen leaves.

This led to a another narrow footpath fenced in between two fields - sheep in one and more cattle in the other. Looking at old maps I can see that it was originally an unfenced path across a larger field. At some time after 1930 the field was divided in two and the path enclosed between the two fences.

This is an awkward path to walk along as it is on a slope and is stepped, one side being slightly higher than the other and is uneven - you have to watch where you put your feet. But I'm just being picky now, it's not hard to walk along and many people use it every day with little difficulty.

As we walked along the cattle ignored us but the sheep were very interested and came to see us.

This Land is Our Land by Marion Shoard is about the history of the British countryside and has some interesting information about the origins of public rights of way. Now the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has made more areas of the countryside open for public access, but rights of way still provide the main access available for the public to use.

Good places to find information on public rights of way are Defra and the Ramblers's Association. The Ordnance Survey publishes a series of Pathfinder Guides for walks in the British Isles. They're excellent and give details of walks of varying lengths and difficulty ranging from gentle strolls to quite challenging routes over rugged terrain.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Celebrate the Author Challenge

Celebrate the Author Challenge

After writing the last post about not buying any more books for a while I found this challenge. It is a twelve month challenge from January 1, 2008 to December 31, 2008, set up by Becky. The challenge is designed to "celebrate" authors' birthdays. Choose one author for each month of the year. Read at least one book a month. You can choose alternatives for each month and you do NOT have to choose a book until the very moment you're ready to start reading. You can change your mind so long as you change your list to reflect that change.

This suits me very well as I have a long list of books to be read and so the authors I’ve currently chosen are all taken from that list. I particularly like the idea that I can change my mind as I do like to read spontaneously and this gives me that freedom of choice. I hope that this challenge will help me clear the backlog of unread books!

January - Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton or Lewis Carroll

February - Amy Tan or Alice Walker or Charles Dickens

March - Elizabeth Jane Howard or William Morris or Robert Frost

April - Sebastian Faulks or Ian Rankin or Anthony Trollope

May - Daphne Du Maurier or Richard Adams or Margaret Forster

June - Orhan Pamuk or Thomas Hardy

July - Alexander Dumas or Joanne Harris

August - Irving Stone or Jorges Louis Borges or Mollie Panter-Downes

September - Kiran Desai or Chimananda Ngozi Adichie or Elizabeth Gaskell

October - Melvyn Bragg or A N Wilson

November - George Eliot or Chinua Achebe or Mark Twain

December - Jane Austen or Sophie Kinsella

Friday, October 19, 2007

I will not buy any more books ... for a while at least

I read Nan's post at Letters from a Hill Farm with complete empathy this morning. She has resolved not to buy any more books for a long, long time.

I can't understand why I keep buying books and borrowing yet more from the library and other people when I have so many unread books. It’s become an obsession and I keep meaning to stop, but then I’ll go shopping and think I’ll just have a look and I come home with yet more books. I do the same at the library – I think I’ll only return books and not take out any more, but it never happens.

Here are just a few of my unread books and these are just the tip of the iceberg. It's all getting out of hand and it's got to stop.

So, I'm joining Nan in resolving not to buy any more books for a while - at least until after Christmas. Having so many unread books around makes me feel hassled - and it's all self-imposed and unnecessary and getting expensive too. I have stopped adding to my wishlist (well nearly stopped, because I added one this morning, before I read Nan’s blog). I also intend not to borrow any more books until I’ve read the ones I got out now.

I’ve done very well so far. I went shopping this morning at the supermarket and only looked at the books. There were a couple I could have bought but I resisted. Then when I paid at the checkout I was given a voucher for 100 extra points if I buy a book from the supermarket’s recommended reads before 4 November. Oh dear, it would be a shame to waste it. Maybe I could buy one as a present for someone else?

Wish me luck, please!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Booking Through Thursday - Typography

You may or may not have seen my post at Punctuality Rules Tuesday, about a book I recently bought that had the actual TITLE misspelled on the spine of the book. A glaring typographical error that really (really!) should have been caught. So, using that as a springboard, today’s question: What’s the worst typographical error you’ve ever found in (or on) a book?

I've never seen such a glaring error, although there have been many times when I've come across small typos in books. I've not kept a record of them so I can't quote any here. Generally I find them irritating if it means I have to re-read a sentence to make sense of it, otherwise I might not even notice. Some are just amusing and don't bother me, although I do wonder why a spell check hasn't picked them up.

