Wednesday, 29 January 2014

I (don't) see read people

I never got around to reviewing Oliver Sacks' The Mind's Eye (2010), which was one of the books I read while finishing my thesis - chosen because it was so far from the books I was writing about.  I still loved them, but I needed to balance things out with something different.  I wrote about Sacks in this article, but not this book in particular - and I especially wanted to write about the final chapter, because it struck a chord with me.

That is a painting I did for my parents' Christmas present - of our house - partly because I thought you might like this glimpse into the Christmas festivities of the Thomas family, partly to include a picture in this post, and partly as evidence that I am rather a visual person.  I am a thousand times happier in an art gallery than at a concert; I can think of nothing nicer than looking at the beauties of nature, and I am overcome with appreciation when looking at views in the Lake District or a beautiful old house etc. etc.

And yet, I have never in my life visualised characters in a book.

You know how some readers watch a film and complain that the people cast didn't match their mental images?  Not me.  I mentally carry characters through a book as bundles of emotions,  thoughts, responses, likes, dislikes, characteristics - but I will have no idea what sort of nose they have, or if their hair is straight or wavy, or anything like that.  Even if the author has told us what they look like, I'll probably have ignored it.  And I have to skim past any passage which describes what a place looks like, because it means nothing to me.  Similarly anything with spatial descriptions - if a passage talks about someone entering from the right, walking behind a sofa with a bookcase to the left, etc. etc., I have to concentrate incredibly hard for it to compute.  And it's not worth it!

I would understand this, if I wasn't bothered by aesthetics. But they mean so much to me. It's curious.

And then I read Oliver Sacks, and he is the same!  It was so nice to read someone so knowledgeable and eloquent who had his brain wired the same way.  (You see, he was so informative that I've learnt the terminology... ahem.)  You see, I don't say 'problem', because I don't think this impairs my reading at all - I certainly don't miss it when I'm reading, and it's not as though I hate books - but it does mean I can't read most travel literature, as that is almost invariably scenery-description-based.

As usual, I'd love you to weigh in - anyone else there like me, who loves scenery and art and aesthetics, but can't meaningfully interpret a description of something visual?  Or do you always 'see' characters when you read about them?  I don't think any of these things are better or worse - heck, we all love reading, don't we? - but it's interesting to see (ahem) the different types of readers we all are.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Eva Rice's The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp (2013), alongside which was included a lovely note from the author herself, hoping I'd enjoy it.  Well, I did - it is everything that is splendid and lovely and jolly and fun, even while taking you on a trek through the emotions.

My full thoughts are over on Vulpes Libris today, but quickly - if you've ever hoped that Nancy Mitford were alive and well and writing 21st-century novels, then this is as close as you're going to get.

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Suburban Young Man - E.M. Delafield

Can we talk about how  pleasingly this bookmark goes?

I started reading The Suburban Young Man (1928) when Tanya was giving a paper on it at a conference we both attended - that link will take you to her great review of it, which includes interesting research into Delafield's writing of the novel.  Well, I didn't manage to finish it then, and it went back on the shelf for 18 months or so... and recently I picked it up and swiftly read through to the end.

It's definitely not one of EMD's best books, but it's EMD - so it's still definitely worth a read.

The main characters are aristocratic Antoinette and the eponymous young man - Peter - who is married to the saintly housewife Hope.  They begin an extramarital affair which is entirely a meeting of minds - Delafield, as with her better-known The Way Things Are, never takes things as far as the bedroom door, let alone further.

Much of the novel is taken up Antoinette and Peter telling each other how well they are suited, even though their backgrounds are so different.  One of the assumptions the novelist makes (and all the characters make) is that the suburbs - here represented by 'Richford' - are entirely beyond the pale, and culturally mired in the commonplace.  That view is essential to many interwar novels, but it falls rather flat for the modern reader.  Still flatter, for this modern reader, is all the earnest discussion of romance.  Delafield is at her weakest when she tries to be earnest - she is so, so much better at lifting the veil on self-delusion, or the comedy of everyday life, and not with paragraphs like this:
He was unable now to view himself as disloyal to his wife with any sense of conviction, and this not because technically he had remained faithful to her.  Merely he could not feel that he had taken from Hope anything that she had ever possessed, or would ever have wished to possess.  They had married one another neither by reason of passion nor from any strong sense of affinity, and the liking and admiration that he felt for many aspects of her personality had increased, rather than diminished, of late; nor did he think that she liked him less.
Hope is an absurdly tolerant character, who invites Antoinette to tea and has rational discussions about the possibility of her husband running off.  Their marriage is pretty emotionless, but she is almost violently rational, and it's not terribly convincing.  More interesting (to me) are the scenes of Antoinette as a worker in an office, and discussions of what it was like for the newly-poor(ish) upper-classes to need employment.

