Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Blog

BooksPlease has moved. You can now find me at www.booksplease.org - or click here. I do hope you will still visit my blog. All my old posts are over on the new blog as well as here but after today I'll just be using the new one.

Tuesday Thingers

Marie, an Early Reviewer for LibraryThing, has started a weekly online get-together of LT book bloggers at her web site, The Boston Bibliophile. She says, "anyone is welcome to participate but the idea is to catch up with each other on what's new in our LT libraries- new books, books just finished, thoughts, anything like that." To participate, simply write a post in your blog, then go to her entry Tuesday Thingers and leave her a comment containing the link to your post.

This week's topic is: Discussion groups. Do you belong to any (besides Early Reviewers)? Approximately how many? Are there any in particular that you participate in more avidly? How often do you check?

First a little bit about LibraryThing and me. I’ve been adding our books (that’s mine and my husband’s) to LT for a while now. It’s very time-consuming but most rewarding, coming across old favourites I haven’t read for years. I’ve been doing in sections and I think most of the fiction is on there now and I’m working through the non-fiction.

Books have always been part of my life as long as I can remember. It was my father who suggested I could be a librarian and I can’t think why I hadn’t thought of it myself. I went to Manchester Library School at what was then Manchester Polytechnic (now part of Manchester University) and worked for a while for Manchester Public Libraries. I haven’t worked in a library since I left to start a family, although I did have a spell in a bookshop working as a cataloguer, in pre-computerised cataloguing days. When I found LT at first I thought I wouldn’t use it – after all I used to be a cataloguer. But I soon realised its benefits and signed up.

I have looked at the Discussion groups but have only joined the Early Reviewers group. I have had one book to review – Our Longest Days, which I wrote about in my last post. There are only a few books available through Early Reviewers for UK members, so I was really pleased I got a book at all. I do hope some more will come my way.

I suppose I check LT about once a week, more if I’m adding books. It all takes time. I’ve found that writing a blog and reading other people’s blogs is also more time-consuming than I’d realised and it all cuts into reading time.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday Salon - Our Longest Days

This week I've concentrated on reading Our Longest Days: A People’s History of the Second World War by the writers of Mass Observation, edited by Sandra Koa Wing. I've been completely immersed in the war years through this fascinating and personal book.

Mass Observation is a social research organisation, founded in 1937, with the aim of creating an "anthropology of ourselves" - a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. The information was gathered in various ways, including a team of paid observers and a national volunteer panel of writers. People were interviewed on a number of topics and filled in monthly ‘directives’ on themes such as jokes, eating habits, money and marriage. In August 1939, with war approaching, the organisation asked its panel to keep diaries to record their daily lives and selections from fifteen of these diaries are included in Our Longest Days. They make fascinating reading.

From Sandra Koa Wing’s introduction:
“It is worth noting, however, that the diarists did not represent a true cross-section of British society during the war. Although they came from a variety of backgrounds, and from different regions, most of them were middle-class, well-read and articulate. They tended to be people with a natural capacity for observing – and for recording what they observed. Moreover, on the whole their political leanings tended towards left of centre; several were pacifists or conscientious objectors.”

Because they are personal accounts there is that sense of being actually there during the air raids, hearing Churchill’s speeches, reading the newspaper reports, experiencing the grief at the number of casualties and deaths and the terrible devastation of the war, the food and clothes rationing and the excitement of D-Day. There is also the hopelessness of the defeats during the first years of the war, the weariness as it went on and on, the yearning for peace and then the excitement, the anticipation and the anti-climax of VE Day and VJ Day.

The main events of each year are summarised before the diary entries for that year, which I found very useful as a quick guide to set the diaries in the context of world events. I began to feel as though I knew the people who wrote the diaries, so the brief biographies are the end were also interesting as there were brief details about what happened to them after the war. There are also a number of photographs, an excellent index and a selection of further reading of Mass Observation publications and other histories of Britain in the Second World War together with a list of related websites.

I think one of my favourites is Muriel Green, who was 19 when the war began. She became a land girl and moved around the country. On her 21st birthday she was working as an under-gardener at Huntley Manor in Gloucester. She wrote:
“I shan’t forget my 21st birthday. Apart from getting two greetings telegrams and achieving the first bath for nearly a month it has been the last word in flat. Totally depressing in fact.” Life wasn’t all depressing for Muriel and she is one person who kept mainly optimistic and in October 1944 she reflected: “It seemed strange to think that the war had been on over five years and how little different it was for us in spite of the ravages of war and what some had gone through. … Of course it will never be the same again, but there are many families with far greater losses than our petty grumbles.”
Muriel’s family was among the lucky ones. Not so Kenneth Redmond’s whose brother Tom was killed in action. His entry on 11 November 1944 reads:
“This day only means Remembrance of Tom – War and its horrors, Peace and the best of life that it can bring – all these things will mean to me Tom. I get very morbid when I think of it.”

Herbert Brush was 70 in 1939. He was living in south London, a keen gardener, art lover, reader and writer of verse. He wrote diary entries from September 1940 to March 1951 and I particularly liked the personal details he included. He couldn’t buy any razor blades in June 1942 and at the same time he was wondering how accurate the reports of the numbers of casualties reported by the Germans and Russians were, thinking of how pleasant it was “to read about so many Nazis being slaughtered” and noting the number of different pronunciations of ‘Nazi’.