I do get upset about punctuation, when it's is used instead of its for example and read Eats, Shoot and Leaves by Lynne Truss with great pleasure. I used to write reports on rights of way and always had to double check that the l was always there in the word public - so embarrassing if it got missed out.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Reading Meme

I’ve seen this meme on several blogs recently and thought I’d like to do it too. I don’t know where it started but the last blog I saw it on is Emily’s.

Number of Books You Own

I don’t know exactly how many books my husband and I own. We have books all over the house. I had started to catalogue the books in a database on our laptop when were burgled and the laptop was stolen. I felt too disheartened to start again. Later when I found Library Thing I started to use it and I keep adding to it gradually.

Last Book you Bought

Completely Unexpected Tales by Roald Dahl – bizarre and macabre stories. I bought this at The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre when we visited it on Sunday. I have so many unread books that I really shouldn’t have bought another one, but I enjoyed the museum so much that I wanted to read something by Roald Dahl. This book includes all the stories previously published in Tales of the Unexpected and More Tales of the Unexpected – I remember watching the TV series years ago. I’m looking forward to reading them soon.

Last Book someone else bought you

My husband bought me some books for my birthday, including Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. He knows that books always please. This is one that I’ve heard is very good, so again I’m looking forward to it.

Five books that Mean a Lot to Me:

Books as a whole mean a lot to me so this is impossible to choose just five. I would probably choose different ones tomorrow but these five came to mind today.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I think I like this one best of all Jane Austen’s books. I’ve read it so many times since I was about 12 and still have the copy that belonged to my mother. Elizabeth Bennet is the character I most admire for her forthright, strong character. I love the way she rejected Mr Collins and stood up to Lady Catherine de Burgh. I can even forgive her initial prejudice against Mr Darcy.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This was the first Dickens I read. My Great Aunt gave me this for Christmas one year when I was a child and I’ve loved it ever since. She gave me a beautiful little illustrated book and I can’t find it just now, which is just awful.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I could have chosen Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, but decided on Wuthering Heights as it was such a revelation to me the first time I read it. I was completely engrossed in the story – the tragedy, passion, love and mystery of it all.

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan. I was completely taken with this book. It’s the autobiographical account of Keenan’s captivity in Beirut. It’s beautifully written, compelling, sensitive and hauntingly horrific and sad. I read this along with Taken on Trust by Terry Waite and Some other Rainbow by John McCarthy and Jill Morrell also telling of their experiences as hostages. They’re all remarkable books, but Keenan’s is outstanding.

Windows of the Soul by Ken Gire. This is about seeing beyond the ordinary, mundane moments of our lives to the eternal. He uses examples from art, poems, novels, music and films as parables to illuminate the deeper meaning in everyday life. I love this book.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sons and Lovers - D H Lawrence

I’ve had my second-hand copy of Sons and Lovers sitting unread in a bookcase for several years. The Outmoded Authors Challenge gave me the incentive to read it, one because I was surprised to find D H Lawrence is considered to be outmoded, two because I didn’t have to buy or borrow it and three because it could then come off my to be read list.

When I took off the tatty cover, I discovered that the book inside was not a bit tatty or worn out and as an added bonus it not only contains Sons and Lovers, but also, St Mawr, The Virgin and the Gypsy and The Man Who Died. I’d read The Virgin and the Gypsy a few years ago, but the others were completely new to me.

If you're planning to read the book, be aware that there are spoilers ahead.

Sons and Lovers is a powerful, emotional novel depicting the struggle, strife, and passion of relationships and their intensity, and possessiveness. Throughout the book Lawrence’s vivid descriptions and observation of the English countryside are so beautiful that I couldn’t stop marvelling at his writing. There are so many examples I could quote. Here is just one:

“The sun was going down. Every open evening, the hills of Derbyshire were blazed over with the red sunset. Mrs Morel watched the sun sink from the glistening sky, leaving a soft flower-blue overhead, while the western space went red, as if all the fire had swum down there, leaving the bell cast flawless blue. The mountain-ash berries across the field stood fierily out from the dark leaves for a moment. A few shocks of corn in a corner of the fallow stood up as if a live; she imagined them bowing; perhaps her son would be a Joseph. In the east, a mirrored sunset floated pink opposite the west’s scarlet. The big haystacks on the hillside, that butted into the glare, went cold.”

