A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

I’ve taken quite a long time (nearly two months) to read Andrew Marr’s A History of Britain, which covers the post World War II period up to 2006, with an added introduction in the paperback edition written in 2008. This is a brief review of a very long and detailed book – too long and detailed for me to sum up meaningfully in a few paragraphs.

So, here is the blurb from the back cover:

This is an account of great political visions – and how they were defeated – and of the resilience, humour and stroppiness of the British public. From the Second World War onwards, Britain has been a country on edge: first of invasion, then of bankruptcy, then on the vulnerable front line of the Cold War, and later in the forefront of the great opening up of capital and migration now reshaping the world. This history follows all the political and economic stories, but deals too with comedy, cars, the war against homosexuals, Sixties anarchists, oil-men and punks, Margaret Thatcher’s wonderful good luck, the true heroes of British theatre, and the victory of shopping over politics.

I wanted to read this book after watching Andrew Marr’s BBC 2 series, History of Modern Britain, which was first shown in 5 episodes in 2007 –  but it was the EU Referendum that nudged me into reading it this year. Like many others, I’ve now become addicted to news and comment programmes, but my knowledge of modern history, even though, or maybe because, I’ve lived through a lot of it, is sketchy, so it was fascinating, if somewhat scary, to read about events I remembered or had half-forgotten.

It’s an obvious statement, but still true, that Britain has changed since 1945 to be almost unrecognisable today and inevitably it is still changing. This book shows how we were then and how we got to where we are today. It’s mainly a political and economic history, with short sections on social and cultural events thrown into the mix.

Despite its length and complexities it is a readable book, which doesn’t surprise me as Andrew Marr is a journalist, TV presenter and political commentator. He was born in Glasgow in 1959. He studied English at the University of Cambridge and has since enjoyed a long career in political journalism, working for the Scotsman, the Independent, the Daily Express and the Observer. From 2000 to 2005 he was the BBC’s Political Editor. He has written and presented TV documentaries on history, science and politics, and presents the weekly Andrew Marr Show on Sunday mornings on BBC1 and Start the Week on Radio 4.

  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; Reprints edition (6 Mar. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330511475
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330511476
  • Source: my own copy

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and Read Scotland.

Books Read in May 2016

May was another good reading month for me. I read seven novels and one book of memoirs.

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf – a book I’ve owned for years. Virginia Woolf’s first novel about a young woman’s search for life, love and the world, an intriguing book.  Woolf explores the nature of Rachel’s mind, her obsessions and beliefs and through it her own thoughts about depression, suicide, death and the meaning of life. A sad book.

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, crime fiction that moves between events in Germany in 1938 to Kalum, a fictional village in Denmark, in the 1960s. a story of how evil touched so many lives with such terrible consequences and how by patience and perseverance the truth was revealed. I was carried away by the story.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill – memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). Her love of life shines through this remarkable book. I loved it.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers (LB) – a beautiful book that I enjoyed immensely, beautifully written, with the character of Agnès Morel at its centre. There is a mystery about her origins and also about her life before she arrived in Chartres.

Inside of Me by Hazel McHaffie – an excellent book. Hazel McHaffie’s novels cover medical ethics issues and the issues in Inside of Me concern body image, in particular, but not exclusively, about anorexia; identity, and relationships. There is also a mystery concerning missing teenage girls.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley – a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan. Bombs, clockwork inventions, the London Underground, Gilbert and Sullivan and much more more make up this fantastical tale. I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America. I found this a melancholy tale about a dysfunctional family, a story of loneliness, loss, suicide, death, and transience. I liked it but it’s probably the least enjoyable book I read in May.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini – I loved this amazing book, not an easy read emotionally, but one that will live in my memory as one of the most devastating and heartbreaking stories I’ve read. Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. (Goodreads summary)

My favourite books of the month are:

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini

Impossible to choose between them!

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (published in 2015) contains memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). I quoted the opening paragraph of this book and a teaser paragraph in an earlier post, First Chapter, First Paragraph.

It’s only a short book (168 pages), but it covers a wide range of Diana Athill’s memories, many images of beautiful places, and the friends and lovers she has known. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life.

She writes about her Great Grandfather’s garden at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, which she used to love visiting in the 1920s and 1930s, when her grandparents lived there. Her writing is so clear and precise, describing in detail its exact layout and expressing her delight in her memories of it.

In other chapters she describes post-war life and her visits to Florence, and in particular the Club Méditerranée in Corfu in the 1950s; her experiences in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was struck by the disparity between the local people and the tourists/incomers; and the miscarriage when she was in her early 40s, when she nearly died. It was heart breaking to read this remarkably candid account both about what happened and how she felt, her detachment, her resentment that she had lost the baby, even her relief, and finally her gratitude that she was still alive, and her love of life:

‘I AM ALIVE.’ 

It was enough.

It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any I had known before. (page 87)

It is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. She writes about her decision to move into a home, persuaded by a friend who lived there and about how much she enjoys living there. And her main luxury now is her wheelchair, which she finds has unexpected benefits, such as when she was at an art exhibition – the crowds fell away from her in her wheelchair and she was able to lounge in perfect comfort in front of Matisse’s red Dance.

Of course, she writes about death and dying, as ‘death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now.’ She doesn’t find this alarming, and remembers when she was close to death after her miscarriage that her feelings were of acceptance: ‘Oh well, if I die, I die‘. Death is not something she fears, although she has some degree of anxiety at the process of dying and recognises that whereas it’s ‘unwise to expect an easy death, it is not unreasonable to hope for one.

This book has given me much to think about, including this paragraph:

Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now it comes out, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. (pages 5 – 6)

I loved it.

First Chapter, First Paragraph

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

One of the books I’ll be reading soon is Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill OBE. From what I’ve read so far it promises to be very interesting. Born in 1917 Diana Athill helped Andre Deutsch establish his publishing company and worked as a literary editor for many years. She is also a novelist and has published several memoirs.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter begins:

‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits’: I have forgotten who it is who is supposed to have said that, but it is a good description of a state quite often observed in a retirement home, and considered pitiable. Disconcertingly, I recently realized that I myself (not very often, just now and then) might say those very words if somebody asked me what I was doing. It is not a welcome thought, but less dreadful than it might be because I now know from experience that the state is not necessarily pitiable at all. It is even pleasant – or it can be. That probably depends on the nature of the person sitting. To me it has been, because the thinking turns out to be about events in the past which were enjoyable, and when the mind relaxes itself it is those same events which float in and out of it.

Blurb:

What matters in the end? In the final years of life, which memories stand out? Writing from her retirement home in Highgate, London, as she approaches her 100th year, Diana Athill reflects on what it is like to be in her nineties, and on the moments in her life which have risen to the surface and sustain her in her later years.

She recalls in sparkling detail the exact layout of the garden of her childhood, a vast and beautiful park attached to a large house, and writes with humour, clarity and honesty about her experiences of the First and Second World Wars, and her trips to Europe as a young woman. In the remarkable title chapter, Athill describes her pregnancy at the age of forty-three, losing the baby and almost losing her life, and her gratitude on discovering that she had survived.

With vivid memories of the past mingled with candid, wise and often very funny reflections on the experience of being very old, Alive, Alive Oh! reminds us of the joy and richness to be found at every stage of life.

Teaser Tuesday newTeaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat. ! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

My teaser is from page 29:

It annoys me when someone describes this country in the late 1940s and 1950s as being dreary, an opinion usually based on the continuation of rationing for some years after the war’s end. People who see it like that can’t have lived through the war. Those of us still alive who did so see it differently.

It’s a short book – just 168 pages – but she seems to have packed so much into it.

My Week in Books: 13 April 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

IMG_1384-0

A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: Currently I’m reading three books, because I like to vary my reading. So, I have a classic, a crime fiction and a non-fiction book on the go:

Blurb:

George Eliot drew on her own anguished childhood when she depicted the stormy relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s often tormented battle to do her duty and belong on the one hand, and to be  herself, wild and natural, on the other, propels her from one crisis to another. As the Tulliver fortunes decline and fall, the rift between Maggie and her family becomes almost irreconcilable. But Maggie’s biggest mistake of all is to fall in love with Stephen Guest who is engaged to another woman.

Both a sharp and observant picture of English rural life and a profoundly convincing analysis of a woman’s psychology, The Mill on the Floss is a novel that tackles the complexities of morality versus desire.

  • Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill – a Dalziel and Pascoe crime fiction novel. It’s book 11 in the series, which I’m reading totally out of order (there are over 20 in the series) and it is really good.

Blurb:

When Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel witnesses a bizarre murder across the street from his own back garden, he is quite sure who the culprit is. After all, he’s got to believe what he sees with his own eyes. But what exactly does he see? And is he mistaken? Peter Pascoe thinks so.

Dalziel senses the doubters around him, which only strengthens his resolve. To make matters worse, he’s being pestered by an anonymous letter-writer, threatening suicide. Worse still, Pascoe seems intent on reminding him of the fact.

Meanwhile, the effervescent Eileen Chung is directing the Mystery Plays. And who does she have in mind for God? Daziel, of course. He shouldn’t have too much difficulty acting the part…

  • L S Lowry: A Life by Shelley Rohde. Lowry is one of my favourite artists, well known for his urban paintings of industrial towns but his work covers a wide range of themes and subjects, from landscapes and seascapes to portraits. This biography is based on collections of private papers held in The Lowry, Salford Quays.
  • Then: I’ve recently finished The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, her first novel. I’ve read some of her other books –  loved The Poisonwood Bible which I’ve read a few times, and Homeland, a book of short stories, but wasn’t so taken with The Lacuna. I thoroughly enjoyed The Bean Trees – my review will follow shortly:

Blurb:

Plucky Taylor Greer grows up poor in rural Kentucky with two goals: to avoid pregnancy and to get away. She succeeds on both counts when she buys an old car and heads west. But midway across the country motherhood catches up with her when she becomes the guardian of an abandoned baby girl she calls Turtle. In Tuscon they encounter an extraordinary array of people, and with their help, Taylor builds herself and her sweet, stunned child a life.

Next: I really don’t know.

What about you? What are you reading this week?

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge and is the Classics editor of the TLS. She is a fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And she writes a blog – A Don’s Life, which appears in The Times. I’ve enjoyed watching her TV programmes and so it doesn’t surprise me at all  that SPQR is just as entertaining and informative as the programmes – and very readable, even for someone, like me, who only has a smattering of knowledge about Roman history.

I took my time reading SPQR; some of it covered familiar ground and some was new to me. It’s a fascinating account of how Rome grew and sustained its position for so long, covering the period from the fourth century BCE when Rome was expanding from a small village, up to the moment in 212 CE when the emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen.

The title, SPQR, is taken from the Roman catchphrase, Senatus Populusque Romanus meaning the Senate and People of Rome and it is on these two elements – the Senate and the People that Mary Beard concentrates, focussing on the city of Rome, on Roman Italy and also looking at Rome from the outside, from the point of view of those living in the wider territories of the Roman empire.

The book is not strictly chronological and begins with an event I know a bit about through reading Robert Harris’ Lustrum. It’s the Catiline conspiracy in 63 BC, which concerned a plot, or so it was rumoured to overthrow the Roman Empire and Cicero’s part in uncovering the plot and saving the state. Mary Beard begins with this event, because:

it is only in the first century BCE that we can start to explore Rome, close up and in vivid detail through contemporary eyes. An extraordinary wealth of words survives from this period: from private letters to public speeches, from philosophy to poetry – epic and erotic, scholarly and straight from the street.’ (location 143)

She highlights the effect Cicero had, not just on the politics of his own time but also on the language of modern politics. And it is from Cicero’s speeches, essays, letters, jokes and poetry and other Roman writers that we see the Roman world not just in 63 BCE but throughout the city’s history.

For the earlier period however, there are no contemporary accounts and so the early years of the city and of the earliest Romans has to be reconstructed  from individual pieces of evidence from fragments of pottery or letters inscribed on stone.

There are also, of course the myths and stories as well and Beard refers to these, such as the story of Romulus and Remus, who are said to have founded the city, told by Livy and several other Roman writers. Tradition has it that Romulus and his tiny community fought against their neighbours, the Sabines, and erected a temple on the site of the battle, which later became the Forum, but there is no archaeological evidence to identify the remains of this temple. Archaeology, in fact, only sketches what Rome in the earliest period was like and it is very different from the myths. Later Roman writers and modern historians alike have debated intensely the stories of Romulus and Remus, raising the questions of what it was to be Roman. And Beard states:

There is often a fuzzy boundary between myth and history … and … Rome is one of those cultures where the boundary is particularly blurred. … For a start there was almost certainly no such thing as a founding moment of the city of Rome. … Although Romans usually assumed that he [Romulus] had lent his name to his newly established city, we are now fairly confident that the opposite was the case: ‘Romulus’ was an imaginative construction out of ‘Roma’. ‘Romulus was the archetypal ‘Mr Rome.’ (locations 844 – 850)

From that point Beard goes on to discuss the basics of Roman culture, including the nature of Roman marriage, Roman slaves, the Republican system, the principle of freedom, or ‘libertas’, the changing definition of what it meant to be ‘Roman’, Roman domination of the Mediterranean, dictatorship, civil war, taxation, the modern Western system of timekeeping, the emperors and their imperial successes and military victories and the army – and so much more!

SPQR is an immense  achievement, covering 1,000 years of the history of Ancient Rome, and not only the history but also explaining Roman values, what they thought about themselves, and the way of life of both the People and the Senate.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 22379 KB
  • Print Length: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books; Main edition (20 Oct. 2015)
  • Source: I bought it

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2016 – an e-book I’ve owned since November 2015

Weekend Cooking: Easy Baking

weekend cookingBeth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts.