“Churchill says ‘Nazzi’, others say ‘Nartzi’, or ‘Nertzi’ of ‘Nassie’. I like Churchill’s best as he puts a snarl into the word.”
My dad must have liked Churchill’s best too as that is how he said it.

Margaret Forster is quoted on the front cover: “I relished all these diaries”. Me too. An excellent book.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Saturday Scene

Today I finished reading Our Longest Days, 6 years of wartime diary entries from the start of the Second World War on 3rd September 1939 to its end in 1945. I feel as though I have emerged from the book with a much greater understanding of those years. More about the book maybe tomorrow.

The rain that was forecast again for today didn't arrive this morning and this is what I saw looking out of the window. The cattle are back in the field opposite. I took the first photo through the window and you may be able to see a ghost in the hedge - that's my reflection.

So I opened the window to get a better view and the bullock nearest the hedge spotted me. Here he is posing for the camera.

The rest of the cattle didn't like the photoshoot and took off up the field.

The rain is here now, so it's just as well we got some gardening in first and managed to shred the branches D had chopped off the pussy willow earlier in the week. It had got huge and was hanging over our neighbours' roof. Shredding is a very satisfying job using a small woodchipper or hogger (as D calls it), although it's a bit noisy.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday Fill-Ins

This is the first time I've done a Friday Fill-In

  1. There is absolutely NO way you can get me to eat fish eyeballs as shown on Gordon Ramsay’s “The F Word”!

  2. Planning a holiday reminds me that summer is almost here!

  3. I cannot live without my books.

  4. Painting and quilting are two things I'd like to try.

  5. When life hands you lemons make lemon meringue pie and lemon cheesecake.

  6. Christmas Day with my family, opening presents, and eating Christmas dinner is my favourite childhood memory.

  7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to going out for a meal, tomorrow my plans include gardening if the weather is fine and cooking and Sunday, I want to relax, write my blog and read!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Who is this "Old Man"?

My husband took this photo of the book he was reading this morning when he was trying out my camera. See if you can identify the book and the name of the "Old Man".

Hint: It's not the sort of book I usually read - you should know, Paul.

Booking Through Thursday - More Work?

This week's BTT question is Manual Labor Redux

Following up last week’s question about reading writing/grammar guides, this week, we’re expanding the question….

Scenario: You’ve just bought some complicated gadget home . . . do you read the accompanying documentation? Or not?

Do you ever read manuals?

How-to books?

Self-help guides?

Anything at all?

I don't like manuals, usually I can't understand them anyway. I haven't read the ones for my phone or camera and I just use them - or I ask my husband, who also never, ever reads instructions.

I can't think of any How-to books right now that I've read; years ago I tried some of the "Teach Yourself" books but they never helped me learn much.

I do like to read Self-help guides, but never do any of the things they suggest.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An Armful of Books

These books have little, if anything in common, other than the fact that they are all recent acquisitions. Every now and then I decide not to buy any more books and then along come some that I just can’t resist. They all look so enticing I want to read them all at once. As that’s not possible I thought I do quick summaries of each one (from information on the book covers) to help me decide which one to read next.

Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg. This is the latest book from Melvyn Bragg based on his own life. I enjoyed the others - The Soldier's Return, A Son of War and Crossing the Lines - so much that I couldn’t wait for this book to come out in paperback.
“A passionate but ultimately tragic love affair starts when two students – on French, one English – meet at university at the beginning of the sixties. From its tentative, unpromising early stages, the relationship develops into a life-changing one, whose profound impact continues to reverberate forty years later.”

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart – bought in the Library Sale for 10p. I read and loved Mary Stewart’s trilogy of Arthur/Merlin books many years ago. The first two are The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills.
“The Last Enchantment is a richly woven story peopled by princes and soldiers, grave-robbers and goldsmiths, innkeepers and peasants and witches …”
As it's so long since I first read ths book I expect it will be like reading a new book.

Never On These Shores by Stephen R Pastore. Lisa Roe at the Online Publicist sent me this to review. Have a look at her site; she has a number of books available fo review. This is a “what if” book –
what if in 1942 “the Nazis had landed in Mexico and invaded the United States through Texas. The Japanese have conquered Canada and have captured and occupied most of the west coast from Seattle to the outskirts of Los Angeles.”
In a way this fits in with my current reading of books about the Second World War.

Admit One: a Journey Into Film by Emmett James, a review book also from Lisa. This book follows British born actor Emmett James on his numerous adventures
“as he jumps from forgery to pornography to crashing the Academy Awards under the alias of a nominated writer. All the while, the films that inspired each tale contextualize this humorous collection of stories. The narrator provides a unique insight into the fascinating industry of film, eventually himself stumbling into the biggest box-office grossing movie of all time.”
Discussion about films attracted me to this book.