The story starts with a description of the cottages in “The Bottoms” where the Morrels live in Nottinghamshire overlooking the hills of Derbyshire. Places feature strongly in the novel and for me provided reality and solidity. Lawrence takes the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary. The family conflict between Walter Morel and his wife and sons is one of the main themes. To Walter, his wife is a “thing of mystery and fascination, a lady” but although at first she thinks he is rather wonderful and noble she soon becomes contemptuous of him and eventually despises him.

Mrs Morel is the dominant character in the Morel family. She is described as a “rather small woman, of delicate mould but resolute bearing”. She is disappointed in her life and her marriage and lives her life through her children and in particular through her three sons – William, Paul and Arthur. William, the oldest leaves home, marries and dies young; Arthur, the youngest, joins the army and also marries; but Paul remains at home and is dominated by his mother and her intense, possessive love for him.

Paul is sensitive, torn between his love for his mother and his feelings for Miriam. Miriam “is very beautiful, with her warm colouring, her gravity, her eyes dilating suddenly like an ecstasy.” Her intensity makes Paul anxious and feel tortured and imprisoned. It is a love/hate relationship. His mother thinks that Miriam will “absorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for himself. He will never be a man on his own feet – she will suck him up.”

This struggle with Paul alternately loving and hating Miriam continues for seven agonising years. Paul cannot break free either from Miriam or from his mother’s suffocating love. Indeed, he realises that his mother is the “pivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape”. At the same time this is not enough for him and it makes him mad with restlessness. Although Paul cannot finally break off his connection with Miriam, he and Clara, a married woman who is separated from her husband, have a passionate affair. He still feels a desire to be free. His mother sums him up when she says, “Battle – battle – and suffer. It’s about all you do, as far as I can see.”

In parts I found it a harrowing book, in particular the illness and death of Mrs Morel, such a vivid portrayal of Paul’s agony at watching and waiting for his mother’s death. Sons and Lovers is described on the book cover as an autobiographical novel depicting his domination by his mother’s possessiveness. I think that the description of Mrs Morel’s death must also be based on Lawrence’s own experience to a certain extent as well; it is so compellingly real.

There is so much sadness and tragedy and though Paul is lost after his mother’s death he does find hope for the future:

“On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core, a nothingness, and yet not nothing. … But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city’s gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.”

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Current and Ongoing Reading

Today I finished reading Sons and Lovers for the Outmoded Authors Challenge (post to follow) and haven’t started another book yet. I thought I’d take stock and see which books have been hanging around, lurking in different piles waiting to be read.

The Current Reading section on the left shows that I’m reading:

1. Lewis Carroll by Morton Cohen. This is a long and detailed biography and I read some each morning, so it’s taking me quite a while to finish. I’m just over half way into the book.

2. Remainder by Tom McCarthy - a novel about a man who is suffering from amnesia and trying to re-discover his identity. I started this in August and at first I was enjoying it. But then I found it hard going, as it seemed to be going over and over the same ground. Whilst this does reflect the state of mind of the main character as he tries to regain his memory it became tedious. It’s a disturbing book, strangely unreal. On the back cover the book is described as a “darkly comic meditation”. Well, it’s dark but I don’t think it’s funny. I’ve only got about 90 pages left to read, so I suppose I’ll pick it up again sometime. I don’t think it will matter if I can’t quite remember what happened in the first 196 pages, as it’ll probably be repeated before the end.

3. Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve read quite a number of these and will carry on until the 31 October at least – that’s when the R.I.P.II Challenge finishes.

My Ongoing Reading lists three books but really the only one I’m still dipping into is Body Parts by Hermione Lee. I came to a full stop with Thomas Hardy: the Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin and Michael Palin’s Diaries of the Monty Python Years some time ago. I still intend to read the latter two books, but they have been pushed to the sidelines. I may go back to one of these now.

Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing is a very interesting to book to read, especially in conjunction with reading biographies and memoirs. It’s about the relationship of biography to fiction and history and also about the writing of biography. When you think about it it’s obvious that because biographers are trying to reconstruct a person’s life from different sources – letters, diaries, other people’s accounts etc – that the end result although it may seem as if it is factual, is an interpretation and quasi-fictional. So much has to be assumed. As Hermione Lee writes "Biography is a process of making up or making over." I bear this in mind as I’m reading Cohen’s biography of Lewis Carroll. There is so much in it that Cohen has read between the lines, without any real solid evidence to support it. Cohen asks questions when it isn’t known what Dodgson’s feelings and opinions were and although he writes that these are “almost unanswerable questions” he does speculate and suggests answers, prefaced with “perhaps” and questions such as “what if …?”