Easy Baking is a Marks & Spencer book of recipes for Cakes, Slices & Bars, Cookies and Small Bakes, and Desserts.

I thought this little book looked too tempting to resist and one afternoon decided to make the Sticky Toffee Cake, one of my favourite cakes – and I had all the ingredients to hand. It really is an easy recipe. You need:P1010876

  • 75g sultanas
  • 150g stoned dates, chopped
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 25g butter
  • 200g soft dark brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 200g self-raising flour, sifted

Method:

Cover sultanas, dates and bicarb with boiling water and leave to soak. Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F and grease a 7 inch/18cm square cake tin. Mix butter and sugar together, beat in the eggs and fold in the flour, drain the soaked fruits, add to the bowl and mix. Spoon mixture into the cake tin and then bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

P1010872The recipe also includes a sticky toffee sauce, but I didn’t have the ingredients for that – it was still delicious, sweet and moist, without it. I’ll make it next time.

There are lots more recipes I’ll try making – including Jewel-topped Madeira Cake, which is topped with sliced glacé fruits glazed with honey, Chocolate Chip and Walnut Slices, Viennese Chocolate Fingers and Manhatton Cheesecake, which looks amazing with a digestive biscuit base and topped with a blueberry sauce.

My Week in Books: 10 February 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

IMG_1384-0

A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m reading two books:

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir, a proof copy – expected publication 5 May 2016. This is the first novel of the Six Tudor Queens series.

Blurb:

A Spanish princess. Raised to be modest, obedient and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years-old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection.

Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir has based her enthralling account of Henry VIII’s first wife on extensive research and new theories. She reveals a strong, spirited woman determined to fight for her rights and the rightful place of her daughter. A woman who believed that to be the wife of a King was her destiny.

History tells us how she died. This captivating novel shows us how she lived.

I’m also reading SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition.

Blurb:

Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. 

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us.

Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.

SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

I’ve recently finished Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane, crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders.

You can read my thoughts on this book in my previous post.

And next I’ll be reading Slade House by David Mitchell, or at least I think I’ll be reading this next. When the time comes I could fancy something completely different.

Blurb:

Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

What have you been reading this week and what have got in mind to read next?

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble

I began reading The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws in December and finished it this morning. It took me a long time not because it’s difficult reading (it isn’t) but because I only read short sections each day – I often read non-fiction like that.

FOREWORD

This book is not a memoir, although parts of it may look like a memoir. Nor is it a history of the jigsaw puzzle, although that it was what it was once meant to be. It is a hybrid. … This book started off as small history of the jigsaw, but it has spiralled off in other directions and now I am not sure what it is.

It is not the book she meant to write and it is not the book I expected to read. I enjoyed parts of immensely – those parts about her childhood, and life at Bryn, her grandparents’ house in Long Bennington and about her beloved Aunt Phyl (Phyllis Boor) and of course those parts about jigsaws, both personal and historical, about mosaics (looking at them as a form of jigsaw), the history of children’s games and puzzles and amusements. She does ‘spiral off in other directions’ which meant in parts it lacks a clear structure in a sort of ‘stream of conciousness’ style, particularly in her reminiscences and nostalgia about life (reproduced in some jigsaws) in a rural community that no longer exists.

I noted down a few points she made about jigsaws:

  • jigsaws renew the brain cells – that’s good! (page 66)
  • putting away a finished jigsaw can be a sad moment – I agree and usually leave mine for a while before dismantling them. These days I take a photo. (page 94)
  • because they have no verbal content they exercise a different part of the brain, bringing different neurons and dendrites into play. (that’s good too) (page 122)
  • some people disapprove of jigsaws, some of knitting, of card games and other activities and artistic traits. (page 187)
  • jigsaws maybe connected with depression and used as time-killers, filling empty days and evenings (page 242)
  • people can be addicted to jigsaws (page 244)
  • doing a jigsaw is like creating order out of chaos (page 245)
  • jigsaws reproducing works of art helps you learn about art (pages 250-1)
  • jigsaws as metaphors  and simile are everywhere eg wikipedia etc (page 267)

And, of course, reading this book has made me get out a jigsaw to do. This is a Thomas Kinkade jigsaw: Sunday Evening Sleigh Ride (1,000 pieces).

Sleigh Ride P1010859

I don’t think I’m a jigsaw addict, in the same way as I am a book addict, after all I do just a few jigsaws now and then, whereas reading is a constant and I feel lost if I don’t have a book on the go. And you may have noticed (from the side bar) that I am not currently reading a book! Time to find the next one to read …

Nonfiction Challenge 2015 Wrap Up

The Nonfiction Reading Challenge was hosted by The Introverted Reader It ran between 1 January to 31 December 2015.

Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Challenge:  Read any non-fiction book(s), adult or young adult.. You could choose anything. Memoirs, History, Travel – absolutely anything that is classified as non-fiction counts for this challenge.

The levels:

Dilettante–Read 1-5 non-fiction books

Explorer–Read 6-10

Seeker–Read 11-15

Master–Read 16-20

I reached the Seeker level and read more than in previous years.

I read mainly autobiography/biography/memoir, and history:

  1. Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd (Biography)
  2. An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope
  3. Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright (Autobiography)
  4. Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police by Carmen Bugan (Autobiography)
  5. Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (Memoir, philosophy, reflection on the fear of death, belief)
  6. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Memoir, Falconry, Goshawk, T H White)
  7. Poirot and Me by David Suchet (Autobiography, Agatha Christie’s Poirot)
  8. The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (Crime Fiction, History, Biography)
  9. Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work by Kitty Ferguson (Biography, Science)
  10. One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville (Biography)
  11. Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan (Memoir, Syria, 1930s)
  12. Alan M Turing by Sara Turing (Biography)
  13. Watching War Films with My Father by Al Murray (Memoir, History, Second World War)
  14. Alan Turing:Unlocking the Enigma by David Boyle (Biography, History)
  15. The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley and William Allison (History, First World War)
  16. Mrs Jordan’s Profession: the Story of a Great Actress and a Future King by Claire Tomalin (Biography, History)
  17. Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (Japan, Nuclear Weapons, History, World War Two)
  18. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachian Trail, USA)
  19. The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson (History, Biography)

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but with
Christmas and New Year just a few days away this is just a brief post to record a few of my thoughts before they fade from my mind.

This is the Blurb:

In the company of his friend Stephen Katz (last seen in the bestselling Neither Here nor There), Bill Bryson set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing tics, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.

Facing savage weather, merciless insects, unreliable maps and a fickle companion whose profoundest wish was to go to a motel and watch The X-Files, Bryson gamely struggled through the wilderness to achieve a lifetime’s ambition – not to die outdoors.

And here’s what I thought:

I was fascinated by it all from the details of the Appalachian Trail itself stretching from Georgia to Maine, to Bryson’s observations about the people he met, the difficulties of walking with a huge backpack, and his relationship with Katz, who struggled to keep up with him. I know what that feels like, hiking with people fitter than you and seeing them march off in front of you, waiting for you to catch up and then setting off again – I felt sorry for Katz.

I can’t say that it made me want to go out and walk for days along a long distance trail, but I did enjoy reading about his experiences and his descriptions of the trail and of the places he visited off the trail. Some of the route sounds very dangerous, such as this for example as Bryson and Katz walked through a snow storm:

… we came to a narrow ledge of path along a wall of rock called Big Butt Mountain.

Even in ideal circumstances the path around Big Butt would have required delicacy and care. It was like a window ledge of path on a skyscraper, no more than fourteen or sixteen inches wide, and crumbling in places, a sharp drop on one side of perhaps 80 feet and long, looming stretches of vertical granite on the other. Once or twice I nudged foot-sized rocks over the side and watched with faint horror as they crashed and tumbled to improbably remote resting places. (pages 100-101)

What? He watched with ‘faint horror’? It terrifies me just to think of being on a path like that! He goes on to say that all the way along this ledge they were half blinded by snow and jostled with wind. It wasn’t a blizzard, it was a tempest and at one point Katz lost his footing and ended up hugging a tree, his ‘feet skating, his expression bug-eyed and fearful’. Oh, no that is definitely not for me.

I liked all the facts about the flora and fauna, and the history of the Trail and indeed about the history connected to the landscape.  Bryson’s descriptions set the scene so vividly I could easily imagine myself there – too easily in the hard places, but also in the beautiful locations, such as this in the Shenandoah Valley:

… a spacious, sun-dappled dell, tucked into a bowl of small hills, which gave it an enchanted secretive feel. Everything you might ask of a woodland scene was there – musical brook, carpet of lush ferns, elegant well-spaced trees … (page 204)

I wished it had an index and that the map of the Trail was more detailed, oh and some photos would have been good. I shall have to wait until I see the film to really see what the Trail is like.

I set out to write just a brief post! But there is so much more that I could have written that really it is just a brief post.

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War by Susan Southard is an amazing, heart-wrenching book.

The facts are horrendous – on August 9th 1945, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a five-ton plutonium bomb was dropped on the small coastal town of Nagasaki. The effects were cataclysmic.

This must be one of the most devastatingly sad and depressing books I’ve read and yet also one of the most uplifting, detailing the dropping of the bomb, which killed 74,000 people and injured another 75,000. As the subtitle indicates this book is not just about the events of 9 August 1945 but it follows the lives of five of the survivors from then to the present day. And it is their accounts which make this such an emotive and uplifting book, as it shows their bravery, how they survived, and how they were eventually able to tell others about their experiences. Along with all the facts about the after effects of the bombing, the destruction, and radiation, it exposes the true horror of atomic warfare, making it an impressive and most compelling account of pain, fear, bravery and compassion.

Throughout the book the black and white photos illustrate the true horror of the effects of the bomb – photos of Nagasaki both before and after the bomb was dropped, of five survivors – Wada Kohi (aged 18 in August 1945), a street car operator; Nagano Etsuko (aged 16), who worked on a production line in a Mitsubishi airplane parts factory;  Taniguchi Sumiteru (aged 16), who worked at Minchino-o Post Office; Yoshida Katsuji (aged 13), a student at Nagasaki Prefecture Technical School on a ship building course; and Do-oh Mineko (aged 15), formerly a student at Keiho Girls High School, working at the Mitsubishi Arms Factory Onashi Plant. There are also maps showing Japan today and of Nagasaki 1945 showing the Scope of Atomic Bomb Damage.

Susan Southard’s ten years of research has resulted in this impressive book as she reveals what happened in particular to these five survivors, their immediate injuries, the radiation-related cancers and illnesses they have suffered, and their difficulties of daily living still in pain both physical and emotional.

In addition to all that Nagasaki ‘reveals the censorship that kept the suffering endured by the hibakusha [atomic bomb-affected people] hidden around the world. For years after the bombings news reports and scientific research were censored by U.S. occupation forces and the U.S. government led an efficient campaign to justify the necessity and morality of dropping the bombs’ (from the jacket sleeve).

I knew a bit about Hiroshima and Nagasaki before I read this book but it has opened my eyes to the true horror of nuclear war and the need to prevent anything like this happening again.

Many thanks to Souvenir Press Ltd for sending me a complimentary copy for review.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd (2 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0285643274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643277

Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince

I loved Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a King, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dora Jordan. It is both well researched and well written making it easy to read despite being packed with information, brilliantly bringing the late 18th and early 19th centuries to life as she tells the story of Dora and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV .  It’s based on material in the Royal Archives at Windsor; letters from Dora held at the Huntingdon Library, San Merino, California; various private family papers, letters and memorabilia, as well as numerous secondary sources from national and local libraries.  The resulting biography took her several years to complete.

Much of the information about Dora is taken from her own letters, written over 25 years, to her children and friends and many hundreds of those to the Duke of Clarence, the father of ten of her children (the FitzClarences) have survived. She was a remarkably strong character and an incomparable actress.

William, the Duke of Clarence and Dora Jordan were born into very different families – born in 1765 he was the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte,  and she was born in 1761, the daughter of Francis and Grace who although not legally married lived together as Mr and Mrs Bland.  He was not expected to succeed to the throne and as a boy served in the navy, later he was given a dukedom, an income and an estate. She became an actress, known as ‘Mrs Jordan’, although there was never a Mr Jordan. She made her stage debut in 1777 at the age of 15 and her first Drury Lane appearance in 1785. The two met and she became his mistress in 1790, eventually living together at Bushy House in Middlesex. Their relationship was a happy one until, as the years went by, William was put under pressure to find a suitable wife and, of course, marriage to Dora was out of the question. They separated in 1811 and she was heart broken.

There is so much in this book that fascinated me. The attacks in the press on their relationship were vicious and there were storms of abuse – as an actress and a prince they could not have private lives and the journalists and cartoonists were savage in their portrayal of the couple. The cartoons in particular amazed me. ‘Jordan’ was a common term for a chamber-pot, so her name came in very handily, and became an instantly recognisable visual symbol:

Sometimes it was put over the Duke’s head; sometimes he was shown standing in it, with her prettily draped round the edge, naked and mermaid-like. In other drawings the pot reverted to its domestic function under the bed; the words ‘Public jordan open to all parties’ were written round one of these. The most effective and cruellest was Gillray’s simple picture showing Dora as a giant chamber-pot, cracked and with a vagina-shaped hole into which the figure of William is disappearing, giving a nautical shout of pleasure as he does so. His braided coat is hanging on a peg to one side and her ankles and feet in dainty slippers appear below the pot. The caption reads ‘The Lubber’s Hole, alias the Cracked Jordan’, (page 123)

Dora comes across as a very likeable person, hard working, and devoted to her family. She was a talented and probably  the most popular actress of the time in Britain, based at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and also appearing in theatres throughout the country, acting throughout her pregnancies and often taking a baby with her on tour. Claire Tomalin writes

She was the best-loved and most admired comic actress of her time, hailed by fellow actors, critics and public alike as a uniquely gifted performer, fully the equal in comedy to Mrs Siddons in tragedy: for several decades they were generally referred to as the Muses of Comedy and tragedy. (page 3)

After she and the Duke separated the debts incurred by a son-in-law drawn on her account forced her to live abroad until they could be cleared, but she sank into illness and despair and died near Paris in 1816.