Down To a Sunless Sea by Mathias B Freese, a review book from the author. This collection of short stories
“plunges the reader into uncomfortable situations and into the minds of troubled characters. Each selection is a different reading experience – poetic, journalistic, nostalgic, wryly humorous, and even macabre.”
This sounds so different and quite challenging.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, a bookshop buy.
“Set in the turbulent times of twelfth-century England when civil war, famine, religious strife and battles over royal succession tore lives and families apart, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the building of a magnificent cathedral.”
Historical fiction and family drama combined makes this very attractive to me.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I saw this in the bookshop at the same time. I bought it as Joanna had suggested it when I wrote about Garden Spells, another magical book. I was also influenced by the name of one of the main characters – “Sally Owens”, as that was the name of my Great Aunt, who I thought was magical. It says on the back cover that this book
“blends together the mundane and the mysterious, the familiar and fantastic”.
It promises to be good.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. From the same bookshop buying spree. I remember reading good things about this book on several blogs and it was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. There is very little information about this book on its cover so I looked on Wikipedia which summarises it :
"Gilead is the fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, an elderly congregationalist pastor in the small, secluded town of Gilead, Iowa who knows that he is dying of a heart condition."
From the back cover:
“A visionary work of dazzling originality”.
I’m prepared to be dazzled.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks, the final bookshop buy.

“This is the story of Mike Engleby, a working-class boy who wins a place at an esteemed English university. But with the disappearance of Jennifer, the undergraduate Engleby admires from afar, the story turns into a mystery of gripping power."
This sounds promising - a murder mystery set in a university and a "creepy central character".

Can Any Mother Help Me? By Jenna Bailey. This is a bargain buy from newbooks. It’s about a group of women and their magazine – the Cooperative Correspondence Club (CCC) which lasted 55 years.
“They wrote articles about the things that mattered most to them – children, work, love, politics – and commented on each other’s work."
The magazines are part of the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, which also is the source for Our Longest Days - diary entries from ordinary people during the Second World War. The CCC began in 1935, so the war years are also covered in this book. I’ve already read a little of it and I may start it properly when I’ve finished reading Our Longest Days.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, bought in the Library Sale for 40p. I’ve been wondering about this book for some time whenever I saw it in the bookshops, but the title put me off for some inexplicable reason. But at 40p I thought why not? There are many quotes both on the back cover and inside singing its praises:
“The history of Love has perfect pitch and does its dance of time between contemporary New York and the wanderings of the Jews with unsentimental but heartbreaking grace [Krauss] also happens to write like an angel.” Simon Schama, Guardian.
He does make it sound very good.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Six Random Things

I've been tagged by Ashleigh to share six random things about myself.

Here are the rules:

· Link to the person that tagged you
· Post the rules somewhere in your meme
· Write the six random things
· Tag six people in your post
· Let the tagees know they’ve been chosen by leaving a comment on their blog
· Let the tagger know your entry is posted

So here goes:

1.I wake up most mornings with the dawn chorus. The birdsong is just tremendous these days, it's like an orchestra tuning up outside the bedroom window at about 4.00am. I usually doze off again but am awake before 6.00am again most days.

2.As a child I was scared of dogs. I wouldn’t go anywhere where there was a dog if I could help it. Visiting friends and relatives with dogs was a nightmare; I wouldn’t go in the house if a dog came rushing to the door or be in the same room if the dog was loose. I was just terrified – they were so big and boisterous with ferocious-looking teeth and deafening barks. No matter how much my parents and the dogs’ owners tried to reassure me that the dogs wouldn’t hurt me I didn’t believe them. This continued as I grew older and I would cross the road if I saw a dog ahead of me on the same side.

My mother said she thought my fear stemmed from the time I was a baby and a barking dog jumped up to my pram. I think it also comes from the dog my grandfather kept tied up by his chair. I was scared of him as well as of his dog. He had a big bristly moustache and was very gruff and it seemed as though he barked himself when he spoke. My fear persisted, although I was able to control it better as I became older, until our son was five and started school. Both he and my husband wanted a dog and I ran out of excuses not to get one – and I didn’t want my son to have the same phobia. So we got a Golden Retriever. She was a beautiful dog and helped me overcome my fears, so much so that a few years later we got another dog as well.

3.My first job was a Saturday job in a grocery when I was still at school. The owners, Mr and Mrs Davies, lived above the shop and kept a large Alsatian dog in the backyard. I used to wait for my friend to arrive to go in with her, as I was still scared of dogs. It was a very busy shop, especially in the morning. I used to sell the fancy cakes and bread. The chocolate cup cakes and cream cakes were my favourites. I used to like serving the cooked meats, but was a bit nervous of the meat slicer. When it was quiet, before closing time I had to stock up the bags of sugar, which were kept behind the freezer – there was just enough room to squeeze in and stock the shelves. I earned 12/6 each Saturday. Mrs Davies was very old-fashioned and used to ask if I was “walking out” with a boy (I was).

4.I love natural yoghurt. I make my own and have some with my breakfast every day. The best yoghurt I've ever eaten was in Greece, but the Greek yoghurt I buy here just isn't the same. My homemade yoghurt is nearly as good, though. I make it in a yoghurt maker and then strain it.

5.I don’t have a head for heights and get dizzy just climbing a ladder. It’s really difficult getting down again. This is not too bad as I don't climb ladders very often (I've never been able to get up into our loft because of this) but it's a real handicap coming down spiral staircases in castles and church towers, which I do like to explore.

6.I was in a car accident when I was 17. I smashed my head against the windscreen, had cuts all over my face and a few in my legs.but fortunately I only needed a few stitches in my forehead, chin and neck and have only slight scars, but three of my front teeth were broken and I had to have them crowned. I also bit right through my tongue which was very painful.