Body Parts includes essays on Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobsters; Virginia Woolf’s Nose; Reading in Bed; and Jane Austen Faints. I’ll go into more details in another post or two (or more). It’s good stuff.

The computer room/office/little bedroom is in dire need of a good sort out, so I’m going to have to leave the more interesting topic of what book to read next until another time. I’m tempted by One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (short listed for the Booker Prize), or Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Claydon House

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon on Wednesday this week when my husband and I visited Claydon House in the north-west of Buckinghamshire. The National Trust doesn’t allow you to take photographs inside the house, so my photos are just of the outside.

It was a most enjoyable visit. We weren’t quite the only people going round the house, but, except for the room stewards, we were the only people in the rooms as we toured the house. Although it belongs to the National Trust, most of the contents of the house still belong to the Verney family. Sir Edmund Verney, who inherited the baronetcy in 2001, lives in the east wing with his family. I’ve heard that Lady Mary Verney, the widow of Sir Ralph (who died in 2001), is a concert pianist and although she is now in her mid 80s, she still gives concerts and takes her own piano with her. Apparently she’s known in the nearby village as a bit of a madcap driver and one day last summer she was giving a recital at Claydon House and arriving late she drove up to the house, spinning the car round in the car park, making the gravel fly as she pulled up. As we left the grounds an elderly lady drove in and politely waited for us to go out, as the drive is only wide enough for one car – we’d like to think it was Lady Verney, but, of course, it could have been another visitor.

One of the most interesting rooms is Miss Nightingale’s bedroom. Florence Nightingale was Sir Harry Verney’s sister-in-law and often stayed at Claydon House between 1857 and 1890. Sir Harry had first asked Florence to marry him but she declined and he married her older sister Parthenope (they’re named after the places they were born – Parthenope, being the Greek name for Naples. That’s like the Beckhams calling their son Brooklyn – I wonder if that’s where they got the idea? Somehow I don’t think so, but you never know!)

Florence Nightingale slept in this room, but the furniture is not necessarily the furniture she used, although it is furniture that was found in the house. It’s very unlikely that the four-poster bed is the one she slept in, as she wouldn’t have thought it was hygienic - the dust would collect in the fabric and the curtains wouldn’t have allowed the air to circulate. Sir Harry was devoted to Florence and as he championed her cause in Parliament, he was known as the ’Member for Miss Nightingale’, rather than the Member for North Bucks.

Before seeing Florence’s bedroom you pass through the Museum. This is a fascinating room, chock full of objects that the Verney family collected and placed there in 1893. I love such old fashioned museums as this is, with artefacts displayed in glass cabinets and labelled in spidery handwriting – the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford is the most interesting museum I know (another post some day maybe). The Verney Museum displays amongst other items, tribal artefacts from British Columbia collected in the 1860s, masks, native clubs and other weapons; British army uniforms and the Colours of the 14th Regiment of Foot, carried at the Battle of Waterloo. There are also some of Florence Nightingale’s personal items, including her little, travel communion set and a lock of her hair – a rather striking, brown chestnut colour. Taking up centre stage in the room is the gamelon, an orchestra of gongs and other instruments used in religious ceremonies from Java.

The library is the only other room that is fully furnished. Parthenope converted this room into a library in 1861. I love seeing the books in libraries like this and these were obviously the personal collections of generations of the Verneys, being a mixture of different subjects and looking as though they had been read and weren’t just there as decoration.

There is so much more I could write about –the beautiful mahogany staircase, with its balustrade of fine ironwork that rises the full height of the house ending on the top floor, which is inlaid with coloured woods and ivory (needless to say the public can see but not use this staircase); about the intricate, painted wooden carvings that looks like delicate plasterwork; the intricate and rich decorations in the Chinese Room, which are unbelievably also carved wood in the chinoiserie style; and so on and so forth.

At the end of our visit we went to the tearoom, which is in one of the outbuildings. The entrance is the single blue door on the left next to the hanging basket. I had Afternoon Tea, comprising a pot of tea (enough for two cups), two scones, with clotted cream and jam and a strawberry, whilst my husband had a cup of coffee and an enormous slice of chocolate fudge cake.