Tanya wasn't a fan of Norah (Peter's sister-in-law) but I have to say that, along with Antoinette's vague but surprisingly wise mother, Norah was my favourite character.  Mostly because it gave a chance for Delafield to show her claws, which I delight in.  Here's a couple of examples.
Norah burst out laughing, as she invariably did at any opprobrious epithet, however applied.
Norah made a grimace that might have suggested a spoilt child in a prettier woman.
So, although I wasn't hugely impressed when I put it back on the shelf in 2012, I rushed through the second half in 2014. Delafield's writing is dependably engaging, and I certainly enjoyed reading The Suburban Young Man. But I've now read 23 books by Delafield, and this one is probably towards the lower end of the list, and I wouldn't avidly encourage you to seek out the (extremely scarce) copies of this one.

Since Delafield came out of copyright recently, I'm hoping that more of her books will be reprinted - and not just endless copies of the (admittedly exceptionally good) Provincial Lady series.  But I shan't shed too many tears if The Suburban Young Man is left to languish a bit longer.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Song for a Sunday

More from singing shows... this was already one of my favourite songs, and this girl on The Voice did a beautiful job with it.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Stella Gibbons

A very, very quick weekend miscellany (this week has been so hectic!) which is only one link, and one related thought - a friend forwarded me a link yesterday to the fact that two unpublished novels by Stella Gibbons have been discovered.

"How exciting!" thought I.  And then I remembered that two dozen of her novels have been published, and I've read three and a half of them.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin

I am very excited about this.

Thanks, Sort Of Books!

More when I've read it...

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Literary T-shirts

I got an email the other day asking if I'd like to help make literature fashionable - and, being the fashionable chap I doubtless am, I said yes.

It turns out that The Affair make great book-themed T-shirts, and offered to send me a sample.  How lovely, thought I, and the other day my T-shirt arrived.  I have to admit that it probably isn't 'inspired by my favourite books' (as their tagline goes) because I've never heard of Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, but I do love the T-shirt.  The fabric quality is amazing, such a nice light cotton, and the design is great.  Oh, and they're sweatshop-free, which is a brilliant bonus.

This is very much not what I look like.

For a full list of the T-shirts they make (which I think are only for men, but I could be wrong) see here.  There are some great books represented - Picture of Dorian Gray, Macbeth, Animal Farm etc. - and they'd make great gifts for the man in your life (and, if you're a man, that man could be you.)

Thanks, The Affair, I love my tee!

Monday, 20 January 2014

So... I gave up on Lolita

I usually wade in strongly on the 'literary quality is the most important thing' side of debates.  I think of myself as putting the writer's ability first, and that age-old argument of not liking books if they have dislikeable characters has never made any sense to me.  "I'm above such things," thought I, smugly, dusting my doctorate and twirling my imaginary moustache.

But, dear reader, it turns out I'm nothing like as objective and scholarly as I liked to believe.  Because I gave up on p.16 of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov because it was - and stop me if I'm blinding you with my critical vocabulary - too icky.

Apparently I just can't stomach a man fantasising about nine year old girls.  I know that Nabokov isn't advocating paedophilia (well, I assume he wasn't), and I know that Lolita is well-recognised as a classic.  The writing was good (although I have to say I wasn't quite as bowled over by it as some people said I'd be) but I couldn't get past that.

I don't know why I'm feeling quite so conflicted about my stumbling block. The argument I've put to myself is that I'm fine with reading murder mysteries, so why can't I read Lolita - but then I remembered that I'm incapable of reading anything gory or violent, so... statutory rape and a character fantasising about it is also in that category, it seems.

This is not a 'burn the books' situation - I don't think Lolita should be banned, or anything like that.  I actually think it probably makes me less of a reader to have this inability.  But I would be intrigued to know your opinions on the matter... and, more than that, if there are other Nabokov novels I should read instead!  I've only read Mary so far, so plenty to try....