William succeeded to the throne in 1830, after the death of his older brother, George IV. One of the first acts of his reign was to commission a sculpture – he wanted a life-size representation of Dora, She had been dead for  fifteen years, so Francis Chantrey, the sculptor worked from portraits, finishing it in 1834. William’s intention was to place the statue in Westminster Abbey, but the Dean of Westminster refused to allow it and it remained in Chantrey’s studio. Eventually, after passing through several hands, the fifth Earl of Munster bequeathed it to the Queen and it is now in Buckingham Palace among the portraits of kings and queens in the Picture Gallery.

Like all good biographies Mrs Jordan’s Profession has an extensive bibliography, additional notes and an index. There are several photographs, family trees of and an appendix of Mrs Jordan’s Roles.

  • Paperback: 422 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin 1995
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140159233
  • Source: I bought the book

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015, Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015, TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley & William Allison

When I was asked if I would read and review a revised edition of The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley and William Allison, the book on which the 1986 BBC TV series was based I was immediately interested as I had watched the TV series.

Description from the Press Release:

In 1917 British, New Zealand and Australian troops stationed at the Étaples Training Camp in northern France protested against the inhuman conditions and the protest erupted into mutiny. Private Percy Toplis was named by the authorities as a leader of this mutiny. While several of the mutineers were executed in its aftermath, Toplis escaped and remained at large for three years. The Army immediately covered up the mutiny, thousands of the participants died shortly afterwards in the Passchendaele offensive while the survivors remained silent for over fifty years. After three years as Britain’s most wanted man Percy Toplis was killed in 1920 by a policeman.

My thoughts:

This is the 2nd and updated edition of The Monocled Mutineer, which  includes a new introduction and epilogue that expand on newly discovered information about the events of the mutiny and the government’s response to it. It is primarily based on interviews and correspondence with survivors of the First World War nearly sixty years after the events they describe. In 1976 the authors advertised in newspapers asking whether any veterans from the First World War had recollections of the events in Étaples in September 1917. They received many replies containing:

  … sharp, bitter accounts of events long ago, but far from forgotten. Inevitably they were careful handwritten stories in old men’s script, teased out without any other prompting than the brief enquiry in their local paper. (page 2)

In addition to the anecdotal evidence the authors have used other sources including the published personal reminiscences of Edwin Woodhall,  Detective and Service Days and Lady Angela Forbes. Memories and Base Details; journalists’ accounts in various periodicals; and have drawn background material from records about the First World War in the  Imperial War Museum, The Public Record Office and the British Newspaper Library.

Not many contemporary records have survived that relate to the mutiny. One of the surviving records is the war diary of the Commandant at the Étaples Camp,  Brigadier-General Andrew Graham Thomson. Thompson describes what happened as a ‘disturbance’ and as ‘riots’ and ‘breakouts’:

Disturbance in Reinforcement Camp between military police and troops, Corporal Wood, 4th Gordons being accidentally shot … a crowd of about 1,000 gathered at Étaples town, and about 7.30 pm tried to break into the Sevigne cafe where two policemen were hiding. (page 1)

But in 1978, after the publication of the 1st edition and the BBC dramatisation, the British government admitted that the events that took place at Étaples had been a mutiny and also that  it was probable that the records relating to the board of inquiry into the events had been destroyed many years ago. The files on the mutiny and Percy Toplis’ military records are closed until 2017.

Historical accuracy is never easy to obtain, especially where records have been lost and where there is a limited number of sources to compare one against the other. In this case the main sources of information are the personal accounts from the veterans as they remembered them many years later.

And the picture they paint is a most remarkable and shocking one of the brutal and inhuman conditions which were in operation at the camp. As for Toplis’ part in the mutiny, the letters from the veterans occasionally mentioned him and whilst some thought he was the main ringleader, few thought he was the only one, but that there were a number of soldiers involved. One remembered Toplis’ name on a wanted poster and wrote:

If he was a villain then he was not the only one around Étaples. Maybe he too was tired of being humiliated, deprived, brutalized and treated like a dog. We had all got tired of being treated with less consideration than that given to horses. (page 91)

Another reported that Toplis, heading a mob of about 1,000 deserters confronted Thompson, surrounding his car. Toplis climbed on the running board and dictated the terms for ending the mutiny (page 93). After the mutiny ended, whilst some of the ringleaders were executed, Toplis escaped. Others were killed in the battle for Passchendale which began on 20th September.

Maybe more information will be available in 2017 when the files are opened and a fuller picture of what happened will emerge.

The Monocled Mutineer also goes into detail about Percy Toplis’ life before and after the war. Coming from a working-class background, by the age of eleven he was already a con artist and a thief. He must have been a charismatic character, able to both charm and deceive people, successfully impersonating officers, able to melt into the background deserting and then rejoining the army seemingly at will, not sentenced to execution by the firing squad (the penalty for desertion). But after the war ended in 1920 his luck ran out as he was accused of murdering a taxi-driver. The inquest held that he was guilty in his absence. Toplis fled, evading capture for six weeks and he was eventually shot down in a police ambush near Plumpton in Cumberland.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition (7 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 028564310X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643109
  • Source: review copy from the publisher

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

One Life: My Mother’s Story

Australian author, Kate Grenville has written a beautiful biography of her mother Nance Russell. A book that casts light not only on Nance’s life but also on life in Australia for most of the 20th century. Nance was born in 1912 and died in 2002, so she lived through two World Wars, an economic depression and a period of great social change. Nance wasn’t famous, the daughter of a rural working-class couple who became pub-keepers, but she was a remarkable woman.

Kate’s mother had wanted to write her own story and had left fragments of stories about her ancestors, stories her mother had told her, about her childhood, but most about her adult life up to her mid-forties. (Kate Grenville has used some of the stories of her ancestors in her own novels – such as The Secret River, a wonderful historical novel).

So this biography reads like a novel, but is based on Nance Russell’s memories, making it much more than a factual account of a person’s life. It’s is a vivid portrait of a real woman, a woman of great strength and determination, who had had a difficult childhood, who persevered, went to University, became a pharmacist, opened her own pharmacy, brought up her children, and helped build the family home. She faced sex discrimination and had to sell her pharmacy in order to look after her children at home.

Nance had wanted to be a teacher, but when she said this to her mother she ‘exploded. Over her dead body Nance was going to be a teacher!‘  But her parents thought that pharmacy was ‘good for a girl‘. It was 40  years later, after her own children were grown up, that Nance took an arts degree, then a teaching diploma and a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language. ‘She taught French in schools, taught English to newly arrived migrant children, and ran her own business teaching English to the wives of Japanese business men.

My bare account of Nance’s life doesn’t do justice to this book, in which Kate Grenville brings to life both the good times and the bad times, writing about her mother’s heartache, worries, joys and sorrows, of the hard times during the economic depression, all of it as a whole making a rich and fulfilled life. Very near to the end of the book Kate Grenville writes:

One of her last trips [to Europe] was to Florence, where she stood in front of the frescoes that Dante had seen. A line came into her mind from somewhere in all her reading: Suffering pierces the shield of habit. It was a thought that made sense of the unhappiness she’d known, and also the happiness. She knew that ultimately it didn’t matter what happened to you. In the light of eternity, in the light of all those dead writers in whose work she’d recognised the great truths, only one thing mattered. What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live – as richly and honestly as you could – your one life. (page 246)

Reading Challenges: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015 and What’s in a Name? 2015 in the category of a book with a familial relation in the title.

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Although I read a lot of crime fiction my knowledge of the authors and their books written during the ‘Golden Age’ so far has been limited to Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Michael Innes so when I saw that Martin Edwards had written The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story I thought it would be the ideal book to find out more. And I was absolutely right and the works of a whole host of authors has been opened up to me.

This is the story of the writers who formed the Detection Club between the two World Wars. Edwards sets the authors and their works in context – that period when Britain was recovering from the horrors of the First World War, living through an age of austerity as unemployment grew, the cost of living soared leading to the General Strike whilst the rich partied and saw the beginnings of the end of the British Empire. But the writers and the works although well grounded in their own time and culture have a lasting appeal and influence on current story telling and film and television.

The Club grew out of the dinners Anthony Berkeley and his wife Peggy hosted at their home in the late 1920s, attended by people including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Douglas and Margaret Cole, Ronald Knox, Henry Wade, H C Bailey and John Rhode. Eventually the Club was formed, with Rules and a Constitution and a Committee. The members benefited in various ways, meeting fellow detective novelists, discussing ideas, supporting each other and even working together on collaborative writing projects – such as The Floating Admiral, in which a dozen writers each wrote one chapter. The main aim of the Club was to encourage and maintain a high standard of work in writing detective novels.

I was fascinated by the number of real crimes that influenced the writers, both current at the time and crimes from the past. Their interest as they discussed these cases, such as Dr Crippen’s poisoning of his wife, in turn inspired them not only to write but also to play the detective themselves. Indeed, Edwards shows that the image of the Golden Age as ‘cosy’ murder mysteries is false:

Their novels are often sneered at as ‘cosy’, and the claim that their characters were made from cardboard has become a lazy critical cliché. The very idea that detective fiction between the wars represented a ‘Golden Age’ seems like a misty-eyed nostalgia of an aged romantic hankering after a past that never existed.

The best detective novels of the Thirties

were exhilarating, innovative and unforgettable. They explored miscarriages of justice, forensic pathology and serial killings long before these topics became fashionable (and before the term’serial killer’ was invented). …

The climax of one of Berkeley’s novels was so shocking that when Alfred Hitchcock came to film it, even the legendary master of suspense, the man who would direct Psycho, lost his nerve. He substituted a final scene that was a feeble cop-out in comparison to Berkeley’s dark and horrific vision. (page 9)

There is no way I can do justice to this book in a short post; it is simply a tour de force, comprehensive, crammed full of fascinating information about the period and the authors.

Martin Edwards’ love of Golden Age fiction shines throughout the book, (skilfully writing about books without giving away any spoilers) and has spurred me on to read more books from this period.

Book Beginnings: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This morning I have started to read An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.

It begins with an Introduction: Mission Impossible

The windows of a spaceship casually frame miracles. Every 92 seconds, another sunrise: a layer cake that starts with orange, then a thick wedge of blue, then the richest, darkest icing decorated with stars.

Moving on to the first chapter:The Trip Takes a Lifetime

One morning a strange thought  occurs to me shortly after waking: the socks I am about to put on are the ones I’ll wear to leave Earth. That prospect feels real yet surreal, the way a particularly vivid dream does. The feeling intensifies at breakfast, when reporters jostle each other to get a good photo, as though I’m a condemned man and this is my last meal.

I first heard of this book when Chris Hadfield appeared on Sunday Brunch and then Jackie of Farm Lane Books Blog wrote about his book, which reminded me I wanted to read it.

What an amazing  experience to be looking down on Earth, seeing its entirety and beauty from a totally different perspective!

Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work by Kitty Ferguson

Blurb:

Stephen Hawking is one of the most remarkable figures of our time, a Cambridge genius who has earned international celebrity as a brilliant theoretical physicist and become an inspiration and revelation to those who have witnessed his courageous triumph over disability. This is Hawking’s life story by Kitty Ferguson, who has had special help from Hawking himself and his close associates and who has a gift for translating the language of theoretical physics for non-scientists.

Twenty years ago, Kitty Ferguson’s Stephen Hawking: Quest for a Theory of Everything became a Sunday Times bestseller and took the world by storm. She now returns to the subject to transform that short book into a hugely expanded, carefully researched, up-to-the-minute biography.

Recently I watched The Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne playing the part of Stephen Hawking. I think it’s a brilliant film and it made me want to know more about Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work by Kitty Ferguson, subtitled The Story and Science of One of the Most Extraordinary, Celebrated and Courageous Figures of Our Time, has certainly expanded my knowledge, even if some of the science is beyond me.

At first I read the scientific explanations carefully and felt I understood them until about half way into the book, when I struggled and ended up skim reading passages. I could cope on an elementary level with quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is not new to me, nor the theory of black holes, and singularity. I learnt about the ‘event horizon’, which is the ‘radius-of-no-return where velocity becomes greater than the speed of light’, and about Hawking Radiation, the radiation produced by a black hole. But when I got up to ‘brane’ theory and p-branes, I was lost – it’s too mathematical for my pea-brain! But I still think I learned a lot. It helps that there is not only an index, but also a glossary that explains many of the scientific terms (not p-branes, unfortunately).

The book moves between biography and Hawking’s work, painting a picture of a warm, likeable, humorous, and courageous man with an exuberance for life. There’s a lot about his health, his career, his trips abroad and his relationships with colleagues. But not much about his marriages or divorces; I expect that was Hawking’s preference. I hadn’t known that he liked Marilyn Monroe, having a life-size picture of her on the door of his office, or that he has co-written children’s books with his daughter Lucy. They look very good!