Suitably refreshed, we then visited the Secondhand Bookshop, opposite the tearoom. The entrance is the dark doorway shown in the photo. It's a treasure trove of books and we bought The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning – the first novel in her Balkan Trilogy (for The Outmoded Authors Challenge), rather a dusty copy; The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke (mentioned by Ann); and One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a Virago Modern Classic.

Finally we went into the Church of All Saints, Middle Claydon, which is next to the House. This doesn’t belong to the National Trust and is still in use as the parish church. It’s a little church dating from 1231 and contains monuments to the Verney family, including one to Sir Edmund Verney, the Standard Bearer to Charles I, killed at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. The story goes that Sir Edmund was killed clutching the Standard and as they were unable to prise it from his hand the soldiers had to hack off his hand. You can just see the representation of the hand holding part of the Standard in my photo of the church interior.

The Verneys: a true story of love, war and madness in Seventeenth-Century England by Adrian Tinneswood is on sale at the ticket office, where I was told that he is currently writing a further book about the family history. I’ve borrowed the book from the library and have just dipped into it – it looks as though I should have bought it.

Booking Through Thursday Live and In-Person

  • Have you ever met one of your favorite authors? Gotten their autograph?

  • How about an author you felt only so-so about, but got their autograph anyway? Like, say, at a book-signing a friend dragged you to?

  • How about stumbling across a book signing or reading and being so captivated, you bought the book?

I’m normally far too shy to ask anyone for their autograph, especially if it was one of my favourite authors. I certainly wouldn’t ask an author I only felt “so-so” about for an autograph. It’s all a bit too embarrassing.

BUT I did do it once. I went to a talk Adrian Plass gave at a local church. Adrian Plass writes really funny books about Christianity and he’s even funnier in person. A link to his website is here. He’s written many books, perhaps the most well known is The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass aged 37 1/2 and I think my favourite book is Alien at St Wilfred’s. He had the whole church in hysterics and I was laughing so much that tears were running down my face. I can’t remember any other time when I have laughed so I cried – my face was aching. He hardly ever cracked a smile and delivered his talk in such a deadpan way that made it even funnier.

The talk was called An Evening of Serious Stuff with Adrian Plass. We have it on video, but I can't find it on Amazon now. He started off as though he were a vicar giving the church notices. One was about opening the Side Chapel of the church – the key to the chapel is on a hook in the junction box outside the vestry door – the key to the junction box is in the tall cupboard at the back of the church – the key to the tall cupboard is in the robing chest, which is outside the vestry door under the junction box – the key to the robing chest is held by Mr Dumpney – who has kindly made it available on certain days of the month … It’s much more funny when he says it than when I write it down, believe me.

At the end of the talk his books were on sale and he was signing copies if you wanted him to. Very nervously I joined the queue and when it was my turn and he asked my name I chickened out and said the book I'd bought, A Smile on the Face of God, the biography of Philip Ilott , was for my husband, so he wrote my husband’s name on the title page and signed it “To D … God bless, A Plass”. I wish now I’d been brave enough to admit it was for me really, although my husband likes his books as much as I do.

We were at my friend's Ordination Service in Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford recently and when the Bishop of Oxford read the notices we were both reminded of Adrian Plass's talk - it made us chuckle, inwardly. It wasn't the same of course.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson

I found this book at my local library on display in the 1st Novel Collection. That’s one of the features of the library that I really appreciate. Sometime I must write a post about why I love libraries so much.

I’d never heard of Linda Olsson before and didn’t know what to expect, but the first sentences drew me effortlessly into the story:

“There had been wind and drifting snow during her journey, but as darkness fell, the wind died and the snow settled.

It was the first day of March. She had driven to Stockholm in the gradually deepening dusk that seamlessly became night. It had been a slow journey, but it had given her time to think. Or erase thoughts.”

This sets the scene – it’s coming to the end of winter and there is the promise of spring. Veronika, a young writer, has come to live near a small village in the Swedish countryside. Her only close neighbour is Astrid, who is an elderly recluse. From this opening it’s obvious that Veronika is troubled, needing to sort out her thoughts. There is a mystery too concerning Astrid’s past and she too is troubled by her memories. At first she does not respond to Veronika’s tentative efforts to get to know her, although she watches Veronika as she walks passed Astrid's house on her way to the village. When she hasn’t seen Veronika for a few days and there is no sign of life coming from the house this disturbs her and she finds herself knocking on Veronika’s door. Veronika is ill and Astrid, unused to any social contact looks after her. And so, slowly, their friendship begins and gradually they confide in each other as the year moves from spring into summer.