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Song for a Sunday

Well, last Sunday I posted a new track from an artist who hasn't even released an album yet (although she has found fame on the X Factor) and nobody commented, so I thought I'd try something different this week ;)

It's rare that I like old male bands (new female singer-songwriters being my bag) but I do like the Eagles, and I love Desperado... and I suspect you do too.  Indulge.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Teleportation Accident - Ned Beauman

Can we be superficial for a moment?  This cover is amazing.  I love it so much.  I've had a hunt through the paperback to try to work out who designed it, and failed, but kudos to him or her.

I read Ned Beauman's first novel (Boxer, Beetle) shortly before meeting him at a Sceptre party - thanks Sceptre for sending me this one too! - and was very pleasantly surprised.  I don't think there is any way in which I could have been sold a book about boxing, beetles, and Nazis which would have made me think I might like it - but it was brilliant, energetically and stylishly written, and utterly captivating.  I was even lucky enough to interview him about it.  So, when The Teleportation Accident (2012) came out and got longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I was naturally rather keen to read it... and lax enough that I've only just finished it.  Writing about a novel that's a couple of years ago can feel more dated than writing about one from a hundred years ago, so I hope you will forgive the indulgence.

The Teleportation Accident is one of those novels which demands either a shortish review or an enormous one.  I can simply enthuse about Beauman's extraordinary imagination and scope, or I can begin to try and explain how that is manifested... and the latter would end up taking thousands of words.  There is just so much in the novel; it's a real tour de force.  Boxer, Beetle showed that Beauman could meld together disparate and surreal elements into a coherent and entertaining narrative - The Teleportation Accident does more of the same.

Even the title itself refers to various layers.  A 17th-century Parisian set designed, Adriano Lavicini, destroys a theatre and kills dozens after his teleportation device tears apart a theatre.  A scientist in 1930s America tries to replicate the device.  And the main character of the novel - a German called Egon Loeser, whose main preoccupation is how seldom he has sex - is fascinated with Lavicini.

Sound complicated?  I haven't even started on the people pretending to attach monkey glands to people's necks for health reasons, the macabre serial killer, the man suffering from an extreme form of agnosia, the film director with a secret, and the curiously named (but very beautiful) Adele Hitler...

How does Beauman make it all work?  I don't know, but he does.  After an opening few paragraphs which make a solid attempt at Kundera-esque postmodern semiotics, he settles down into a prose style which is equal parts verve and pizazz.  I sometimes wondered (with both novels) if he folded up bits of paper with surreal things on them, pulled some out of a hat, and dared himself to write a novel joining them all up.  Well, he wins the dare.  Somehow the tone remains consistent throughout - I think it is that unchanging sense of style, as well as the very grounded, fairly carnal preoccupations of Loeser - which allow a mad box of novelistic tricks to succeed as a single entity.

It also helps that Beauman seems to be having a lot of fun (although I'm sure it was also a lot of hard work).  Here's a paragraph I jotted down - I'm not a fan of sci-fi, but I loved the way he wrote about teleportation:
The point is, you can't just delete the subject in one place and create a copy in another.  If you did that to a human being, all you'd be doing is murdering someone and replacing them with a clone a few minutes old.  That way, no one who believed in a soul - like my parents, for instance - would ever be willing to set foot in a teleportation device.  So instead you have to move the object itself, really move it.  But it can't move through the intervening space.  It has to be in one place, and then, snap!  Suddenly in another.  It has to change its position all at once.  Well, what's position, anyway?  It's not a function of space.  There's no more such a thing as space than there's such a thing as the ether.  Space is just objects, and position is a function of those objects.  So if you can - the Professor always warns me against the Pathetic Fallacy, but it's so hard to avoid sometimes - if you can make an object forget its old position, and then persuade it of its new position, then that's teleportation.  But how do you do that?  
Ultimately, teleportation is a hook to hang the novel on.  I found I didn't much care whether or not the machine (indeed, the various machines) actually worked.  I wasn't even hugely invested in what happened to Loeser - I was invested in the zany rollercoaster on which the novel took me.  Even events which, in the hands of a less talented writer, would be sordid seemed to me simply surreal and part of the vivid, myriad pattern of The Teleportation Accident.

Although he is Nicola Beauman's son, his novels could scarcely be more different from those published by Persephone - and yet I love both.  I am ultimately very attracted to a novelist who has a vast imagination, and (crucially) knows how to control it and use it very wisely.  Beauman is that novelist.