I've seen this on many blogs recently, but if you haven't done it and would like to, please consider yourself tagged.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Sunday Salon – Looking Back at Wartime Britain

This week I’ve been reading more of Our Longest Days: a People’s History of the Second World War by the Writers of Mass Observation. It’s composed of diary entries from a number of people of their personal observations, thoughts, and hopes. The one criticism I have of it is that I’m finding it difficult to remember the details of each person. Their first entry is annotated in the margin with their name, age, occupation and location. After that there is just the name, so I have to flick to the end of the book where there are brief biographies for each person. But I am gradually getting used to each person. This morning I was reading about April 1941 with the declaration of war on Yugoslavia and Greece. In Eastern Europe, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria were effectively Nazi puppet states. Maggie Blunt, a writer living alone with her beloved cats in a cottage in Slough, wrote on 21 April 1941,
“Are we really going to lose this war? The Nazis sweep from triumph to triumph making no mistakes while we make all the mistakes. … God alone knows what we shall be called upon to endure these next few years but as others wiser than I have said, it is not what one endures but how one endures it that counts. There were bad raids again on London last week. Planes overhead again tonight. The horror of the sound has become dulled by familiarity and resignation.”

It seems strange to say I’m enjoying reading this, but I am. It is an amazing insight into how ordinary people felt about the war. I remember hearing the stories my mother told about her wartime experiences and thinking how terrible it must have been, yet at the same time how much fun they managed to have despite the circumstances.

I also picked up at the library a week or so ago London War Notes 1939 – 1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes (I read about this first on Danielle’s blog). I’ve just started to read this in conjunction with Our Longest Days. Together these books throw so much light on those years. Mollie Panter-Downes covered the war from England for the New Yorker. The letters are witty, humorous and full of poignancy. I can’t decide whether to read until I’ve caught up with Our Longest Days, or to just stick to one book and then read the other one.

I’ve also got Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945 by Juliet Gardiner (recommended by Litlove). I’ve only dipped into this so far and looked at the photographs. It’s a long, detailed book with many endnotes and an extensive bibliography. In the foreword it states that is about the pervasiveness of the war and how it affected people’s lives. So that’s up next too.

One last book for today is The Ration Book Diet by Mike Brown, Carol Harris and C J Jackson. This uses the wartime diet as a model and includes sixty recipes, some taken straight from cookery books of the time, with only minor adjustments, but most are new dishes created using the ingredients that were available during the war. From the introduction:
“When VE-Day finally came in May 1945, Britain was a very different place from the country it had been in 1939. Six years of war had taken their toll on the fabric of the nation. In many cases the effects were far-reaching in terms of Britain’s social, economic and demographic characteristics. But if there was one good thing to have come out of the war then it was food rationing: the war left us healthier as a nation than we had ever been before or have been since."
This is a lovely book and I’ll be writing more about it at a later date.

It’s a glorious day here, hot and sunny, with no breeze. I’m not sure I really like this weather; it makes me feel drained and languid. I shan’t be reading much more today as the family are coming over this afternoon and the garden calls. We’ll be getting the paddling pool out for the children, although my son and husband will be firmly indoors from 3.00pm onwards watching their team Manchester United play the last game of the Premier League against Wigan. The championship hangs on this match. See my son's post here for a more informed view.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Annie Dillard - The Maytrees

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, published by Hesperus Press Limited 2007, 185 pages

Impenetrable in parts, lyrical in others, describing the love between Toby and Lou Maytrees in such a detached fashion that I never felt close to or really understood any of the characters, this book was not easy to read. I understood the words, but put in sentences and paragraphs there were pages where I felt that somehow the meaning had eluded me. I re-read sentences and pages but still came away feeling puzzled. Thinking back now after I’ve finished reading this book once I’ve got past the awkwardness of the parts that puzzled me and tried to analyse what it is about, I think that it’s about love, and about ageing and dying. I was rather disappointed in this book, having read and enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek some years ago and reading the acclaim it received I expected it to be a fantastic book: the Washington Post quote on the back cover is ‘full of the kind of pleasures one looks for in fiction’. I can’t truthfully say that I found them.

The setting is beautiful, on the beach near Provincetown, Cape Cod in the 1940s. But this is no overdeveloped beach full of tourists; it’s a wilderness of scrub and dunes jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. After 14 years of marriage Maytree left both Lou, his son Petie and his dune shack for Deary Hightoe. Twenty years later he and Deary returned to Provincetown when Deary was dying. Lou then looks after both him and Deary. Deary starts out as a free spirit, sleeping in the dunes swaddled in a canvas sail, but living with Maytree in Maine she becomes weighed down with possessions and “stuff”. The most moving part of the book for me is the description of Deary’s death, which took place over eight weeks.

The characters seem unable to express their feelings or thoughts to each other. Maybe it’s because Lou is such a self-sufficient personality; when Maytree left her, “She did not whine or voice grief or anger.” Maybe it’s because the book covers a period of over twenty years with little information about what has taken place during those years. There is love in there – love of the land, the sea and nature. Human love too in the form of agape, in Lou’s selfless care of both Deary and Maytree.