Astrid reveals how she struggled as a child after her mother left her and her father; the troubled relationship with her father; and how she realised that she had married a man she didn’t love. Veronika eventually reveals the circumstances surrounding her relationship with James, a New Zealander she was living with after leaving her Swedish boyfriend, as she helps Astrid cope with visiting her dying husband, who she hasn’t seen since he was taken into a rest-home.

I liked this book, for the way the secrets of the two women’s lives are gradually revealed as their friendship deepens. It kept my interest throughout, as I wanted to know what had happened to Astrid and Veronika in the past. I think the turning point for Astrid was when she was sixteen and had found a special place in the forest, high in the hills above the village. It was here that she found a clearing where wild strawberries grew and where she met her first and only love, Lars. Lars was killed in a farming accident and Astrid buried her memories of him, until she told Veronika about him. She tells Veronika:

“It is in the nature of things to change. Nothing can last beyond its given time. … I wish now that I had held on to the memories of that summer. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if I had. Instead I allowed what came before and what came after to overshadow it. I should have cared for it, the way I cared for my strawberry patch. Allowed it to develop new growth, new fruit. But perhaps they are one and the same, the strawberry patch and the memories of that summer. Finally retrieved.”

For Veronika, it’s a time to put her life back together again. She says she has never understood time:

“Memories seem to surface in no particular order, with no time attached. Yesterday can seem as distant as last year. … My life now consists of fragments … where some are so blinding in their intensity that they make everything else indistinguishable. … It feels as if my existence was extinguished in a flash, and afterwards my universe became incomprehensible. … I want to remember everything. But perhaps I need to give it more time. Allow myself some rest. Distance myself a little, to see if I can make out a pattern. And face the truth about what is really there.”

The past, the nature of memories and time and above all the importance of love are themes that are explored in this novel. It’s a story that lingers in my memory.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Pit and The Pendulum - Edgar Allan Poe

It seemed appropriate that I should read The Pit and The Pendulum today as on this day in 1849 (Oct. 7) Edgar Allan Poe died in mysterious circumstances in Baltimore in the Washington College Hospital.

I have read several of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination and so far had not found them to be too scary. I had come to the book with great expectations that I would be terrified, so to some extent it was a relief to find that the tales did not freeze my blood, although I do think they are gory and sickening. Today I have changed my mind, now that I’ve read The Pit and the Pendulum.

This story is as horrifying as I had imagined it to be. I woke up in a tent once in pitch darkness, convinced I couldn’t breath and in a mad panic to get out. This is how The Pit and the Pendulum starts – the narrator wakes after being sentenced to death by the Inquisition, lying, aware of the “tumultuous motion of the heart, and in my ears, the sound of its beating” – oh, how I know that petrifying sound and feeling in the dead of night. He opens his eyes and can see nothing:

“The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. I struggled for breath. The intensity of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me.”

The horror continues as he cautiously examines his prison and only by luck avoids falling into a pit at the centre of the dungeon. The mental torment piles on him at the thought of the means of his death, and the hideous torture awaiting him. Exhausted he then sleeps and on waking finds the dungeon lit by a “wild, sulphurous lustre”, a pitcher of water and a loaf within his reach. The water is drugged and on waking again he finds himself bound head to foot on a low framework of wood, a pendulum suspended over him swinging and slowing descending towards his heart. He is left for hours to contemplate the result of the pendulum’s descent and then becomes aware of rats swarming around him, “wild, bold, ravenous – their red eyes glaring upon” him.

I think my reaction to this tale is partly because of my own fear and panic at waking in utter darkness and breathless, but is also due to the tension and suspense Poe has instilled into the text. I did anticipate the ending to a certain extent, but not completely, so that was a plus as well.

The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl gives a fictional account of the mystery surrounding Poe’s death, based on the historical facts. I read this book some months ago and although I think it is too long and tedious in parts, it did trigger my interest in Poe, as did a more entertaining novel, The American Boy, by Andrew Taylor, which is based on Poe’s childhood. For more information on Poe, go to The Poe Society.

I also found Ed’s post Poe's body claimed by Philadelphia at The Bibliothecary Blog very interesting. He has written a piece calling for the exhumation of his body to “translate his remains” from Baltimore to Philadelphia, where Ed maintains he belongs.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Red Queen-itis

I feel I'm suffering from Red Queen-itis: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" (Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll).