Somewhere Towards the End - Diana Athill

I'm over at Vulpes Libris at the moment, with a review of Somewhere Towards the End (2008) by Diana Athill.  It does fit in my new century, but I actually finished it at the end of 2013.  I did like a lot of it, but struggled with some of it, and my review is mostly about what I struggled with... which I found difficult to explore and express properly, but valued trying!  Head over and read it, if you so wish, here.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014


I've just finished re-reading The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson for my book group, and thus it will be filling my 1982 slot in A Century of Books, but I didn't want to repeat myself by re-reviewing it since, like Mr. Darcy, my affections and wishes are unchanged - so, if you would like to, go and see why I thought The True Deceiver was so wonderful back in 2009.  In short - the novel is fascinating for giving an insight into Jansson's feelings about writing for children, the relationship between two very different women is slightly sinister but also poignant, and the writing is (as ever with Jansson) beautiful and sparse.  If you've not read Jansson before, go grab this, it's wonderful.

But I wanted to talk about re-reading instead - and how that changes the way we feel about the books around us.

I'm always fascinated by how a bookcase (or ten) of books is not a neutral entity to their owner.  To anybody looking into my bedroom, they are simply bookcases of books.  To me, each spine is either unknown territory - exciting, but mysterious and vague - or a place I have already wandered.  Isn't it funny how a (say) off-white spine can go from being something about which we know almost nothing, maybe just the lead character's name and the genre, and (after having read it) the sight of it is a trigger for all sorts of memories and emotions.

Amongst those tried-and-known books on my shelves, there are a select few which don't just hold memories but which hold definite promise.  That's different (of course) from the promise suggested by a recommendation, or even by an unread by a much-loved author.  They are, instead, the books that I know I can return to time and again, and know precisely what emotions they will conjure; how wonderful and stimulating the writing will be; how happy (or moved, or admiring, or amused) the words will make me.

Tove Jansson's beautiful books are among that number.  So is The Diary of a Provincial Lady, the novels of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf... basically anything in my 50 Books list.  They are not so much books to be re-read, but experiences to be re-captured - and to be built upon.

Which brings me to my question.  This is all well and good in theory - and certainly worked with The True Deceiver, about which I felt exactly the same both times around - but there are some books which disappoint when re-read.  There are others which get much better - but, since I rarely re-read a book I was lukewarm about the first time around, I seldom discover these.

Over to you for this bit - which book was the most disappointing re-read?  And which the most surprisingly rewarding?

My answers, respectively, as Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey and One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes.  The first went from being a book I loved abundantly to one I liked a lot, but felt oddly unexcited about; the latter (as you can see in my review) took the exact opposite trajectory.  Since I still rather like Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, you can see that I've never had a hugely disappointing re-reading experience... those promising spines have kept their promise.  You?

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Hovel in the Hills - Elizabeth West

Last year I read, and very much enjoyed, The Egg & I by Betty Macdonald (and discovered that there is a thriving Betty Macdonald community out there).  Although the very thought of going to run a farm with a recalcitrant stove and marauding animals fills me with horror (and I am very much a country boy - albeit one with a fondness for electricity), I very much enjoyed reading her witty, self-deprecating take on her adventures.  It is non-fiction disguised as fiction.  And I was hoping to find its equal in Elizabeth West's Hovel in the Hills (1977).  Well, er... it didn't work out quite like that.

Elizabeth West and her husband certainly have many of the same difficulties.  They decided to move from the ratrace to the bleak middle of nowhere in Wales.  At high altitudes, with wind, rain, and cold being bitterly present throughout much of the year - with very little money to boot - this could easily have been an Egg & I Mark 2.  The obstacles - from wallpaper which grew mouldy with alarming alacrity, to the difficulties of crossing vast distances without a car - are funds for much wry laughter and rolled eyes.

But, although the cover assures me that the contents will be 'warm, funny, [and] moving', Elizabeth West seems to have (had?) almost no sense of humour.  Obstacle after obstacle is raised, with the smug solution given.  Almost every page drips with self-satisfaction.  They clearly feel an immense sense of superiority to all the fools in the world who wouldn't know how to run a stove, or make a salad out of weeds, or have the curious weakness of preferring a flush toilet to a hole in a shed.

Perhaps it is just a weakness in me, but I found it hard to warm to a writer who had all the answers.  Her husband was worse - the sort of irritating person who fixes everything with little more than a spanner and a stern glance.  Self-deprecation is one of the qualities I find most endearing in fact and fiction (I am British, after all) and the Wests don't have a drop of it.