Maytree ponders on the nature of love after Deary’s death:
“Of course everyone had tended Deary. Was that tending love genetically or socially determined convention? The idea of love as irresistible passion died hard in Maytree long after he knew better. Was he ‘in love’ with Deary all those years? No, but he never dreamed of shipping his iced-over oars. … Still less was Lou in love with Deary. Nor was noble Pete. Then what guides will - reason? The darling of dead Greeks, that guarantor of the science he loved? Surely reason never trafficked in a man’s love life. Science rinsed love’s every scent from its hands. Maytree had been sensible of no particular sentiment except the natural wish to help Deary find comfort. That steady wish for her comfort on which he had acted for years and Lou and Pete had acted for eight weeks - was love?
Wishing and doing, within the realm of the possible, was willing; love was an act of will.”
(pages 160-161)

Love is not seen as a matter of emotion, but a “wilful focus of attention”; it is not like “love’s first feeling of cliff-jumping”. This is not a book about passion in the bodice-ripping, erotic sense. It’s about lasting love: “The feeling of love is so crucial to our species it is excessive, like labor pain. Lasting love is an act of will.” (pages 111-112)

Still I came away from the book feeling a cool detachment from it and not sorry that I'd finished it.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

My copy of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is the Penguin Books edition published in 1955. This is the second book I've read in the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

As this is science fiction and I’d read The Kraken Wakes, about an alien invasion of Earth and I know that The Day of the Triffids (which I haven’t read) is about grotesque animal eating plants, I was expecting The Chrysalids to be about monster insects hatching out of pupae. It isn’t.

It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in an imaginary Labrador. The people have vague recollections of the “Old People” who lived before the Tribulation (maybe a nuclear war), which they believe God sent to punish the population for their sins. The society they live in now is strictly governed by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, one of the few books that survived the Tribulation. Anything that deviates from the Norm had to be rooted out and destroyed or sent to the Fringes. This applied to people, animals and plants. David Strorm has grown up in a house where the walls are covered in texts such as,

So when he realises that his friend Sophie has six toes he is worried, and with reason. Sophie is not the only deviant from the Norm, David himself and a group of other young people have telepathic powers and can tune in to each other’s thoughts. When they realise that Petra, David’s little sister is developing even stronger telepathic abilities, David and Petra and his friends flee to the Fringes, where they expect to find fearsome mutations, but hope to find sanctuary. Petra’s long-range telepathy puts them in touch with a woman in Sealand, on the other side of the world, who promises to rescue them.

Wyndham’s story still has relevance today, with its central theme of intolerance of anyone or anything that does not conform to what is considered to be “normal”. Intolerance based on what a group of people “know” to be the truth is always scary, especially when they persecute others who believe or think differently. The question of identity is also explored - what it is to be an individual and also part of society. His characters are real people, the story is compelling, and I had to read on to find out what happened as the tension built.

The title, I suppose, comes from the analogy with the evolution of insects from grubs to the adult stage. The people of Labrador are stuck in the chrysalis stage; they have not evolved and do not want to change. David and his friends are changing however and moving towards a more advanced stage of humanity. As the woman from Sealand tells them:
The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.
It’s a book I should like to re-read, now that I know the story. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Booking Through Thursday - Manual Labour (Labor)

This week's Booking Through Thursday's question is:

Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?

My English teacher at school, Miss Orr, would be pleased and amazed if she could read this now - I like books on grammar and punctuation! I love dictionaries and writing guides.

I regularly use The Chambers Dictionary, which boldy says on its cover "the largest, bestselling and most comprehensive single-volume English dictionary" and also "the richest range of English language from Shakespeare to the present day". It's more than a dictionary as it also has lists in the back - first names, phrases and quotations in Latin and Greek and modern foreigh languages, books of the Bible, plays of Shakespeare, chemical elements and so on and so forth. It's the meaning that I'm looking for because you have to have some idea of how a word is spelled to look it up. I do use on-line dictionaries but really prefer my "real" dictionary, somehow it's more satisfying. I just opened it now to check the word "labour" (that's how I would spell it not "labor" - I'm not too bothered about spelling) to see if my idea of using writing guides etc is covered by that word. "Labour" means, among other definitions "physical or mental toil; work, especially when done for money, or other gain, pain, a task requiring hard work". So no, using these books is not all laborious for me.

I also have The Oxford Library of English Usage which I really ought to read more than I do. It's a box set of 3 volumes - Grammar, Spelling and A Dictionary of Modern Usage. I bought the set some years ago when I realised that my memory of English Grammar from school was fading fast (sorry Miss Orr).

More recently I bought Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, which I think makes grammar so much more interesting. I love her examples and the wrong use of the apostraphe in "its/it's" infuriates me, although not quite as as much as it does her:

"No matter if you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, "Good food at it's best", you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave."
My typing is not always up to much and I cringe when I see I've typed "it's" instead of its".

I'm really good at reading writing guides in hope of improving my writing or to give me inspiration to actually write something creative, but I never do what they say. I have a few books on Creative Writing - my favourite is Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. I'm encouraged by her analysis of the difficulties of writing, her practical approach to the business of writing and this sentence in particular strikes a chord:

"Writing calls on unused muscles and invloves solitude and immobility."

Although not a writing guide in the usual sense I also love Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. She writes about what is a writer and how she became one; the drawbacks of being a female writer; and asks question such as, "For whom does the writer write?" and "Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? If there is, where might it be?" She quotes many other author, enticing me to read yet more and more books.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I seem to have been reading Eat, Pray, Love a very long time. That is because I only read short sections each morning. I’d read quite a lot about the book on a number of blogs and some people loved it and others didn’t and for a while I resisted reading it. Then a few months ago I found it sitting on the shelf in my local library and thought I’d have a look at it. At first I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s style irritating, so chatty and verbose, but after I’d got beyond the sorry details of her marriage, divorce and disastrous relationship with the next man, and she took herself off to Italy I began to relax and enjoy the book. I’m glad I finally did read this book as in the end I found it very entertaining.