Details from Fantastic Fiction:
1. George’s Secret Key to the Universe (2007)
2. George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009)
3. George and the Big Bang (2011)
4. George and the Unbreakable Code (2014)
5. George and the Blue Planets (2016)

 

I was fascinated, as I was when watching the film, with how he lives with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) a form of motor neurone disease and the remarkable fact that he has lived so long with this condition and yet can say, ‘ Although I cannot move, and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free.‘ (page 434)

Kitty Ferguson writes:

Hawking’s life and his science continue to be full of paradoxes. Things are often not what they seem. Pieces that fit together refuse to do so. Beginnings may be endings; cruel circumstances can lead to happiness, although fame and success may not; two brilliant and highly successful scientific theories taken together yield nonsense; empty space isn’t empty; black holes aren’t black; the effort to unite everything in a simple explanation reveals, instead a fragmented picture; and a man whose appearance inspires shock and pity takes us joyfully to where the boundaries of time and space ought to be – and are not. (page 17)

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam (5 July 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0857500740
  • ISBN-13: 978-0857500748
  • Source: library book

I have an e-book of Jane Hawking’s book, Travelling to Infinity; My Life with Stephen, which I’ll be reading sometime soon.

First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph Intros

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter ∼ First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

I’m currently reading The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, described on the back cover as

‘the extraordinary story of British detective fiction between the two World Wars, and the fascinating people who wrote it. A gripping real-life detective story, this book investigates how Agatha Christie and her colleagues in the mysterious Detection Club transformed crime fiction. Their work cast new light on unsolved murders, whilst hiding clues to their authors’ darkest secrets, and their complex and sometimes bizarre private lives.

First Chapter:

Chapter I, The Ritual in the Dark

On a summer evening in 1937, a group of men and women gathered in the darkness to perform a macabre ceremony. They had invited a special guest to witness their ceremony. She was visiting London from New Zealand and a thrill of excitement ran through her as the appointed time drew near. She loved drama, and at home she worked in the theatre. Now she felt as tense as when the curtain was about to rise. To be a guest at this dinner was a special honour. What would happen next she could not imagine.

Many congratulations to Martin Edwards who is to be the next President of  the Detection Club when Simon Brett, the current President retires in November. I really cannot think of a better choice than Martin, a well-deserved honour indeed!

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I really wanted to love H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which  won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as the 2014 Costa Book of the Year but I found it difficult to read and draining, despite some richly descriptive narrative.  It’s really three  books in one – one about herself, her childhood and her intense grief at the sudden death of her father, one about training a goshawk and another about T H White and his book, The Goshawk in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk.

When her father died she bought Mabel, a ten week old goshawk and became obsessed with training her. It is the training that made this book so difficult for me to read. I am not comfortable with keeping wild creatures in captivity and in my naivete I hadn’t realised just what training a hawk entailed. Even though Helen Macdonald tells her friend’s husband that it had not been a battle training Mabel because ‘she’s a freakishly calm hawk‘, it came across to me that it had been a battle of wills, as she kept Mabel indoors in a darkened room, in a hood, on a perch or restrained on a leash for much of the time. It was a physical battle too that evoked rage, violence and frustration.

I found it difficult too because it is so personal as she exposed just how bereft she was, how she suffered the loss of her father and became depressed almost to the state of madness:

It was about this time that a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were. I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. (location 219)

This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1875 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0802123414
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (31 July 2014)
  • Source: I bought it

Books Read in May 2015

I’m pleased that I’ve read 8 books in May as my reading and blogging was interrupted by gardening. The grass is now growing at a rate of knots and the weeds, especially the ground elder, are rampant, threatening to take over the borders. So I’ve spent a lot of time this month mowing, weeding and strimming.

But I’ve also read these books and written about all of them, except H is for Hawk – post to follow some time soon (I hope). Three of the books are non fiction, one is a book from Lovereading for review and six are library books – no TBR books (books acquired before 1 January 2015) this month! I must get back to reading from those books I’ve had for years very soon!

These are the books I read:

Bks May 2015

Gray Mountain by John Grisham (Library book) – this book is just as much a campaign against injustice and the misuse of power, about the good little guys against the big bad guys as his earlier books are. In this case it’s the big coal companies that come under the microscope, companies that are  ruining the environment by strip-mining in the Appalachian mountains. I liked the view of the small town community, the mountain scenery, the legal cases large and small and the tension created by the danger of opposing the big coal companies.

The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz (Review book) – an emotionally intense novel of love, loss and grief, set in both the past and the present day, in a small village on the Cumbrian coast, a gentle story, well told and an enjoyable read. In 1919 Eleanor, the daughter of the vicar of Goswell, is struggling to adjust to the loss of her brother, Walter who died just before the Armistice was declared and in the present day half-sisters Marin and Rebecca are coming to terms with the death of their father and his wife.

Gently North West by Alan Hunter (Library book) – set in the fictitious village of Strathtudlem in Scotland in 1967 where Gently is on holiday with his friend, Barbara Merryn and his sister, Bridget and her husband. Gently gets involved in the investigations into the murder of Donnie Dunglass,  found, stabbed in the back, face down on the heather. I thought it was an enjoyable book although I thought the murder mystery was rather far-fetched.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (Library book, Non Fiction) – a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God. Interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating.

Dry Bones That Dream by Peter Robinson (Library book) – Banks investigates the murder of Keith Rothwell, an accountant, a  mild-mannered, dull sort of person it seems. But is that all there is to Rothwell? Banks unearths the secrets the characters have kept hidden from their family and friends. There’s also money-laundering and international and political shenanigans involved. Maybe not the best Banks book I’ve read.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (KindleNon Fiction) – no post yet. In some ways a difficult book to read – about training a goshawk and the author’s struggle with grief, mourning the death of her father.

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves (Library book) This is the fifth Vera book and I loved it. It’s so good I read it twice because I watched the TV version after I finished reading the book – and it confused me as it’s different from the book! So I went back and re-read it. It is so much better than the TV adaptation, which I think suffered from being condensed into just one hour and a half length programme.

Poirot and Me by David Suchet (Library book, Non Fiction) – this consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. This is a fascinating account of both the Poirot series and of David Suchet’s career.

I have no difficulty this month with naming my favourite book of the month. All the time I was reading it I was thoroughly absorbed and intrigued by Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves.

Poirot and Me by David Suchet and Geoffrey Wansell

Prologue

It is a damp, chill Friday morning in November and I am feeling old, very old; so old, indeed, that I am on the brink of death. I have lost two stone in weight, my face is the colour of aged parchment, and my hands are gnarled  like human claws.

I must have watched nearly all, if not all, of David Suchet’s performances as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. For me he was the perfect Poirot, so it was a given that I would read his autobiography, Poirot and Me, written with the help of his friend Geoffrey Wansell. And it really lives up to its title, as the main subject is David Suchet’s role as Poirot. His first performance as Poirot was in 1988. Over the intervening twenty five years he played the part in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote, with the exception of a tiny short story called The Lemesurier Inheritance (a story in Poirot’s Early Cases and in The Under Dog).

When I started watching the TV dramas it had been years since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I wasn’t aware that the early shows were based on her short stories – actually I didn’t even know then that she had written any short stories at all. I’ve read nearly all of her full length novels, but only a few of her short stories so far.

I think Poirot and Me may not appeal to people who are not readers of Agatha Christie’s books as it consists largely of Suchet’s summaries of the stories and how he went about analysing Poirot’s character and how he played the part. He began by compiling a list of Poirot’s characteristics, then considering his voice and his appearance. He made 92 ‘character points’ and his original list is reproduced in the book, along with photos of locations, the cast and crew.

He was most concerned that his portrayal of Poirot should be faithful to the character that Agatha Christie had created. He immersed himself so completely in the character that at times he didn’t know where Poirot ended and he began! Even so, some of the dramatisations are not strictly faithful to the original stories, for various reasons; additional characters are included and some of the plots are expanded versions, especially where the original short stories were slight. Or, for example, as in the case of the collection of short stories that make up The Twelve Labours of Hercules, the stories are so diverse that the screenwriter created an almost entirely new story, though using some of the characters.

At the end of each of the Poirot series, David Suchet didn’t know if any more were in the pipeline and he continued to play other parts in film,  on TV and on the stage. I found this just as interesting as the sections on his role as Poirot and it emphasises his qualities as an actor –  he is a ‘character’ actor, a Shakespearean actor and with the exception of Poirot his roles have been pretty dark and menacing parts. I particularly remember him in Blott on the Landscape, in which he played the malevolent gardener and in The Way We Live Now as the sinister financier Melmotte.

He thinks the charm of the Poirot stories is that

… they reveal a world where manners and morals are quite different from today. There are no overt or unnecessary sex scenes, no alcoholic, haunted detectives in Poirot’s world. He lives in a simpler, some would say more human, era; a lost England, seen through the admiring eyes of this foreigner, this little Belgian detective. For me, that makes the stories all the more appealing, for although the days he lives in seem far away, they are all the more enchanting because of it. (page 64 in the hardback edition)

I think so too – and I think the same charm and appeal can be found in the Miss Marple stories.

David Suchet wrote that when Hercule Poirot died on that late November afternoon in 2012 (as he filmed Curtain) a part of him died, but for me and doubtless for many others, Poirot lives on not just in Agatha Christie’s stories but also in David Suchet’s wonderful performances as his ‘cher ami‘, Hercule Poirot.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages (also available in paperback and on Kindle)
  • Publisher: Headline; 1st edition (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0755364198
  • ISBN-13: 978-0755364190
  • Source: my local library

This Week in Books: 20 May 2015

My week in books

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next. A similar meme is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now:

I’m currently  reading three books.

Golden Age etc

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards – the story of detective fiction written by the authors in the Detection Club between the two World Wars.  I’m reading this slowly, enjoying all the details about authors whose books I’ve read such as Agatha Christie and authors I’ve only heard of. I can see I’m going to have a long list of books to read by the end of this book.

Harbour Streetthe sixth Vera Stanhope murder mystery by Ann Cleeves. In Newcastle, Detective Joe Ashworth and his daughter Jessie travel home on the busy Metro. The train is stopped unexpectedly, and Jessie sees that one woman doesn’t leave with the other passengers: Margaret Krukowski has been fatally stabbed. This was adapted for television and I watched it when it was first broadcast last year but can’t remember the identity of the murderer!

Poirot and Me by David Suchet – his account of how he came to play Hercule Poirot in TV’s Agatha Christie’s Poirot in 1988 until the final episode in 2013. I think I must have watched all the episodes, some more than once and it’s interesting to get David Suchet’s perspective.

Then:

A few days ago I finished reading Dry Bones That Dream by Peter Robinson, a DCI Banks Mystery. I wrote about it earlier this week in this post.

Next:

As usual I’m not sure what I’ll read next. I’m very tempted to read one of the books I added to the TBR piles yesterday when I went to Barter Books in Alnwick. Yesterday was also the fortnightly visit of the library van and I collected three books I’d reserved- I’ll do a separate post about all these books.

The one that is calling to me right now is The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey. This is the fourth Maeve Kerrigan book and I’ve read the first three.

Maeve is investigating the murders of three women who have been strangled in their homes by the same killer. It appears that they knew their killer and had let him in.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

I read Nothing To be Frightened Of over several weeks, reading short sections at a time. This book is described on the back cover by Penelope Lively as:

A maverick form of family memoir that is mainly an extended reflection on the fear of death and on that great consolation, religious belief … it is entertaining, intriguing, absorbing … an inventive and invigorating slant on what is nowadays called “life writing”.

It is a collection of thoughts centred around Barnes’s fear of death and so inevitably he considers the question of religion and especially God – in fact he begins his book with this statement: I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.

Later, he writes, Missing God is rather like Being English, a feeling aroused mainly by attack. When my country is abused, a dormant, if not to say narcoleptic, patriotism stirs. And when it comes to God, I find myself more provoked by atheistic absolutism than by, say, the often bland, tentative hopefulness of the Church of England. (page 77)

His agnosticism doesn’t help him with his fear of dying, but then, again, he thinks that faith does not necessarily remove the fear of death anyway – there are those who fear death among those who have faith as well as among the irreligious.

But this is more than a book about dying because interwoven with his thoughts about his agnosticism and death are anecdotes about his family and himself, thoughts on literature (particularly French literature) and it’s relationship to life. I found it all fascinating,  but it’s his autobiographical passages that I found the most interesting, sharing details about his family’s beliefs and the deaths of his parents and grandparents, of the rivalry between him and his brother, his mother’s solipsism and manipulative behaviour, his father’s seemingly passive approach to life and the difficulties of really knowing a person.

He states that it is easier with fiction than with life – fictional characters are easier to see, whereas in real life ‘the better you know someone , the less well often you see them. … They may be so close as to be out of focus … Often when we talk about someone very familiar, we are referring back to the time when we first properly saw them, when they were held in the most useful -and flattering light – light at the correct focal distance.’ (page 157)

He and his brother have different memories of their parents and grandparents and of their own early relationship, which shows how unreliable memory can be. I suppose I agree more with his brother, the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, who thinks that memories are often false and not to be trusted without external support, rather than Julian, who says he is more trusting, or self deluding, so shall continue as all my memories are true.

This is by no means a gloomy, pessimistic book.  It’s written in an informal tone, almost as though he is talking to the reader, and not being divided into chapters adds to that sense of being involved in a conversation. But is far from being a simple read – there is an awful lot packed into this book, an intensely personal book that reflects the complexity of our views of life and death. It gave me much to think about and even made me chuckle in parts.