I was on happier ground when she turned her attention away from their achievements and towards nature.  Particularly when she wrote about the birdlife of the area -  that was endearing and almost witty.  True, she wrote about how good they were with animals and birds, but that couldn't get in the way of how fun it was to read about the wildlife and the personalities they displayed.  I was strongly reminded of Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water during these sections.  Here is a bit about the great tits which visited them:
We fed them on fat and peanuts as well as oatmeal and it soon became obvious which was the male and which was the female - from their behaviour as well as the slightly larger size and broad bely stripe of the male.  Pinny was always completely trusting, and quite at ease when feeding from our hands.  She flew to them without hesitation, ate daintily, and landed and took off with very gentle feet.  Podger, her mate, had an entirely different personality.  He only plucked up courage to come to our hands because he had seen Pinny do so.  But he made a great fuss about it.  Dashing in with great bluster, he would land with a clunk of clawed feet, grabbing what he could and making off with it straight away.  We went to the door with peanuts as soon as we saw the birds at our window in the morning.  If Podger arrived first he would sit on a nearby bush churring and chinking fussily until Pinny arrived to feed.  He was probably kidding her that he was being a gentleman, but we know that he needed the reassurance of seeing her feed first.
Besides the chapters on birds, I did also enjoy her descriptions of the wrangles they had experienced with the local council when they bought a caravan for holiday lets.  Everyone enjoys a tale of the small-mindedness of little people wielding power - so long as the tale is happening to someone else, of course - and West does give the whole saga amusingly.  Her sense of superiority feels justified here, at least - and there is an excellent coda to the whole rigmarole, which I shan't spoil in case you decide to read the book.

But, as you'll have gathered, I found that the irritating outweighed the enjoyable in Hovel in the Hills.  I'm probably just too cynical to enjoy the story of someone being better than everyone else.  Give me Betty Macdonald accidentally setting fire to things any day.

Song for a Sunday

It's been a while, hasn't it?

I didn't watch the X Factor last series, but the one before that had a great singer called Ella Henderson - she's now got around to recording some songs, and I'm a fan of 'Five Tattoos'.  Enjoy!

Thursday, 9 January 2014

A change to my century; a change to my life

This photo is a year or two old,
but shows how I stand in relation to Sherpa...

Firstly, blog news - after seeing some alternative centuries around the blogosphere, and chatting to my friend at work, I have decided to shift my century a bit.  I'll now be doing the past 100 years - that is, 1914-2013.  I found the first years so difficult to fill last time, and I also missed the 21st century - this way I can keep myself more content, and still have a great overview of a century.  And, of course, 1914 is not an insignificant year.

Secondly, life news - I had my DPhil viva yesterday, and have passed with minor corrections!  I think I'm not technically a doctor until I've done those corrections, had them approved, and got a piece of paper from the English faculty in my hands - but to all intents and purposes I am now Dr. Thomas.  Gosh, how strange that sounds!  I think it might take me a lot longer to get used to it than everyone else.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

It's not too late for some 2013 stats, is it?

Using my annual meme, with some extensions and wanderings, here are (a bit belatedly) my stats from 2013... just because I find it interesting, and really enjoy reading everyone else's.

Encouraged by earlier comments...
here is one of my favourite Sherpa photos.

Number of Books Read
103, which is rather fewer than 2012's 135, but not far off 2011's 106.

Number of Books Bought
We don't count those any more.

Fiction/Non-Fiction Ratio
64 fiction and 39 non-fiction - every year the percentage of non-fiction gets higher.  Will it overtake fiction one year?  (Well, yes, maybe... here endeth the investigative journalism).

Male/Female Authors
63 by women, 39 by men, 3 by both.  That's a higher percentage of male authors than last year, and exactly the same number male as non-fiction.  Coincidence? (Yes.)

Only 10 - mostly because of my Reading Presently project, I think.  Of those 10, 7 were for teaching, thesis, or work.

Theses submitted
One. I couldn't resist putting this in here, and it did impact my reading a great deal.

Oldest book read
After A Century of Books in 2012, I decided 2013 would be the year I read loads of 19th-century literature.  So, the oldest book I read?  Er, Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes by Harry Graham, from 1902. Oops.

Newest book read
Probably Black Sheep by Susan Hill, right at the end of the year, since it was a 2013 novel.

Shortest Title
Was also one of the very best books I read this year - Stet by Diana Athill.

Books in Translation
Oh dear, only 3 I think, which is pretty appalling - and suggests that people tend not to give me books in translation, maybe? They were from French (Phantoms on the Bookshelves), German (All Quiet on the Western Front), and Hungarian (Skylark). And two of them ended up my 50 Books list.