She travelled to Italy (Eat), India (Pray) and Indonesia (Love) spending four months in each place, searching for pleasure in Italy, mainly through food, God in India at an ashram, and balance in Indonesia.

I’ve written a bit about her time in Italy here and this was my favourite section of the book. Whatever Elizabeth Gilbert does it seems as though she throws herself into it 100% - so in Italy she put on weight, eating pizza and gelato. Well not just those two Italian basics, but loads of delicious sounding food. It made me feel happy just reading about her happiness in eating soft-boiled eggs, asparagus, olives, goat’s cheese and salmon, followed by a fresh peach. By the end of her stay in Italy I wasn’t surprised that none of the clothes she brought with her fitted - I found the same after two weeks! Needless to say I enjoyed reading “Eat” and it made me want to visit Italy again.

On to India, where it was back to intense, emotional experiences; much soul-searching and naval- gazing too. (I also wrote a bit about this section here.)I have practised Yoga so I was looking forward to reading of her time in an ashram, but soon decided that I’m glad I was never tempted to spend time in one myself. Elizabeth Gilbert was hoping for “a dazzling encounter with God, maybe some blue lightning or a prophetic vision”, but for a while this eluded her. I was amused when I read that she wrote that she’d been talking too much, not just at the ashram but all her life, so she decided she didn’t want “to waste the greatest spiritual opportunity of her life by being all social and chatty the whole time.” She was going to become known as “That Quiet Girl”! Her hopes were dashed when she was asked to be “Key Hostess", looking after people coming to the ashram on retreat.

But it was during these retreats that she had her “dazzling encounter” with God. Elizabeth writes about God as though she’s writing to a penfriend or is talking to a friend at the end of a telephone. She also writes about it in abstract terms – she “stepped through time“ and “entered the void”; she

“was the void … the void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way – not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle. I was just part of God. In addition to being God. I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe.” (p209)

My interpretation of this is that Elizabeth was experiencing a state of “oneness”, where she was not aware of the limits of her own being. She says that it wasn’t hallucinogenic or exiting or euphoric, even though she states "it was heaven"; maybe she is saying that she slowed down and experienced calm and tranquillity, a sort of blend of Christianity and Buddhism perhaps. At the beginning of the book Elizabeth writes that she is "culturally, though not theologically" a Christian, which goes some way to explaining her experience of "being God". She explains her position thus:

“… while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking then, I cannot call myself a Christian. Most of the Christians I know accept my feelings on this with grace and open-mindedness.”(p14)

In the final section of the book she travelled on to Bali in Indonesia where she had first met Ketut, the medicine man, who resembles Yoda from Star Wars. I have to admire Elizabeth Gilbert’s confidence in travelling alone without even any idea of where she is going to live, and what she is going to do. She arrived in Bali not knowing Ketut’s address or even the name of his village and when she did find it at first he did not recognise her. Life in Bali is very different from her time in India, much more relaxed and Ketut’s methods of meditation were much less intense than those at the ashram.

Along the way she also made friends with Wayan, a poverty stricken woman healer and spent the mornings with her “laughing and eating”, the afternoons with Ketut “talking and drinking coffee” and the evenings relaxing in her garden, either by herself or with another friend, Yudhi who came over and played his guitar. She decided to raise money from friends in America to buy Wayan a house and this nearly ended in disaster when Wayan kept finding more and more difficulties with purchasing land and said she needed more money. Fortunately Elizabeth had met a charming Brazilian man, with whom she fell in love and he explained that that is the way of life for people there – to try to get the most money they can out of visitors.

So, it all ended happily as Elizabeth sailed

“to this pretty little tropical island with my Brazilian lover. Which is – I admit it!- an almost ludicrously fairy-tale ending to this story, like the page out of a housewife’s dream. … Yet what keeps me from dissolving right now into a complete fairy-tale shimmer is this solid truth, a truth which has veritably built my bones over the last few years – I was not rescued by a prince: I was the administrator of my own rescue.” (p 344)

I found an on-line video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about this book at http://www.learnoutloud.com/Free-Audio-Video/Social-Sciences/Cultural-Criticism/Authors@Google-Elizabeth-Gilbert/25150

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Sunday Salon - This Week's Reading

I'm late coming to the Sunday Salon today, because just as I was finishing writing this post we had a power cut, which lasted nearly four hours and when it came back on I found that I hadn't saved all of it!

Last Sunday the heavy rain that had been forecast held off for our walk among the bluebells, in fact it was a warm sunny afternoon and there were still lots of bluebells in the woods. It’s been a mixed week weather wise – we’ve had sunshine and torrential rain, coming down like stair rods as my father used to say. But it has meant that everything in the garden is growing like mad. I love this time of year when the leaves are still small enough to see the branches. We have two small apple trees and a cherry tree which have now blossomed – promise of fruit later in the year.

On the reading front for some of the week I’ve been in the company of Dalziel and Pascoe, but mostly Pascoe as the book is The Death of Dalziel by Reginald Hill. Because I watched the BBC series before I read any Dalziel books in my mind I see Warren Clarke as Dalziel and Colin Buchanan as Pascoe. It’s a complicated plot with all the sub-plots intricately interwoven. The characters are so believable and the mystery so absorbing that I just had to read it through to the end. It was a while ago that I watched this on TV so, even though I knew what the outcome was I couldn’t remember the details. What I don’t remember from the TV are the episodes describing what is going on inside Dalziel as he lies in hospital unconscious (he was caught in the blast of a hugh Semtex explosion).