And finally thinking about being remembered/forgotten after his death, Barnes considers who will be his last reader because with that reader he will finally be forgotten – and then he reflects that your last reader is, by definition, someone who didn’t recommend your books to anyone else. You bastard! Not good enough, eh? (page 226)

I think it extremely unlikely that I’ll be his last reader!

Reading Challenge: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015. This is only the 5th non fiction book I’ve read so far this year!

Stacking the Shelves

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

This is my first entry in Stacking the Shelves. These are last week’s new arrivals:

In the heart of the sea

First ‘real’ books. It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and my son bought me this book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick – wonderful!

From the back cover:

The sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex by an enraged spermwhale far out in the Pacific in November 1820 set in train one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time. Accounts of the unprecedented whale attack inspired Herman Melville’s mighty novel Moby Dick, but In the Heart of the Sea goes beyond these events to describe what happened when the twenty mixed-race crewmen took to three small boats and what, three months later, the whaleship Dauphin, cruising off the coast of South America, discovered when it spotted a tiny boat sailing erratically across an open ocean.

The other books in the photo above are library books:

  • Collins Artist’s Little Book of Inspiration by Hazel Soan – a lovely little book looking at the basics elements of a painting using watercolours, oils and acrylics, with demonstrations and projects to try. I like just looking at the paintings!
  • The Reckoning by Jane Casey, the second in her Maeve Kerrigan series. I reserved this because I’d enjoyed the first one, The Burning and wanted to read more. This one begins with the murders of two paedophiles.
  • Conan Doyle: the Man who Created Sherlock Holmes by Andrew Lycett. This book was on a display stand and even though it’s a huge, heavy book I fancied reading it. It was probably on display following the  recent TV drama Arthur and George, which I enjoyed. I read Julian Barnes’ book of the same name some years ago, which pre-dates this biography.

When Lovereading offered a review copy of Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring I didn’t hesitate because I’d loved Rosemary Goring’s earlier novel, After Flodden.

Dacres War

Dacre’s War is set 10 years after the battle of Flodden in the Scottish and English borders, a story of ‘personal and political vengeance’ as Adam Crozier sets out to take revenge on Lord Thomas Dacre, who had ordered the death of his father. It’s due to be published on 14 May 2015.

Lastly, the latest ebook I’ve downloaded is today’s Kindle Daily Deal, Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga. A. N. Wilson ‘was absolutely mesmerized by this novel’ and thinks ‘that Aravind Adiga is already, with this, his second book, the most exciting novelist writing in English today.’ 

Last Man in Tower

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

I wanted to read a novel by a local author so I checked the library website for North East writers, where I found Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton.

Summary from the book cover:

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.

When 1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley.

Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice.

But William is struggling with demons of his own–he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife.’Catching the Eagle’, the first novel in the Regency Reivers series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

This is not just by a local author, and set in Northumberland, it is also based on a true story –  that of Karen Charlton’s husband’s ancestors.

I liked the opening of Catching the Eagle beginning with a Prologue, setting the scene as an eagle soared over the Northumberland landscape:

… its huge shadow caressed the ruined walls of crumbling castles and the creaking rotting stumps of ancient gibbets.The eagle plucked unsuspecting prey from the bleak, snow-covered fells and drank from remote rocky waterfalls dripping with golden daggers.

It landed in a tree above a labourer’s cottage where Jamie Charlton lived with his wife Priscilla and their children. I like Karen Charlton’s leisurely descriptive style of writing and found the whole book to be fascinating.  She has written an even-handed account of the robbery and the subsequent trials, so much so that I began to wonder whether Jamie Charlton was innocent or guilty, although you know from the outset that he was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money? And what will happen to the eagle?

This is the type of historical fiction that I like. The characters come across as real people, with real problems in a real time and place (Northumberland 1809 – 1811). It highlights the social and cultural setting. Jamie was without influence or money behind him up against a judicial system run by people with power who needed to find a culprit. His family suffered along with him as he languished in goal in squalor, where he was caged as he awaited trial – not once, but twice.

I wondered whether Stephen Lavender, the detective employed by  Nathaniel Ogle, the owner of Kirkley Hall was also a real historical figure. Karen Charlton has also written Seeking Our Eagle, another fascinating book, an account of how she came to write Catching the Eagle whilst researching her husband’s family history.  And yes, Stephen Lavender did exist and he was a detective. He later became the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester after the formation of the police force by Sir Robert Peel.

Indeed reading Catching the Eagle reminded me of The Suspicions of Samuel Whicher by Kate Summerscale, featuring Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, the book that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.

Karen Charlton has done her research very well and has written a novel full of intrigue, tension and realism that kept me captivated from start to finish. See her website, Karen Charlton, to read more about Karen and her books.

She has also written The Heiress of Linn Hagh, a spin-off novel from Catching the Eagle, which features Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick, Constable Woods. And there are more Detective Lavender Series books on the way!

Catching the Eagle:

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1 edition (19 July 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0992803640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992803643
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Source: Library book

Seeking the Eagle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1969 KB
  • Print Length: 166 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1st edition (7 Aug. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008UZYOR2
  • Source: I bought it

As always I didn’t read either book just for any Reading Challenges, but Catching the Eagle does fit very well into a couple – the 2015  Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge, in the book with an animal in the title category and Seeking Our Eagle into the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright

I’ve left it a bit too long to write about Spilling the Beans, Clarissa Dickson Wright’s autobiography because I’ve now forgotten much of the detail.  It’s a book I really enjoyed, but I finished it nearly two weeks ago! I’ve  been feeling a bit under the weather recently with a rotten cold and although I have been reading I haven’t been able to summon up enough mental energy to write much!

I quoted from the opening of the book in this post, with these details about Clarissa:

Clarissa Dickson Wright was an English celebrity chef – one of the Two Fat Ladies, a television personality, writer, businesswoman, and former barrister. She died last year on 15 March in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Clarissa was a huge character in more than her size! Her autobiography is fascinating, coming from a privileged and wealthy background she had a difficult childhood- her father, a well respected surgeon was also an alcoholic who beat his wife and Clarissa.

After her mother died she took comfort from alcohol and at the mid point of the book she was as she described it ‘sunk in gin’ and homeless. I am looking forward to reading about her road to recovery.

In the rest of the book she described her period of homelessness, sleeping on benches in the Victoria Coach Station for two nights, but spending the rest of the time staying with friends, until she took jobs in domestic service, where she learned to cook. I liked her attitude to being a servant:

I have never understood the aversion to domestic service … I am not sufficiently bourgeoise to worry about my place in the class system and if you don’t understand this, well, that’s your problem. I had no sense of downshifting; maybe I should have had but pragmatism is the saving of many an alcoholic. (page 154)

She then went on to tell about her ‘dark night of the soul’ and her time at addiction centres, the treatment and her eventual recovery. All this took years and she was very honest and open.

She also wrote about her bookselling experience – all totally news to me – her time at ‘Cooks for Books’ changed her life and later after she had moved to Scotland in the late 1980s  she ran the Cook’s Bookshop in Edinburgh near the Grassmarket. She was declared bankrupt three times, was rector of Aberdeen University for six years. And then, of course, there were her TV shows – Two Fat Ladies, with Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa and The Countryman with Johnny Scott. She was a staunch supporter of the Countryside Alliance, against the ban on foxhunting .

Despite all her difficulties and her alcoholism this is an upbeat autobiography, ending on a positive note: “Believe me on one thing: I have a splendidly enjoyable life”. And believe me this is  a ‘splendidly enjoyable’ autobiography.

My copy is a hardback book, which I bought, but it is also available in paperback and ebook.

Note: I didn’t read this book to meet any challenges, but it does:

There is a spot just by the Scots Border at Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the train passes a stretch of the sea coast. Looking out of the window I felt, Oh it’s so lovely to be home, and if it’s home, I thought, I’d better stay and I have been here ever since. (page 225)

For another review see Cath’s blog Read Warbler.

Book Beginnings: Spilling the Beans

As I have several books on the go right now (listed on the side bar), it will be some time before I can write a full post about any of them. So I thought I give a taster of one of them to be going on with.

It’s Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright, her autobiography. It begins:

I was conceived in a bath in Norfolk in September 1946. How can I know? Well my mother told me. As she put it they were all exhausted after the war and there weren’t that many opportune occasions. I was born in the London Clinic on 24 June 1947 and my first journey in the world was in a London taxi. My mother had become bored waiting for my father to collect us, so she wrapped me in a blanket, went outside, hailed a taxi and took me home, leaving the luggage for my father to pick up later. The only really good advice my mother ever gave me was, ‘If in doubt take a taxi,’ and I have followed it ever since.

Clarissa Dickson Wright was an English celebrity chef – one of the Two Fat Ladies, a television personality, writer, businesswoman, and former barrister. She died last year on 15 March in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Clarissa was a huge character in more than her size! Her autobiography is fascinating, coming from a privileged and wealthy background she had a difficult childhood- her father, a well respected surgeon was also an alcoholic who beat his wife and Clarissa.

I’ve been reading this book slowly over the last few weeks and have read nearly half of it. After her mother died she took comfort from alcohol and at the mid point of the book she was as she described it ‘sunk in gin’ and homeless. I am looking forward to reading about her road to recovery.

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope

The primary object of a novelist is to please

2015 is the bicentenary of Anthony Trollope’s birth on 24th April 1815, and  the Trollope Society and other organisations (such as the British Library, the Post Office, the BBC, the Catholic University of Leuven and Oxford University) have planned a whole series of events to celebrate this anniversary.

But I didn’t know that when I began reading his Autobiography. I found it absolutely fascinating, even though I’ve only read two of his books, The Warden and The Way We Live Now, both of which I enjoyed.

Autobiography Trollope 001

(The link above is to the latest edition, edited by Nicolas Shrimpton and published in October 2014 which includes some of his other writings – my copy is a paperback in The World’s Classic series, edited by Michael Sadler and Frederick Page, first published in 1930, reprinted in 1989, shown above.)

I’d almost forgotten about his Autobiography because I’ve  had it for so long. Although it was new when I bought it the pages are now yellowed and the paperback a bit worn and damaged from moving house. I bought it when I was doing an Open University course and my tutor was an avid fan of Trollope. Part of the reason it has sat unread on my shelves is that when I bought it I hadn’t read any of Trollope’s books and I thought it would be better if I knew a bit about his work before reading about his life. So now I’ve read two and have started reading Barchester Towers I decided it was time to read it.

Anthony Trollope was the son of an unsuccessful barrister and had a miserable childhood, his family most often in debt and struggling to make ends met. It was his mother who supported the family through her writing. He was unhappy at school where he was bullied, always in disgrace and had no friends. When he was 19 he became a clerk in the London Post Office, eventually  becoming a Surveyor, working in both Ireland and England and he introduced the red pillar boxes to Britain.

I found it fascinating because it is not only his life story – his unhappy childhood, his work in the Post Office, including his work in Ireland and abroad, his marriage and family life and his love of hunting, but Trollope also writes a lot about his writing, criticises his own books and discusses his fellow writers in a chapter called ‘On English Novelists of the Present Day’, including – Thackeray, George Elliot, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Brontë to name but a few.

Remarkably whilst he was working full time he was also writing his novels. His practice was to get up at 5.30 am and work for 3 hours before dressing for breakfast. He wrote with his watch before him, writing 250 words every 15 minutes. But he didn’t confine his writing to the early hours he also wrote whilst travelling on trains, making a ‘tablet’ to write on and ‘found that after a few days’ exercise that I could write as quickly n a railway-carriage as I could at my desk. I worked with a pencil, and what I wrote my wife copied afterwards.’ He included a list of the books he had written with the dates of publication and the sums he had received for them, totalling £68, 959 17 shillings and 5 pence.

But he wasn’t just a remarkably disciplined writer, he was a writer who made his characters come alive – I can see that in just the two books I’ve read. When I went to see Hilary Mantel at the Borders Book Festival she said that she lives in a parallel world in the present and in the world of Cromwell and Henry VIII, plus all the characters, at one and the same time. It is always with her. So it was with Trollope. Here he writes about how an author can make characters ‘speaking, moving, living, human creatures’:

They must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them. He must argue with them, quarrel with them, forgive them, and even submit to them. He must know of them whether they be cold-blooded or passionate, whether true or false, and how far true and how far false. The depth and the breadth, and the narrowness and the shallowness of each should be clear to him.

I have lived with my characters … I may say that I know the tone of voice, and the colour of the hair, every flame of the eye, and the very clothes that they wear. Of every man I could assert whether he would have said those words; of every woman, whether she would then have smiled or so have frowned. (page 233)

Here are some more passages I marked as I read the book that I thought interesting (there are many more!):

An author can hardly hope to be popular unless he can use popular language. (page 176)

His language must come from him as music comes from the rapid touch of the great performer’s fingers; as words come from the mouth of the indignant orator; as letters fly from the fingers of the trained compositor; as the syllables tinkled out by little bells form themselves to the ear of the telegraphist. (page 177)

Short novels are not popular with readers generally. Critics often complain of the ordinary length of novels, – of the three volumes to which they are subjected; but few novels which have attained great success in England have been told in fewer pages. (page 237)

And as my blog is called BooksPlease I was delighted to read this sentence:

The primary object of a novelist is to please … (page 248)

Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2015

I wasn’t going to take part in any more challenges this year – I’m probably doing too many – but when I saw this Nonfiction Challenge, hosted by The Introverted Reader I thought it could encourage me to read my non-fiction books. It runs between 1 January to 31 December 2015. You can sign up any time throughout the year.

Unlike some of the challenges I’ve joined this one really is a challenge for me, because although I like to read non-fiction I often find my self opting for fiction.

Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Challenge:  Read any non-fiction book(s), adult or young adult.That’s it. You can choose anything. Memoirs, History, Travel – absolutely anything that is classified as non-fiction counts for this challenge.

The levels:

Dilettante–Read 1-5 non-fiction books

Explorer–Read 6-10

Seeker–Read 11-15

Master–Read 16-20

I am aiming at the Seeker level and hoping to read more than 12 books (my total for last year!)

See my progress page here.

Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

Wilkie CollinsOn Thursday I finished reading Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd and it was also the anniversary of his birth – he was born in Marylebone at a house in New Cavendish Street on 8 January 1824.

I’ve read just two of Wilkie Collins’ books – The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and this year I hope to read more. I knew that he was a friend of Charles Dickens, but that was about all I knew of him. Peter Ackroyd’s biography looked as though it could be a good book to start with. And it is – it’s short, just over 200 pages, very readable and a clear and concise account of Collins’ life and work.

Wilkie’s father was William Collins, an English painter, a member of the Royal Academy, who specialised in landscapes and seascapes. He was christened William Wilkie – Wilkie after his godfather, the painter Sir David Wilkie.

Ackroyd’s account may be brief but he gives details of Wilkie’s childhood, his schooldays – the books he liked as a child – The Arabian Nights, Robin Hood and Don Quixote, books by Sir Walter Scott and he admired Byron. He moves on through Wilkie’s struggle to become a writer, his friendship with Charles Dickens, his travels abroad, his unconventional life style, never marrying but living with Caroline Graves for thirty years whilst having a liaison with Martha Rudd, his ill health and reliance on laudanum, his tour of America, his relationships with and views about women and their place in society, as well as discussing his short stories, articles, novels and plays.

Wilkie Collins died on 23 September 1889 after a year in which he had suffered from neuralgic attacks, a stroke that paralysed his life side and affected his brain, and a bout of bronchitis, but he  had still carried on writing.

I marked several passages as I was reading. Here are just a few of them:

He was essentially liberal in his social and political views, averse to coercion and conflict; he showed some sympathy with the principles of socialism as it was then understood, and was instinctively on the side of the oppressed. (page 46)

He might best be described as a Christian humanist who accepted Christ as his Saviour but detested all formal and outward shows of religion. He preserved his particular wrath for evangelicals. … he was not an atheist. He rarely entered a church, and his actual beliefs are hard, if not impossible, to unravel. (page 47)

He may have believed with Charles II that God would not punish him for a few sins of pleasure. (page 47)

He lived through a period in which the audience for fiction was rapidly widening, and the novels themselves were increasing in importance. … Novels had become the repository of dreams and ideals, the fantasies and the speculations, of the nation. (page 81)

One of the characters in ‘The Diary of Anne Rodway’ said -‘what I want is something that seizes hold of my interest, and makes me forget when it is time to dress for dinner – something that keeps me reading, reading, reading, in a breathless state to find out the end.’ That is precisely the excitement Collins conveys to his readers. (page 88)

Collins was writing about mysteries ‘deep under the surface’ three decades before Freud began his own enquiries. He was concerned with doubles and double identity, with monomania and delusion. He traced the paths of unconscious associations and occluded memories. (page 93)

It was believed that the ‘detective element’ disqualified the novel as a work of art, when in fact it opened up the way for an entirely new direction in English literature. There had been earlier exercises in the genre, but all of them are inconsiderable besides the over-whelming power and authority of ‘The Moonstone’. Collins’s novel, since its publication in 1868, has never been out of print. (page 132)

There is an awful lot packed into this short biography! And it’s an excellent stepping stone into Wilkie Collins’s novels.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus (23 Feb. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0701169907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701169909
  • Source: a Christmas present

Corvus: A Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson

Corvus by Esther Woolfson is a remarkable book about the birds she has has had living with her; birds that were found out of the nest that would not have survived if she had not taken them in.

‘Corvus’ is a genus of birds including jackdaws, ravens, crows, magpies and rooks. The specific birds Esther Woolfson has looked after are a rook, called Chicken (short for Madame Chickieboumskaya), a young crow, a cockatiel, a magpie, two small parrots and two canaries. But it all started with doves, which live in an outhouse, converted from a coal store into a dove-house, or as they live in Aberdeen in Scotland, a doo’cot.

Although the book is mainly about the rook, Chicken, Esther Woolfson also writes in detail about natural history, the desirability or otherwise of keeping birds, and a plethora of facts about birds, their physiology, mechanics of flight, bird song and so on. As with all good non-fiction Corvus has an extensive index, which gives a good idea of the scope of the book. Here are just a few entries for example under ‘birds’ the entries include – aggression in, evolution of, navigation, in poetry, speeds of, vision, wildness of, wings’

It’s part memoir and part nature study and for me it works best when Esther Woolfson is writing about Chicken and the other birds living in her house, how she fed them, cleared up after them, and tried to understand them. Although at times I had that feeling I get when I visit a zoo – these are wild birds kept captivity and I’m not very comfortable with that, I am reassured by Esther Woolfson’s clarification that reintroducing these birds to the wild was unlikely to be successful and indeed they lived longer than they would have done in the wild. Though Chicken and Spike (and the other birds) live domesticated lives they are still wild birds:

I realise that if ‘wild’ was once the word for Chicken, it still is, for nothing in her or about her contains any of the suggestions hinted at by the word ‘tame’. Chicken, Spike, Max, all the birds I have known over the years, live or lived their lives as they did by necessity or otherwise, but were and are not ‘tame’. They are afraid of the things they always were, of which their fellow corvids are, judiciously, sensibly; of some people, of hands and perceived danger, of cats and hawks, of things they do not know and things of which I too am afraid. ‘Not tamed or diminished’. (pages 115-6)

At times, where Esther Woolfson goes into intricate detail, for example in the chapter on ‘Of Flight and Feathers‘ I soon became completely out of my depth, lost in the infinity of specialised wing shapes and the complexities of the structure of feathers. But that is a minor criticism, far out weighed by her acute observations of the birds, her joy in their lives and her grief at their deaths – her description of Spike’s unexpected death and her reaction is so moving:

I wept the night he died. Sitting in bed, filled with the utter loss of his person, I felt diminished, bereft. I talked about him, but not very much, in the main to members of the family, who felt the same, but to few others.

It’s the only way, this compact and measured grief, for those of us who are aware that there has to be proportion in loss and mourning; we laugh at ourselves for our grief, trying to deal with this feeling that is different in quality, incomparable with the loss of a human being.

We felt – we knew – that something immeasurable had gone. (page 209)

Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved animal can recognise that sense of loss.

Corvus is a beautiful book and I have learned so much by reading it. I must also mention the beautiful black and white illustrations by Helen Macdonald – I think this is the Helen Macdonald who was awarded the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for H is For Hawk.

Esther Woolfson was brought up in Glasgow and studied Chinese at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Edinburgh University. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on Radio 4. She has won prizes for both her stories and her nature writing and has been the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council Travel Grant and a Writer’s Bursary. Her latest book, Field Notes from a Hidden City (Granta Books), was shortlisted for the 2014 Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. She lives in Aberdeen. For more information see her website.

Books Read in October

October was a bumper reading month for me. I read 11 books and 1 novella and reviewed all of them except one – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, which was a re-read. Two books are non-fiction, and 2 books are from my TBR shelves.

I’ve included a brief description of each book, for the full posts click on the book titles.

  1. The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier – TBR – this is fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them.  It didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
  2. The Lake District Murder by John Bude – first published in 1935, this is a police procedural, showing in intricate detail how the detectives investigate a crime. In this case a body is discovered in a car outside a lonely garage on a little used road.
  3. The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie, one of the earlier of her books, first published in the UK in 1931 and in the US as Murder at Hazelmoor, featuring Inspector Narracott. It begins with a seance, or rather a table-turning session which tells of the death of Captain Trevelyan.
  4. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel – a collection of short stories that are brooding, somewhat melancholic, dark, disturbing and full of sharp and penetrating observations.
  5. A Short Book about Drawing by Andrew Marr – NF – not an instruction book, but it’s full of insight into what happens when you draw and it’s dotted throughout with personal information.
  6. Almost Invincible: a biographical novel of Mary Shelley by Suzanne Burdon – a remarkable novel about Mary Shelley’s life and relationship with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a story of scandal, love and loss. 
  7. Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne – a time-slip story with an element of mystery and suspense set in York in the 1870s and the modern day.
  8. In Our Time by Melvyn Bragg – NF, TBR -transcript of the Radio 4 programme covering a wide variety of subjects including the history of ideas – philosophy, physics, history, religion, literature and science.
  9. Cauldstane by Linda Gillard – a ghost story, set in a Scottish tower house in the Highlands where a malign presence threatens the MacNab family and ghost writer Jenny Ryan.
  10. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – a review may follow.
  11. A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigate the murder of Enoch J Drebber, an American found dead in the front room of an empty house off the Brixton Road,  with the word “RACHE” scrawled in blood on the wall beside the body.
  12. She Never Came Home by Dorte Hummelshøj Jacobsen (novella) – ghost story with a chilling atmosphere and shocking twist at the end.

With such a variety of books it’s impossible to pick a book of the month, but in particular both the non-fiction books are excellent:

In our time

and in fiction,  Hilary Mantel’s book of short stories and Suzanne Burdon’s autobiographical novel of Mary Shelley are two that still linger in my memory:

Mantel & Burdon

In Our Time edited by Melvyn Bragg

I began reading In Our Time, A Companion to the Radio 4 series back in August and I’ve been reading short sections on most days since then, finally finishing it this morning. It is long book and I didn’t want to read it quickly.

Melvyn Bragg has selected episodes on a wide variety of subjects encompassing the history of ideas – philosophy, physics, history, religion, literature and science. This book contains transcripts of 26 programmes, a selection from hundreds of programmes broadcast over eleven years. The benefit of having it in book form means that it’s easy to pause, think, or re-read to make sure I was understanding the subject as much as possible.

The programmes are listed on the back cover – Darwin was covered by four programmes:

In Our Time P1010233
Click to enlarge

With such a wide range of subjects it’s not so surprising that I found some more interesting than others, but I was surprised that some that didn’t appeal from the titles were actually fascinating and I now know more about black holes and antimatter than before – how much I can remember is another matter! I’m not alone in this, as Bragg said in the Afterword, his:

… only regret is that in the more testing subject areas he finds that his memory after the programme will not retain some or even much of what made the programme intriguing. (pages 573-4)

But it’s there in print, so I can refresh my memory at any time! I liked the fact that these are transcripts, not formal lectures, so that it comes across as conversations between experts with Bragg, every now and then asking the questions that someone like me, not knowing much about the subject, would want to ask. An ideal book for an eclectic reader!

It’s not easy to pick out highlights as there are so many that fascinated me. As Halloween is approaching I’m remembering the chapter on ‘Witchcraft’, but others as diverse as ‘Tea’, ‘Socrates’ and the four ‘Darwin’ programmes also stand out. And where else could you go from ‘Agincourt’ to ‘Plate Tectonics’?

In Our Time is broadcast each Thursday at 9am on BBC Radio 4. This week’s episode was ‘Rudyard Kipling’. This and all the other programmes are available as downloads.

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (17 Sep 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0340977507
  • ISBN-13: 978-0340977507
  • Source: my own copy

A Short Book About Drawing by Andrew Marr

I have called this a “A Short Book About Drawing” because that’s what it is. But it is also a book about being happy and the importance of drawing and making, for a happy life. I’ve written books about all sorts of things, but I have never enjoyed one as much as this. (Introduction, page 8)

Reading this book was a pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed it – it made me happy and it encouraged me to carry on with my drawing. It’s not an instruction book, but it’s full of insight into what happens when you draw and it’s dotted throughout with personal information, such as how Marr began drawing, like most of us at school, what he drew, and how he lingered over drawings and paintings, going to exhibitions such as those at the Royal Scottish Academy.

He refers to artists and their paintings without including illustrations – the only paintings/drawings are his own!  He writes that ‘there isn’t a single drawing here I would regard as a real work of art, but I think most of them will encourage people to try for themselves.’  

He draws most days. This book was written not long before Marr suffered a stroke and it was only after he found himself drawing again – on his iPad – that he began to feel himself again. I would have liked more details about his drawings, about the medium he used –  some are obviously digital, and others are pencil sketches, but others are less obvious, maybe pen and wash?

It is a short book – just 144 pages – but there is a lot packed into those pages. Here are some more quotations that give a flavour of the book:

Chapter 2 ‘On Drawing and Happiness’:

Flow is the proposition that we are happiest when concentrating as much as possible on something that’s both quite hard  and for which we have an aptitude. … Drawing is a source of happiness and inner strength not because it is easy but because it is hard. (pages 30 -35)

Chapter 8 ‘When Did Normal People Start Drawing’. This is a very interesting chapter moving through the centuries and countries until the 1700s in London when

… the real drawing craze spreads from small numbers of enthusiasts to the new middle classes.

Marr states:

Drawing will make you a better person – not morally, necessarily, but it makes you think. It will help you see the hidden patterns all around you, and make you a discriminating lover of landscape, faces and mundane objects. It becomes an education, which changes your brain as much as learning to play the piano or to dance. It is about striving to become more fully human. (page 90)

Today we have been well educated to understand that most of us cannot draw. In the nineteenth century, foolish folk, they did not realise this, so they went off and drew anyway. (page 92)

A Short Book About Drawing is a special book. I thoroughly recommend it.