Most Books by One Author
This is definitely a battle of the Dames.... Agatha Christie helped me get through reader's block in the summer, and I taught Muriel Spark to an undergraduate in the autumn.  Who wins?  It's actually a tie - 7 a-piece.

Most Disappointing Book
I've hoped that Nina Bawden would be an author that I'd love, but I found A Woman of My Age utterly tedious.

Most Serendipitous Book
Either Floater by Calvin Trillin, about journalists in Washington DC (which I read while staying with journalists in Washington DC), or The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone, which turned out to be partly set in the village where my grandparents lived for over thirty years.

Animals in book titles
Snake Beach by Lisa Glass, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi, Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer, Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym, Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie, and Black Sheep by Susan Hill.

Strange things that happened in the books I read this year
Snakes infested a modelling contest, letters were systematically banned, a fake war was reported, a old woman was swindled into believing herself immortal, a draper flew, two children discovered an underground world, a dead romantic novelist haunted her husband, fence builders became serial killers, a snow child came alive, and a woman discovered that she was in a novel when she heard a narrator speaking through the walls.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

I Pose - Stella Benson

I know some people are very keen to end a reading year on a high, but for me it is more important that the first book of a new year is good.  Of course, I would love every book I read to be good, but somehow it feels as though a bad first book sets off a bad tone for the whole year.  So I deliberately finished off a book which I was already halfway through, and knew was brilliant... I Pose (1915) by Stella Benson, reprinted by Michael Walmer and sent to me as a review copy (more on this exciting new reprint publisher here).

I had read one book by Stella Benson before - Living Alone, about witches living in a boarding house - and I liked it, but would have preferred Benson to keep her feet more firmly on the ground.  The opening pages, satirising a council meeting, were entirely delicious.  Well - I Pose more than answered my request, and I found it very amusing.  The style is so fresh, lively, and not for a moment taking itself remotely seriously.

I Pose is set up as an allegory - the main characters are referred to solely as 'the gardener' and 'the suffragette'.  The idea of an allegory rather terrifies me, as it does suggest earnestness (which I'm allergic to in fiction), but Benson has the same feelings as me.  She definitely has some important things to say - I'll come on to those later - but she uses these characters chiefly to lampoon the notion of allegory.

Both gardener and suffragette - but particularly gardener - live life through epithets.  They are continually posing; the title refers to the mixture of sincerity and insincerity with which they adopt their stances.  For, yes, the suffragette cares deeply about suffrage - but when she claims not to care about life or limb, or to be unlovable and unloving, then it is decidedly a pose.  The gardener, too, is forever choosing poses which permit him to speak in riddles and epigrams.  Some might find it wearying, but I loved every moment.  When the gardener meets the suffragette, he instantly knows that she is one - she has, after all, the stereotypical appearance of the militant suffragette...
The woman was quite plain, and therefore worthy only of invisibility in the eyes of a self-respecting young man.  She had the sort of hair that plays truant over the ears, but has not vitality enough to do it prettily.  Her complexion was not worthy of the name.  Her eyes made no attempt to redeem her plainness, which is the only point of having eyes in fiction.  Her only outward virtue was that she did not attempt to dress as if she were pretty.  And even this is not a very attractive virtue.
He doesn't agree with her methods (she intends to blow up a church) and Benson is at her satirical best on the topic:
The gardener, of course, shared the views of all decent men on this subject.  One may virtuously destroy life in a good cause, but to destroy property is a heinous crime, whatever its motive.(Yes, I know that made you tremble, but there are not many more paragraphs of it.)
There are plenty of moments where Benson addresses the reader, always tongue-in-cheek and often defending her choices as a novelist, against imagined criticisms.  She freely admits that the suffragette is not a typical heroine...
I quite admit that the suffragette was an infuriating person.  I yield to none in my admiration for any one who could manage to keep their temper with her.
The suffragette and gardener end up on a boat sailing abroad, posing as a married couple (albeit briefly), and they dash madly around various foreign climes, meeting some extraordinary people along the way.  My favourite was probably the always-antagonistic Mrs. Rust...
"I don't agree with you at all," said Mrs. Rust, who now made this remark mechanically in any pause in the conversation.
Earthquakes and suffrage clubs come and go, as do the adventures of an obnoxious young boy and an adorable Scottie dog, but the plot is certainly not the most important aspect of I Pose.  I loved it almost entirely for Benson's style.  It reminded me a little of P.G. Wodehouse - certainly she has his affinity for the pleasures of understatement ('She was not in the least miserly of a certain cheap smell of violets') alongside just enough of Oscar Wilde to make the prose frothy and delightful, and not enough to make it tiring (to me).  Her way with words is astonishing, and shows a confidence which no début author deserves to possess - but it is a confidence which is, at the same time, entirely well-deserved.  This sort of novel is so difficult to do well - it could have very easily felt self-indulgent and overdone - but I think it is a wonder.