This is a nice example. Dalziel is

“floating uneasily above Mid-Yorkshire. His unease derives not from his ability to defy gravity, which seems quite natural, but his fear that someone below might mistake him for a zeppelin and shoot him down.”
Because he is Dalziel he breaks wind and his
“... relief is hugh and more than physical.
‘Dead men don’t fart!’ he cries triumphantly.
… Dalziel breaks wind again, this time with such force he gets lift-off and accelerates into the bright blue yonder like a Cape Canaveral rocket. Soon the startled starling is nothing more than a distant mote, high above which an overweight, middle-aged detective superintendent at last realises the Peter Pan fantasy of his early childhood and laughs with sheer delight as he tumbles and soars between the scudding clouds of a Mid-Yorkshire sky.”

In complete contrast I’m in the middle of The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. Some years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975. In that book I was fascinated by the detail and description of the natural world that Dillard saw at the Creek and I expected her novel would much in the same vein. But for me it is too sparsely written, too economical. The Maytrees is about a couple, Toby and Lou who marry and have a son Petie, living out their seemingly non-eventful lives at Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod. After 14 years of marriage Maytree just ups and leaves with Deary Hightoe, which is as far as I have read. Part of me loves this book for the descriptions of the setting and characters, but part of me struggles with prose that seems so detached from emotion.

I always like to have more than one book on the go, so although I’m only progressing slowly with Les Miserables I’ve also started to read Our Longest Days, diary entries of people living during the Second World War. It’s fascinating reading about the war as it was experienced by the people left at home, enduring the bombing of Britain and the threat of invasion. I’m up to December 1940 - Herbert Brush, then aged 71 was living in London, described what he had done to make staying in the dugout more comfortable, with a paraffin stove, a curtain across the entrance and shields to keep the draught off the bunks on each side of the dugout:
“It is quite a comfortable place now, when one gets used to the cramped space and the inability to turn over without falling off the bunk, for folk of my size.” It’s a touching account of the war years full of personal hopes and fears.
Finally I started to read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids yesterday. So far I’m finding this an immensely satisfying book, easy to read, and full of suspense about a world where genetic variations are seen as Offences and Abominations that have to be rooted out and destroyed. Chillingly, when a baby is born it has to be inspected and if there is any deviation from what has been decided is normal, ie made in the image of God, even if there is the slightest blemish then it is taken away and never heard of again. My copy is an old second-hand Penguin book published in 1959 and I’m intrigued by the references on the cover to “what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’, and again as writing that is “so unscientifically called Science Fiction”. I must look up the history of sci-fi writing.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Dante Quiz

Reading So Many books blog, I found Dante’s Inferno Test. This reminded me that I'd started to read Dante's The Divine Comedy, but hadn't got very far with it. Take the test and find out what circle of Dante’s hell you can look forward to spending eternity in.

I took the test and found that I’m going to the first level of Hell–Limbo. The illustration below shows the different levels of hell, copied from the Oxford World Classics edition of The Divine Comedy. I've indicated the position of Limbo.

First Level of Hell - Limbo


Charon ushers you across the river Acheron, and you find yourself upon the brink of grief's abysmal valley. You are in Limbo, a place of sorrow without torment. You encounter a seven-walled castle, and within those walls you find rolling fresh meadows illuminated by the light of reason, whereabout many shades dwell. These are the virtuous pagans, the great philosophers and authors, unbaptised children, and others unfit to enter the kingdom of heaven. You share company with Caesar, Homer, Virgil, Socrates, and Aristotle. There is no punishment here, and the atmosphere is peaceful, yet sad.

I had hoped for better, but it could have been much worse!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Mayday! - Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT question:
Quick! It’s an emergency! You just got an urgent call about a family emergency and had to rush to the airport with barely time to grab your wallet and your passport. But now, you’re stuck at the airport with nothing to read. What do you do??

And, no, you did NOT have time to grab your bookbag, or the book next to your bed. You were . . . grocery shopping when you got the call and have nothing with you but your wallet and your passport (which you fortuitously brought with you in case they asked for ID in the ethnic food aisle). This is hypothetical, remember….

I rarely go anywhere without a book, so it's most likely that I'd have a book in the car. But if I didn't I'd buy one at the airport, or at least a magazine or newspaper, maybe a book of codewords or something.

I'd want to read something but I probably wouldn't be able to concentrate on anything as I'd be so nervous about catching the plane on time, worrying about the emergency and goodness knows what else ...

Exploring Britain - In Books. A Thursday Thirteen

For a while now I’ve been reading “Thursday Thirteen” posts on a number of blogs and wondering about writing one myself. Until last week there was no theme to Thursday Thirteen, it could be whatever you wanted it to be. They have now introduced a theme, but I've been writing this list on books on Britain, so I'm not following the theme and here is my first “Thursday Thirteen".

These are books that explore different aspects of Britain – things that interest me, landscape, places, history, architecture, writers, cookery, walking and so on. They’re books I own and enjoy looking at; some I’ve read and others I’ve only dipped into. They have all provided me with hours of delight. There are a number of books reflecting my fascination with history in its physical form – standing stones, castle, churches, stately homes – others my interest in Britain’s geography and topography. The book that triggered this list is A Reader’s Guide to Writers’ Britain by Sally Varlow, which I bought this week in the library book sale.