I read it because I love art, but after I finished reading I realised that it is another book, and a very different one, for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge as

‘Andrew Marr was born in Glasgow in 1959. He studied English at the University of Cambridge and has since enjoyed a long career in political journalism, working for the Scotsman, the Independent, the Daily Express and the Observer. From 2000 to 2005 he was the BBC’s Political Editor. He has written and presented TV documentaries on history, science and politics, and presents the weekly Andrew Marr Show on Sunday mornings on BBC1 and Start the Week on Radio 4. Andrew lives in London with his family.’ (copied from the back cover)

Mount TBR: Checkpoint #3

It’s time for the third quarterly checkpoint in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2014
Bev asks 2 questions:
 
1. Tell us how many miles you’ve made it up your mountain (# of books read).  

I have read 40 books. The full list is on my TBR Challenge page. In terms of how many mountains I’ve scaled this means that I have just 8 books left to read to reach my target of Mt Ararat (48 books) by the end of the year. Looking at the photo from Wikipedia I think I’m probably at the top of the Lesser Ararat. I should reach Greater Ararat by the end of the year if not earlier. 

2. Pair up two of your reads using whatever connection you want to make. Written by the same author? Same genre? Same color cover? Both have a main character named Clarissa? Tell us the books and what makes them a pair.

It was obvious when I looked at my list which two books make a pair:

Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor and Shakespeare: a Biography by Peter Ackroyd. Both books are non-fiction and obviously about Shakespeare and they complement each other very well.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is a beautiful book recreating Shakespeare’s world through examining twenty objects. It reveals so much about the people who lived then, who went to see Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s and 1600s, and about their ideas and living conditions.

And Shakespeare: a Biography is structured mainly around the plays.  But above all, Ackroyd Shakespeareit places Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. 

Sunday Selection

I’m currently reading The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier and Almost Invincible: a biographical novel of Mary Shelley.  But I like to think about the books I’ve got waiting to be read. They are:

books for Oct 2014

  • The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie – set in a remote house in the middle of Dartmoor, a group of six people gather round a table for a séance. The spirits spell out a chilling message of murder. This is an early Agatha Christie book, first published in 1931 and is one I’ve been looking for, for ages.
  • A Short Book about Drawing by Andrew Marr. This is a library book and I have already flipped through it and read little bits. It has colour photos of his paintings along with his ideas about the differences between fine art and drawing, the mechanics of drawing and how drawing and painting can help us to think and see the world differently and so on. It looks fascinating and I’ll read this very soon I think.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – this is free on Kindle at the moment. I know that other book bloggers like Robin Hobbs’ books and I’ve been thinking of trying one myself. This one is the first in the Farseer Trilogy. I’m not sure what to expectIf you’ve read it what do you think?
  • The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland. Another library book I’ve borrowed – this one from the mobile library. I loved Company of Liars and The Owl Killers, so I’m expecting great things from this book – I hope I won’t be disappointed. It’s set in the reign of Richard II, the time of the Peasants Revolt, a time of murder and mayhem and when suspicions of witchcraft were high as people started to die unnatural deaths.

The thing is that I want to read them all right now!

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Stone circles are amongst the most tangible and durable connections to the past. They have fascinated me ever since I was a young teenager and saw Stonehenge. We were on our way to Girl Guide camp in the New Forest, travelling overnight by coach from Cheshire and reached Stonehenge just before dawn. I was just about awake as we scrambled down from the coach and made our way over the field to be at Stonehenge as the sun came up. It was magical.

We were the only people there and in those days Stonehenge was fully accessible. I’ve been there since, and seen it on TV but I am so glad I had that experience before full access to Stonehenge was available, before there was a carpark and a visitor centre, shop and café. Now you can only view the stones from a short distance away along a tarmac pathway – after you’ve planned your visit in advance, parked your car and been driven 10 minutes by a shuttle bus, because entry to Stonehenge is by timed tickets. (Access is free at the solstices.)  I understand the need for all this but it still makes me shudder.

When I discovered that there is a stone circle near Keswick I was keen to go there whilst we were staying in the Lake District last week. Although there were more people at Castlerigg Stone Circle than I would have liked I really did appreciate the informality of the site.  There are no restrictions and you can wander around the stones as much you like. I suppose you’d have to get there at dawn or at least a lot earlier than we did to be there on your own.

Castlerigg is set on a plateau near Keswick, surrounded by hills, including Skiddaw and Blencathra. There is no carpark, visitor centre or shop – and I hope it stays that way. You can park in a little lane, where there was an ice-cream van selling delicious home-made ice-cream on the day we were there.

This was our first sight of the stones:

Approaching Castlerigg Stone Circle (1)  P1010056

Stone circles are ancient monuments. There are over 50 stone circles in the Lake District, made with locally available stones. Nobody knows what their function was, although there is much debate about whether they had a ritual and religious use, an astronomical significance or an economic function.

Castlerigg dates from around 5,200 BC which makes it older than the pyramids! Here is part of the circle. It is about 30 metres in diameter, which makes it quite difficult to take photos of the whole circle:

Castlerigg view 2

As you can see that the stones vary in size. The tallest stone is 2.3 metres and the largest weighs about 16 tonnes.

Castlerigg P1010061

And here are two photos of parts of the interpretation boards:

Int Bd Castlerigg P1010051

Int Bd Castlerigg P1010052

Castlerigg Stone Circle is described A Guide to the Stone Circles of the Lake District by David Watson, published in 2009 with colour photographs, maps and directions to the sites. The cover photo shows Castlerigg Stone Circle.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Melinda’s blog West Metro Mommy Reads.

My Sunday Selection

I haven’t been writing many blog posts recently for a number of reasons – one being the length of some of the books I’m reading.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for example at 771 pages is not a quick read. I’m nearing the end on page 623, but even so my Kindle tells me that it will take me another 2 hours and 38 minutes to finish the book. I’m not sure I really like this feature, maybe it sounds better saying I’ve read 81%, or that I have 148 pages left to read! I began to think this book was too long ages ago, with too much description and too many minor characters, but then I come across sections that have me gripped and wanting to carry on regardless. So, I will be glad to finish it – the story could really have been over pages ago!

One of the other books I’m reading is also long at nearly 600 pages. This is non-fiction, though, and I’m deliberately taking it slowly, reading short sections most days. It’s In Our Time edited by Melvyn Bragg, which has episodes from his radio programmes – a selection from several hundred episodes broadcast over eleven years. It’s ideal for anyone, who like me, likes to read a wide variety of subjects. It covers such a wide range of subjects, such as The Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, programmes about Darwin, The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 (I haven’t got to this chapter yet), programmes about the Origins of Mathematics, and Anti Matter, Shakespeare’s Language and J S Mill to mention just a few. My copy is a hardback book, which is a pleasure to read – even if a little heavy to hold, so I can’t read it in bed. I have no idea how long it will take me to finish it, but in contrast to The Goldfinch, I’ll be sorry when I reach the end.

I entered the Classics Club Spin, which gave me Gulliver’s Travels to read by the beginning of October. But, I’ve not even started it yet and can’t see myself reading it soon. I keep getting distracted by other books and wanting to read anything but Gulliver’s Travels. I’ve decided that it’s reading to ‘deadlines’ that is my problem – I don’t like it. Reading is my hobby, something I choose to do in my own time and at my own pace. I occasionally accept review books (and currently I have some still to write about), but I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not a good thing for me to do – so from now on (when I’ve completed the books I’ve accepted) I’m not going to accept any more books for the foreseeable future.

As always I keep looking at my TBRs – those books that I’ve had for a while (years for some of them) and I find myself itching to read them. So this morning whilst my Kindle was re-charging I got Wycliffe and the House of Fear down off the shelves and began that. I think it’s just starting to rain so I’m going to get back to it this afternoon (and maybe read a bit of The Goldfinch too).

Lights Out

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 1914

Today it is exactly 100 years since Britain joined the first world war! Everyone in the UK is invited to turn off their lights from 10pm to 11pm, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.

Chronicle of youth 001I’m reading Vera Brittain’s Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary 1913 -1917. On Tuesday August 4th 1914 having heard that Germany had declared war on Belgium she wrote:

Stupendous events come so thick & fast after one another that it is impossible to realise to any extent their full import. One feels as if one were dreaming, or reading a chapter out of one of H G Wells’ books like ‘The War of the Worlds’. To me, who have never known the meaning of war, as I can scarcely remember the South African even, it is incredible to think that there can be fighting off the coast of Yorkshire.

To sum up the situation in any way is impossible, every hour brings fresh and momentous events & one must stand still & await catastrophes even more terrible than the last.

July’s Books

In July I read lots – 11 books. I’ve written about 6 of them (the links underlined go to my posts on the books). For the books without reviews I’ve added a few thoughts in this post, although I do intend to write more fully about some of them later on.

Three of them are TBRs (books I’ve had since before January 2014), which is good, but as I’ve acquired more than three this month the total number of TBRs is rising, not falling! I read three non-fiction and the rest are fiction of various genres.

  1. Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett – a review copy, historical fiction. I thought this portrayal of the Russian Revolution and the effect it had on ordinary people was well done and I did enjoy it.
  2. Casting the Net by Pam Rhodes – a review copy from LibraryThing. A light easy-to-read book that deals with serious issues from the Christian perspective. Life in Dunbridge is far from peaceful and the Neil, the curate has many crises to face, not the least being his vicar’s loss of faith. It’s full of interesting characters, painting a picture of life in a small town.
  3. A Place for Us by Harriet Evans – I received this from Lovereading as a mystery book – no author or title and no publication date. It’s a family saga about the Winters, who at first appear to be the perfect family, but no family can be that perfect and one by one their secrets begin to surface. The book has a slow start as the Winter family is large and it took me a while to get them all clear in my mind. I thought some characters were more fully developed than others, which makes the book rather disjointed. However, after the slow start I soon guessed what the big secret was and I thought it all became too predictable. An entertaining, if undemanding book, which I think could have benefited from being shorter. The book is to be published in 4 parts – Parts 1 and 2 are available now.
  4. Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston – another review copy, this is the story of Joe, living in Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland before the Troubles and the Bloody Sunday attack in 1972.  An engrossing book, the writing is taut and spare and yet poetical, and the scenes standing out vividly in my mind.
  5. Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd  – a fascinating book which enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote. A book I’ve been meaning to read for ages.
  6. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – historical fiction. I really liked this book about the life of Honor Bright after she emigrated from Dorset to America in 1850 where she joined a Quaker community in Ohio. It intertwines her story with that of the ‘Underground Railroad’, helping the runaway slaves from the southern states to escape to Canada.
  7. Wycliffe and the Four Jacks by W J Burley – crime fiction, set in Cornwall. This is a quick read, with plenty of red herrings, but not too difficult to unravel. I enjoyed it.
  8. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling) – crime fiction. I’ll be writing what I think about this book in a separate post.
  9. I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant – an essay of just 28 pages in which Linda Grant tells about moving house and downsizing her considerable book collection to fit into a small flat. I really liked this little e-book.
  10. Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin – I intend to write a separate post for this one too. One of my TBRs it’s a long and detailed biography that taught me a lot about Dickens.
  11. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark -I’ve read this book for the third time now and I still think it is an excellent book. I last read it in July 2008. I may write more in a separate post.

It’s always hard deciding which book I enjoyed this most and this month it’s even more difficult as I enjoyed most of them very much. But, for the second month on the run, it’s non-fiction, and mainly because it is so well researched and detailed – and even more so because it made me want to read more of Charles Dickens’ books it has to be Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin.

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant

Following on from yesterday’s post on books I’ve read recently and not reviewed, I have three more I have not written about and here is one of them:

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant. This is an essay of just 28 pages in which Linda Grant tells about moving house and downsizing her considerable book collection to fit into a small flat. She had had books everywhere:

Books multiplied, books swarmed; they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs. You cannot have a taste for minimalist decor if you seriously read books.

Well, I know all about that and all about trying to find more space for books or to reduce my book collection, so I really liked this little e-book. Linda Grant can read my mind – and those of many other book-lovers, I’m sure – as she went through her books deciding which ones could go. It could be me saying this too:

I am kidding myself if I think that I am going to reread a fraction of the books I have brought with me or a fraction of those I have never got round to reading.

In my youth, I imagined old age and retirement as the time when one sat back, relaxed and read. There would be all the time in the world for reading. Sixty was so far away, and 80 stretching out into a future not imaginable, that you might as well be talking about living forever. Now time gobbles up my life.

I have tried, but I’ve never managed to be as ruthless as she was, never seen empty bookshelves and I doubt I ever will, because there have been so many books I’ve given away only to realise later that I want to re-read/read them, or to look up a reference. So it’s made me think twice, or even ten times before I actually part with a book. And indeed as Linda Grant looks at her shelves of the books she has kept she mourns the ones she killed off!

The Dance of Love by Angela Young

Angela Young‘s new novel The Dance of Love is historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century between 1899 and 1919. It is outstanding and I loved it so much. At times as I read it I could hardly see the pages through my tears – and there have not been many books that have that effect on me.  It’s a brilliant book, both a heart-rending love story and a dramatic story too, as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the devastating and tragic effects of the First World War impact on the characters’ lives.

It’s the story of Natalie, the daughter of Sir Thomas Edwardes, a wealthy business man, a self-made man who is socially unsure of himself, but who wants his daughter to be accepted into society. It begins in 1899, a period when young ladies were presented at Court for the London Season, an opportunity to meet their future husbands. Natalie’s friends, the daughters of Lady Bridewell, are looking forward to the London Season. But Natalie has little desire to be presented at Court, relishing the idea that she would be free to live without such restraints and marry for love, someone who will care for her for herself, not because of her family connections. However, she falls in with her father’s wishes and when she meets a handsome artist-soldier, Lieutenant Haffie, it seems her wish for a happy marriage will come true.