It's all my own fault, I know, but I'm struggling to read all the blogs I like to visit, read all the books I want to read and write about them, enter all my books into LibraryThing (still not finished) and do all the other things I want to do. When I was working full-time I thought that when I left work I 'd have lots of time for everything, but it just isn't like that at all. I can't think why but I popped into my local library this morning and borrowed two more books. I'd only intended to return some, but at least I returned four and came away with only two.

I've spent most of this afternoon just trying to catch up with reading blogs and I've so many books I want to read and posts to write and I still haven't written about Astrid and Veronika. That will have to wait until another day, now.

I didn't really believe other people when they said that after they left work they didn't know where the time went or how they ever had time to go to work. I do now!

Chipping Norton Bookshop and The Uncommon Reader

Whilst we were in the Cotswolds last week we drove through Chipping Norton and decided to stop for a coffee. There is a small parking area on Middle Row, just off the main road through the town and there was just one space available. When we got out of the car, we saw behind us some tables and chairs outside a bookshop and thought great that’s just what we wanted – a bookshop and a café too!

This is Jaffé & Neale, a bright, welcoming bookshop with a good variety of books on offer. There wasn’t much space left inside to sit and have a drink, but as in the car park there was just one table left. It was our day for sure! We had coffee and I was very tempted by the cakes, but resisted.

It was just too much to expect me to resist buying a book and I had a wander round the shelves. They had some books that have been signed by the authors and I was really pleased to find a pile of books signed by Alan Bennett. I had seen on the BBC website a while ago that Alan Bennett had been reading his new book The Uncommon Reader on Radio 4, but I hadn’t managed to listen. So I was delighted to find it here.

It’s a lovely little hardback book and it only took me a couple of hours to read it. It tells the story of Her Majesty, not named, but she has dogs, takes her summer holiday at Balmoral and is married to a duke. She comes across the travelling library, thanks to the dogs, parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors at the palace and ends up borrowing a book to save the driver/librarian’s embarrassment. There are some wonderfully amusing touches, such as the Queen asking:

“'Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’t have a ticket?’ No problem,’ said Mr Hutchings.
‘One is a pensioner’, said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.’ 'Ma'am can borrow up to six books'. 'Six? Heavens!'"

Helped by Norman, who works in the kitchen, she borrows books regularly and this changes her life. This little book is full of interesting ideas about books and the nature of reading and society. As the Queen expands her range she realises that “Books did not care who was reading them, or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth: letters a republic.”

I love the way Bennett describes how the Queen becomes a bookaholic (my word, not his) and wants to discuss her books and what she is reading. The French President had mentioned Proust to her, when she had asked him what he thought about Jean Genet, which led to her taking Proust’s novel, all thirteen volumes of it, and George Painter’s biography of Proust, as her holiday reading at Balmoral. What an image!

This book is only 124 pages, but what a lot is packed into those pages, not a word is wasted. It’s amusing and thought provoking as well. I wondered where it was leading and how Bennett was going to end the story, but all I’ll say is that the Queen realises that books have enriched her life “in a way that one could never have expected. “ Her next venture follows inevitably. Do read this book. I wonder if the Queen has.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Books read in September

1. Letters to Malcolm by C S Lewis
2. Speaking of Love by Angela Young
3. Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
4. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
5. Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson
6. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
7. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
8. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Black Cat from Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe

I finished reading a good mixture of books in September. First in the month was Letters to Malcolm by C S Lewis, which was our book group meeting’s choice. For this group we usually read religious non-fiction, both older and more recent books. Letters to Malcolm was published in 1963, not long before Lewis’s death. It takes the form of letters on prayer written to an fictitious correspondent called Malcolm in a similar vein to The Screwtape Letters, but nowhere nearly as amusing or as confrontational. He has some interesting comments on different aspects of prayer: petitionary prayer, prayers of praise, corporate prayer, and whether it is right to pray for the dead.

There are some questions he poses that he doesn’t answer directly, which made me ponder further. Such an example is how can we account for the embarrassing promises made in the Bible that what we pray for with faith we shall receive. I’ve always found this statement puzzling. So did Lewis: “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted.” The difficulty is not why prayer isn’t answered, but why it is promised and Lewis can only offer guesses. He asks, as I do too: “Are we only talking to ourselves in an empty universe?”