From bottom to top they are:

1. English Landscapes – photography by Rob Talbot, text by Robin Whiteman (1995). The English countryside in full colour, explored region by region from Penzance to Penrith, landmarks, local architecture, social and historical surveys, literary and artistic connections, geography and local customs. An amazing collection exploring the byways of England. A book to sit and pore over planning where to go.

2. Yesterday’s Britain published by the Reader’s Digest. Full of photographs this book covers the period 1900 – 1979 and is “the story of how we lived, worked an played” throughout the 20th century. It contains personal anecdotes, eyewitness accounts and intimate stories: a “family scrapbook of the nation”.

3. British Isles: a Natural History by Alan Titchmarsh, accompanying the BBC1 series. Beginning in the mists of time, 3 billion years ago this book traces the evolution of Britain exploring everything from geology and geography to flora and fauna. It includes a section on Places to Visit, from Stone Age villages at Skara Brae, Orkney to the Centre for Alternative Technology, Powys, Wales. A beautifully illustrated and informative book.

4. Land of the Poets: Lake District, Photographs by David Lyons (1996). The English Lake District, that much visited area of Britain, is one of my favourite places. I’d love to live there, even though it rains and is often full of tourists. This book illustrates the drama and beauty of the countryside, the grandeur of the crags and hills, complimented with poetry inspired by the mountain streams and lakes. The anthology is mainly drawn from William Wordsworth and his near contemporaries, with photographs relating directly to the poems – The Langdale Pikes, Home at Grasmere, (Wordsworth), Helvellyn (Walter Scott) to name but a few.

5. Mountain: exploring Britain’s High Places by Griff Rhys Jones to accompany the BBC series. I was so impressed with Griff’s fitness as well as his great sense of humour as he climbed Snowdon and the other High Peaks in England, Scotland and Wales. These are such spectacular places, also rough and arduous climbs. Amazingly he had never done any climbing before! One third of Britain is covered in mountains – I didn’t know that before. There’s a bit of history in this book too.

6. Great British Menu, the book that accompanied the first series on BBC2, when 14 chefs competed to decide who should cook for the Queen at the celebration lunch marking Her Majesty’s 80th birthday. It contains recipes from the chefs representing the South East, the North, Wales, the South West, Northern Ireland, the Midlands and East Anglia, and Scotland – including Lancashire Hot Pot made with wild boar, Finnebroague Venison with Colcannon Pie and Wild Mushrooms (Northern Ireland) and Pan-Fried Cornish Lobster (South West). Delicious, mouth-watering recipes.

7. How We Built Britain by David Dimbleby, describing a journey through Britain and a thousand years of history seen through Britain’s buildings and the people who built them. This is more than the book of the TV series, immensely detailed, reflecting Dimbleby’s enthusiasm and delight in a hugh span of British history from 1066 to the modern day.

8. Sacred Britain: a guide to the sacred sites and pilgrim routes of England, Scotland and Wales by Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer. This gives information about ancient stone circles and tombs, Christian and pre-Christian shrines, medieval synagogues, churches, cathedrals, holy wells and rivers, ancient yew trees and symbolic plants. It also describes 13 traditional pilgrimage routes eg the Canterbury Pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury (129 miles). Illustrated with colour photographs and coloured sketch plans of the routes.

9. A Reader’s Guide to Writers’ Britain by Sally Varlow (2000). This is a beautiful book containing maps and photographs, and giving a guide to places to visit linked with writers and books, from all parts of the British Isles. There’s an index of authors and places with anecdotes and fascinating facts. Hours of endless pleasure reading about where to visit.

10. In Search of Stones:a pilgrimage of faith, reason and discovery by M Scott Peck. Scott Peck’s account of the trip he and his wife took through the countryside of Wales, England and Scotland looking for ancient megalithic stones. It covers travel, history, archaeology, as well as Scott Peck’s meditations on spirituality and mysticism. Illustrated with drawings by Christopher Peck. I’ve read this book twice so far and have visited some of the sites he describes.

11. Mysterious Wales by Chris Barber looks at beautiful and magical places in Wales. It’s a guide to prehistoric megaliths, holy wells, magic trees, secret caves, lonely lakes, bottomless pools and sites associated with legends concerning King Arthur, Merlin and the Devil. Illustrated with photographs and drawings. Absolutely fascinating.

12. The Hidden Places of England edited by Joanna Billing is a travel guide to some of the less well known places of interest to visit (together with other less "hidden” places eg Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath and Oxford), with short descriptions accompanied by line drawings and coloured maps. It also has information about places to stay and eat, many in out-of-the way places. My edition was published in 1997 but it is still a useful book to find out about the history of villages and towns, churches, pubs, restaurants, cafes, tearooms, and numerous other attractions.

13. A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: The Central Fells by A Wainwright. This is one in a series of the Wainwright walking guides to the Lakeland Fells, reproduced from the original handwritten pages and intricate pen and ink sketches of the routes and the landscape. Alfred Wainwright was born in 1907, fell in love with the Lake District and moved to Kendal in 1941. The guides describe the fell walks as they were in the 1950s and 1960s; the footpaths, cairns and other waymarks may not all be the same now and you do need to take an up-to-date map with you but, as the BBC series “Wainwright Walks” have shown, the routes are very much as Wainwright knew them.