And, while I spent most of the novel thrilling to the writing and not caring too much about plot and character, I surprised myself by growing to care considerably about the possible romance between the gardener and the suffragette... now, making the reader care about characters with no names, when the narrator is openly and proudly dismissing their suitability to lead a novel, where nothing is said with a serious tone... well, Miss Benson, that is an achievement indeed.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Family and Friends who blog...

I still haven't finished a book this year, despite being halfway through about eight at the end of 2013 - don't know what to blame this on - so instead of my inaugural book review, I thought I'd do a quick round-up of friends who blog (as opposed to friends met through blogging).  I've mentioned most of these before, but long enough ago that a reminder is worthwhile.

Irrelevant picture of Sherpa being perfect.

Colin's Online Diary
My brother Colin has had a blog for much longer than I have - well, 3.5 years longer - and although he doesn't mention books all that often, there is still plenty to amuse and delight.  He's very funny and nice, although you might want to skip the occasional post about football or right-wing politics (twins can be very different!)  If you hop across now, you'll be able to read his round-up of his films of 2013...

Our Vicar's Wife
I gave (well, borrowed from the Provincial Lady books) my parents the nicknames Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife, which they have taken on themselves with good grace.  My Mum's blog covers countryside life in Somerset, as well as the wacky activities she gets up to there.  Our Vicar is yet to start a blog, but I reckon he might be persuaded to in a few years' time when he retires...

The Pygmy Giant
This isn't technically a blog, but my bestie Mel co-edits a flash fiction website with her husband and another friend - that is, pieces of fiction under 800 words.  It went on hiatus while she did things like move house and get married, but it's back now!

Washington Wife
Go and harangue my other bestie for not updating her witty and lovely blog about moving to Washington DC...

The Surplus Spinster
My friend Andrea - whom I've probably mentioned in relation to the Simon and Andrea Film Club - has started up a very promising-sounding blog about the spinster in the 20th century.  Andrea did a history DPhil which involved looking at British spinster missionaries in India - indeed, we shared a few of the same spinster reading for our respective DPhils!  Only one post so far, but it mentions E.M. Delafield...

I'm sure other friends of mine have blogs, but those are the ones that came to mind!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Top Ten Books of 2013

And here is the long-awaited list!  I actually found it a struggle to put together this year, in that I've only read three or four books which I think outstandingly brilliant.  Number 1 is one of my favourite books ever, but I don't think 2013 was a particularly stellar year.  Still, all ten remain great (if not all-time-great) and my usual rules apply - no repeated authors, no re-reads.

10. Of Love and Hunger (1947) by Julian Maclaren-Ross
Not a book I'd heard of before Dee gave me a copy, but any fan of Patrick Hamilton or George Orwell will find much to admire in this account of a poor vacuum-cleaner salesman.  Somehow the prose is both sparse and beautiful.

9. The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene
#GreeneForGran, in memory of Simon Savidge's much-loved bookish gran, led to a lot of bloggers furthering their acquaintance with Graham Greene - I read what must be his masterpiece, this beautiful, melancholic paean to a flawed and painful love affair.

8. Dumb Witness (1937) by Agatha Christie
I read a lot of Agatha Christie this year in quick succession, during a period of reader's block, and chose this one as a representative volume because it had my adored Captain Hastings.  My appreciation for her plotting was always high; this year I learnt to admire her writing more than I would have imagined.

7. Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
Not as brilliant as Gilead, to my mind, but further proof to me that Marilynne Robinson is the greatest living writer whom I have read.

6. Symposium (1990) by Muriel Spark
I read quite a few Spark novels this year (I was teaching her to an undergraduate) but blogged about relatively few.  This was the best - I described it as containing a pantheon of Sparkisms, and I stand by that!

5. Phantoms on the Bookshelves (2008) by Jacques Bonnet
One of the loveliest books-about-books I have ever read, and one which will entertain (and justify) any spendthrift bibliophile.