I’ve already written about Speaking of Love (see here), Crow Lake (here), Ghostwalk (here) and Ivanhoe (here) all of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories are very short and I’ve discovered that I don’t really like such short stories. These are most grizzly and so horrific that they turn my stomach, particularly The Black Cat, in which the narrator kills his wife with an axe and then bricks her up in the cellar. When the police arrive and search the premises they hear the cat howling and wailing and lo and behold when the wall is opened there is the corpse, “greatly decayed and clotted with gore” and standing on its head is the cat “with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire.”

I had built up in my mind this picture of Poe’s tales as being really spooky and scary, but reading them proved to be disappointing. The Fall of the House of Usher is a bit better, but it still didn’t live up to my expectations. It’s a story of the decay of a family into madness and this time the lady of the House of Usher is buried alive.

I’ve written about The Murders in the Rue Morgue here. This story too has gory details and is interesting as the forerunner of the modern detective story. I’m not sure I’m going to read all of Poe’s tales, but I am going to see if reading The Pit and The Pendulum is as terrifying as watching Vincent Price in the movie.

Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson is a beautiful book and Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader is a little masterpiece. I’ll write about both of these in another post, as this is enough for now.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

I was surprised to find that Ivanhoe was easier to read than I had imagined, although Scott does use some archaic language and there were a few words that I had to look up. It took me some time to read as it's nearly 500 pages of quite small font in my copy, but I’m glad I’ve read it. It’s a mixture of romance and historical fiction, although I can’t vouch for its historical accuracy and Scott admits that “it is extremely probable that I may have confused the manner of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriated to a period either considerably earlier or a good deal later than that era.”

Set in England in the 12th century, ruled by the Normans it is the story of the continuing conflict, approximately a century after the Battle of Hastings, between the Normans, and the Saxons. There are many characters, including Saxon nobles and peasants; Norman knights and Knights Templar; Jews; and outlaws - Robin Hood and his merry men. Ivanhoe is the son of a Saxon noble, Cedric who has plans to marry his ward, the Lady Rowena to Athelstane, a descendant of the last Saxon monarchs, in an attempt to regain the throne. However, Ivanhoe and Rowena are in love and so his father has banished him.

As the story begins Ivanhoe has returned from the Crusades, in disguise, to his home hoping somehow to win Rowena as his bride and he challenges the Knight Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert at a tournament held by Prince John. As a result he is severely wounded and cared for by the Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of the Jew, Isaac. With the reported escape of King Richard the Lionheart from imprisonment by the Duke of Austria, Prince John fears that the unidentified Black Knight who is victorious at the tournament is his brother returned from the Crusades.

A series of events then rapidly follows including the capture of Rowena, Cedric, Athelstane, Rebecca, Isaac and Ivanhoe by the supporters of Prince John. They are held in the ancient castle of Torquilstone, now belonging to the Norman, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. The Black Knight is of course Richard and he enlists the help of the outlaws Locksley (also known as Robin Hood), Friar Tuck and Alan-a Dale to rescue them.

Scott gives a blow-by-blow account of the siege of the castle and rescue of the captives. I normally gloss over battle scenes as I find descriptions confusing and I admit boring, but Scott won me over completely. Rebecca gives such a vivid description of the battle to Ivanhoe, as he lies wounded on his sick bed, that it seemed as though I was there seeing it for myself. Rebecca of course falls in love with Ivanhoe, who at first seems to be enchanted by her, until she reveals that she is a Jewess.

The racial tension between the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims is one of the themes running through the novel, and is paralleled by the tension between the Normans and the Saxon “porkers”. Rebecca’s position as one of the despised Jews is contrasted with Rowena’s with her proud disdain of the Normans. However, lust overcomes prejudice as Bois-Guilbert is infatuated with Rebecca and attempts to seduce her.

The story has many twists and turns. Athelstane is declared dead and then later is found to be alive; Ulrica, the dispossessed Saxon heiress of the castle of Torquilstone dramatically takes revenge on Front-de-Boeuf; and Rebecca is accused of practising witchcraft on Bois-Guilbert. She is condemned to death but pleads for a champion to fight her cause against Bois- Guilbert. Ivanhoe still suffering from his wounds races to the combat and declares himself as Rebecca’s champion. He is victorious but spares Bois- Guilbert’s life.

Ivanhoe almost takes backstage being injured and out of action for most of the novel, with the spotlight mainly on the heroic actions of Richard and also on the story of Rebecca. I think Rebecca is actually the star of the book and the scenes of her conflict with Bois-Guilbert reflect the misogyny and racial oppression of the times. ‘Rebecca’ is a good title for a book, yes?