4. Hallucinations (2012) by Oliver Sacks
Sacks is endlessly fascinating and brilliant, and this book about hallucinatory sights, sounds, and smells is told with exceptional skill, as well as being (I'm sure) scientifically significant.

3. Skylark (1924) by Dezső Kosztolányi
I'm very grateful to Claire of The Captive Reader for recommending this (and my parents for buying it) - it appeared on her top books of 2011, and now here it is on mine!  A sensitively told and moving novel.

2. Stet (2000) by Diana Athill
The life of an expert literary agent can't help but be interesting, and Athill writes unself-consciously, wisely, and very (seeming) great fairness about some quite difficult people.

1. London War Notes 1939-1945 (1972) by Mollie Panter-Downes
And this is the best book I read in 2013!  I was so lucky to track down an affordable copy, after borrowing from the library, and I know that it isn't available easily - but I can think of no more accomplished, humane, and plain useful record of the wartime home front from a contemporary's viewpoint.  It changed the way I think about the day-by-day events of the second world war, and (like Guard Your Daughters at the top of 2012's list) I think it is scandalous that it's out of print.  Well, Guard Your Daughters is coming back into print in 2014, so fingers crossed for London War Notes following suit...

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

It all starts again...

Happy new year!

For those not in the know - my plan in 2014 is to read a book for every year from 1914-2013, review them, and put the links on this page.  I did a century of books (the 20th century) in 2012 and it was super fun - see the whole list here - and I'm very excited to be doing it again!

Various lovely bloggers have been doing the same thing, or will be, or did - A Century of Books is a challenge you can do over any length of time, although I'm hoping to complete the list by the end of the year.  Pop a link to your own list in the comments if you've done, are doing, or will do the challenge!

1914: Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers
1915: I Pose by Stella Benson
1916: Inclinations by Ronald Firbank
1917: This Is The End by Stella Benson
1918: Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins
1919: Not That It Matters by A.A. Milne
1920: The City of Endless Night by Milo Hastings
1921: Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
1922: The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne
1923: The Artist: a Duologue by A.A. Milne
1924: Letters from England by Karel Čapek
1925: A Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
1926: The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray
1928: The Suburban Young Man by E.M. Delafield
1929: The Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie
1930: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
1931: The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie
1932: The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield
1933: Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
1934: The Listerdale Mystery by Agatha Christie
1935: Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
1936: Muddling Through by Theodora Benson and Betty Askwith
1937: Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie
1938: My Sister Eileen by Ruth McKenney
1939: It's Too Late Now by A.A. Milne
1940: Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford
1941: As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross
1943: A Literary Journey Through Wartime Britain by AC Ward
1944: Green Song and other poems by Edith Sitwell
1945: Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie
1946: Every Good Deed by Dorothy Whipple
1947: Abbie by Dane Chandos
1948: Blood on the Dining-Room Floor by Gertrude Stein
1949: Delight by J.B. Priestley
1950: Cinderella Goes To The Morgue by Nancy Spain
1951: Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson
1952: Mrs. McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie
1954: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns
1955: Riding Lights by Norman MacCaig
1956: Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons
1958: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
1960: Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse
1961: The Forgotten Smile by Margaret Kennedy
1962: The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
1963: A Day in Summer by J.L. Carr
1964: The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor
1965: Mrs Harris MP by Paul Gallico
1966: The Perfect Stranger by P.J. Kavanagh
1967: The Small Widow by Janet McNeill
1968: The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars
1969: Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie
1971: A.A. Milne by Thomas Burnett Swann
1972: The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
1973: Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares
1974: The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie
1975: Curtain by Agatha Christie
1976: Tea by the Nursery Fire by Noel Streatfeild
1977: Hovel in the Hills by Elizabeth West
1978: The Fur Person by May Sarton
1979: Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark
1982: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson
1984: Charlotte Mew and Her Friends by Penelope Fitzgerald
1987: Mr. Fox by Barbara Comyns
1988: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
1990: A.A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite
1995: Summer in February by Jonathan Smith
1997: Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern
2000: The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik
2001: Marrying Out by Harold Carlton
2002: Land's End by Michael Cunningham
2003: Pleasures and Landscapes by Sybille Bedford
2005: Making It Up by Penelope Lively
2006: The Literary Conference by César Aira
2007: Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin
2008: Home by Marilynne Robinson
2010: The Man Who Unleashed the Birds by Paul Newman
2012: The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
2013: The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp by Eva Rice