What I really liked about this book is the way historical background is seamlessly interwoven with the narrative and how it captures the changes in society as the years went by. Natalie grows from a young, impulsive teenager with passion for romance and dancing into a responsible young woman whose hopes for a happy marriage are in the balance.  The portrait of the Edwardian upper classes, with their lavish life style, glittering balls and all their extravagances is fascinating, contrasting with the enormous changes in society as the War takes its effect.

I liked all the details about paintings as Haffie shows his work to Natalie – Angela Young’s beautiful descriptions draw such vivid full colour images that I could easily visualise the paintings, which Natalie says are ‘mysteries made of light.’  And her portrayal of the settings, whether in London, Devon or the Scottish Highlands are just as vivid, making this a richly descriptive book.

But it is the effect of the War and the effect on the families of those people travelling across the Atlantic on the Titanic that really brought home to me the whole human tragedy that people lived through, much more than any historical account has done. I think it’s seeing these events through the eyes of the people left at home that has the most impact.

I had enjoyed Angela Young’s first novel, Speaking of Love and so was pleased to accept her offer of an uncorrected proof copy of The Dance of Love. I’m so glad I did as it’s a beautifully written, brilliant book that moved me deeply, and one I shall most definitely re-read (always proof of a good book for me).

The Dance of Love will be published on 31 July 2014.

Shakespeare and The Classics Club’s July question

The question this month is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

This question came at just the right time for me because I’ve just finished reading Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s taken me a long time to read because I began it in March and have been reading it almost daily a few short chapters each day.

Ackroyd Shakespeare I bought the book in Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago after going to the theatre there. I first came across Shakespeare’s plays at school – doesn’t everyone? Years later I took an Open University course and studied more plays and managed to see productions of each one, either at the Barbican in London or at the Stratford.

So, I’m familiar with several plays, which helps enormously with reading Ackoyd’s biography as he has structured it mainly around the plays.  But above all, he has placed Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. My only reservation about it is one I often have when reading biographies – there are inevitably assumptions, those phrases such as ‘must have’  ‘would have’, ‘most likely’, ‘could have’, ‘there is also a possibility that’ and so on that biographers use.

I learnt a lot that I hadn’t known before as my study of Shakespeare hadn’t gone much beyond the plays, and studying them as entities in themselves is not the same as seeing them in their contemporary settings, or as a part of his whole work. I knew very little (or if I did learn anything years ago, I’ve forgotten) for example of the theatrical world, of how the actors worked, their patrons and managers, nor about how Shakespeare interacted with other writers, or of how his work was received by the public and the monarchy. I particularly liked the sections on religion and the religious conflicts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and his discussion about Shakespeare’s own beliefs and practices:

This raises the vexed question of his religion, endlessly debated through the centuries. It is true that he used the language and the structure of the old faith in his drama, but that does not imply that he espoused Catholicism. His parents are likely to have been of the old faith, but he did not necessarily take it with him into his adulthood. The old religion was part of the landscape of his imagination, not of his belief.

His own adult beliefs are much more difficult to estimate. It is possible that he was, in the language of the period, a ‘church papist’; he outwardly conformed, as in the ceremony of christening, but secretly remained a Catholic. This was a perfectly conventional stance at the time. (pages 446 – 7)

Ackroyd’s account of the language of the plays is also fascinating. Understanding the plays can be demanding. I’ve found that when I’ve seen a play acted it makes much more sense to me than when I’ve only read it and I’ve often wondered how the plays were understood by their 16th century audiences. Ackroyd considers that

Some of Shakespeare’s more recondite phrases would have passed over them, as they baffle even the most highly educated contemporary audience, but the Elizabethans understood the plots and were able to appreciate the contemporary allusions. Of course scholars of a later age have detected in Shakespeare’s plays a subtlety of theme and intention that may well have escaped Elizabethan audiences. But it may be asked whether these are the inventions of scholars rather than the dramatist. (page 349)

In a book of over 500 pages there is much more to be said about it than I’ve attempted in this post – I’ve only just touched the surface!

My overall view of this biography is that it is well researched, with an extensive bibliography, notes and index. Ackroyd acknowledges that he ‘came to this study as a Shakespearian enthusiast‘ rather than as an expert and lists other biographies that he found ‘most illuminating’.

In answer to the Classics Club question on whether reading a biography has changed my perspective on an author’s writing I think the answer has to be that it hasn’t really changed it but it has enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and emphasised the fact that the plays are/were made for an audience:

Shakespeare relied upon the audience and, with such devices as the soliloquy, extended the play towards it; the drama did not comprehend a completely independent world, but needed to be authenticated by the various responses of the crowd. (page 349)

Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice

Sisters of SinaiThe full title of this book is Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels. This is biography so well written that it almost reads like a novel. In fact, if this was a novel I would think it was a most unlikely story of twin sisters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling to St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai where they discover one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac.

Janet Soskice has written a compelling account of two Scottish sisters – Agnes and Margaret Smith born in 1843 in Irvine, a town south-west of Glasgow. Their mother died two weeks after they were born and they were brought up by their father, John Smith. He was unusual in that he gave his daughters an unconventional education for that period. He approved of independence of mind and foreign travel. The girls had an aptitude for languages and mastered French, German, Spanish and Italian whilst they were still quite young – helped by visits to each country. Their taste for learning, travels and adventure was set for life with long hours of study and plenty of exercise. Add to this intensely-held Presbyterian beliefs and Bible study.

John Smith inherited a huge sum of money (today’s equivalent would be around £7 million) from a relative. He died when the twins were 23 leaving his fortune to them (which had built up considerably by then); they were very rich indeed. They decided to have a trip down the Nile. And that was just the beginning; their lives were transformed.

They learnt Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac and they returned to Egypt and Sinai many times, befriending the monks of St Catherine, despite their religious differences, and getting embroiled in disputes with Cambridge academics who were initially very reluctant to accept that these two middle-aged (by then) women with no university qualifications (women were not permitted to receive degrees from the university at that time), could possibly have found anything of value or interest to them.

What they discovered in a ‘dimly lit little room  below the prior’s quarters’ in the monastery was a dirty volume, its leaves nearly all stuck together, written in Syriac. It was a collection of lives of women saints, but written underneath that was something else that was clearly an earlier text – of the Gospels. This was a palimpsest – the earliest writing having been scraped off and overwritten at a later date, the old ink becoming visible at a later date through the effects of the atmosphere. This eventually proved that the Gospels had been written much earlier than had previously been thought, moving the date back to the late second century.

Not only is that remarkable in itself, but it is astonishing to me that these two middle-aged women travelled to Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and beyond at the latter half of the nineteenth century across the desert on camel or walking miles on foot. Their courage and resolve overcame all the difficulties they encountered, coping with physical discomfort and  dishonest dragomen abroad and the hostility and scepticism at home.

I would never have known of this enthralling book if it hadn’t been for Cath’s review of it on Read-Warbler. I was intrigued and looked for it in my library straight away and was delighted to find that there was a copy in another branch.  Biographies and historical books are probably my most favourite of non-fiction books and accounts of  the Bible and how it came to be compiled have long been of interest to me, but I hadn’t come across these two sisters before. Janet Soskine has throughly researched her subject and the book is complemented by a ‘select’ bibliography that runs to nearly 5 pages and an extensive index.

This is an excellent non-fiction book, just right for Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway

I was browsing the biography section in the local library when I came across Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt by Richard Holloway. I vaguely remembered that he had been an outspoken bishop who had resigned some years ago and I thought it would be interesting to read what had led up to his resignation. The blurbs on the back encouraged me to borrow the book:

This poignant memoir, written with integrity, intelligence and wit, lays bare the ludicrous and entirely unnecessary mess we have made of religion. (Karen Armstrong)

and:

So compelling and so intense. Nobody, whether interested in religion or not, could fail to be intensely moved … What a deeply lovable man; and what a wonderful book. (Mary Warnock, Observer)

In the past I have read many books on religion, mainly on Christianity, but I am not currently a church goer and I know little about the Anglican Church and next to nothing about the Scottish Episcopal Church – Richard Holloway was the Primus of the latter. Reading Richard Holloway’s own account of his beliefs and doubts was without doubt an eye-opener.

Leaving Alexandria is fascinating. Richard Holloway grew up in Alexandria, a town in the Vale of Leven, north of Glasgow. At the age of fourteen he left home to train for the priesthood at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire, the mother house of  the Anglo-Catholic Society of the Sacred Mission, an order that trained uneducated boys for the priesthood in a monastic setting. Subsequently, he worked in Africa, the Gorbals in Glasgow, Boston, and Old Saint Paul’s in Edinburgh before becoming the Bishop of Edinburgh. His resignation in 2000 as the Bishop of Edinburgh came when he was 66.

He had a controversial career, dubbed the ‘Barmy Bishop’. He was an outspoken champion of progressive causes, but he had many crises of faith and at times was plagued with doubt, experiencing God as an absence. To me that sounds as though he wasn’t sure about the existence of God. He ponders whether religion is a lie and states that it is a ‘mistake’:

I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was quite sure religion was. It was a work of human imagination, a work of art – an opera – and could be appreciated as such.  The real issue was whether it should be given more authority over us than any other work of art, especially if it is the kind of authority that over rides our own better judgements. (page 343)

In the Epilogue he explained that he came to believe that

Religion is human, and like humanity it is both a glory and a scandal. It is full of pity and full of cruelty. Just like us. So is the Bible.

He went on that he had discovered his real dilemma:

I wanted to keep religion around, purged of cruelty, because it gives us a space to wonder and listen within. Purged of the explanations that don’t explain, the science that does not prove, the morality that does not improve; purged in fact, of its prose, religion’s poetry could still touch us, make us weep, make us tender, and take us out of ourselves into the possibility of a courageous pity. (page 345)

He resigned at odds with many strongly held Episcopal Church doctrines and beliefs, and precipitated by the publication of his book Godless Morality. It was because of the Church’s insistence on rules, its attitudes towards women and homosexuals, and its inability to understand the nature of myth. But he had struggled all the way through, feeling himself a disappointment, often knowing that he was a ‘double-minded man’ and ‘unstable, if not in all my ways, then certainly in many of my attitudes and opinions. Janus-like, I seemed able to look two ways at once, be in two minds about things.’  My question is not why he resigned, but why it took him so long, and how had he become a bishop at all?

There are many things about Richard Holloway that I like, but overarching them all is his compassion and his honesty. There are so many passages I could quote, including this one describing the opponents of women’s ordination:

‘Oh the miserable buggers, the mean-minded wee sods.’ (page 309)

I am sure that I have not really done justice to this book and refer to this review of Leaving Alexandria by Mary Warnock in The Guardian/The Observer 19 February 2012 and to an interview with Richard Holloway at the Gladstone’s Library 26 February 2012.

New-To-Me Books

Just eleven days left to go before the end of March and the end of the TBR Triple Dog DareThe basic idea of the Triple Dog Dare is to spend the first three months of the year cleaning house by reading only books in your TBR stack as of midnight, Dec. 31 and with a few allowed exceptions I’m still on track. But I’ve downloaded books onto Kindle and got some books from Barter Books over these last three months and I’m really looking forward to reading them from April onwards. I wrote about some of them in an earlier post.

Here are some more of the ‘physical’ books I have waiting not-so-patiently to be read:

Sweet Thursday P1090384

  •  Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck – because I loved Cannery Row and this is the follow-up story. ‘Set in Monterey, on the California Coast, Sweet Thursday is what they call the day after Lousy Wednesday, which is one of those days that’s just naturally bad.’ I was really pleased to find this on the shelves at Barter Books – it just jumped out at me.
  • The Last Girl by Jane Casey – because I’ve read good things about her books, crime fiction of the thrilling kind. It’ll probably be a while before I read this book as I haven’t read the first in the Maeve Kerrigan series and this one is the third.
  • A Medal for a Murderer by Frances Brody – because I enjoyed the first Kate Shackleton mystery, Dying in the Wool. This is the second in the series, set in the 1920s in Harrogate where the leading lady in a play at the theatre is found dead in a doorway.
  • The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick – because I’ve read two of the earlier Father Anselm books and enjoyed them. In this one Anselm investigates events in Eastern Europe in the grip of the Cold War.

The books on Kindle include these:

Books on Kindle P1090385The one I’m most interested in is The King in the North: the Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams – because it’s history of the area where I live, set in the 7th century about Oswald, a prince of the Northumbrian royal house. He reigned briefly, from 634 – 642, but during that time he re-united and re-Christianized the North-East; forged a hybrid culture of Briton, Irish, Scot and Anglo-Saxon; and founded a monastery on Lindisfarne. He was the first British king to die a Christian martyr. Max Adams is a biographer, archaeologist,  traveller and writing coach who lives in North-east England.

I think I’ll be reading this book very soon!

The English by Jeremy Paxman

The English: a Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman (an English journalist, broadcaster and author) is a very interesting book, described as:

A book on what constitutes Englishness, and what are considered the essential characteristics and values. Using literary sources and interviews, Jeremy Paxman attempts to define how “Englishness” has changed over this century, and what it is now both in our own and outsider’s views.

It is full of historical information, but is a bit rambling, but even so it is very entertaining. He begins with ‘Being English used to be so easy‘ and goes on to say ‘It’s all so much more complicated now.’ And then proceeds to prove his point.

This makes it difficult to write about it, but easy to read. I like Paxman’s style of writing, I could almost hear him speaking as I read. He’s a person who has grown on me over the years and  lately I’ve enjoyed his TV documentaries too. It’s always been entertaining to watch his interviews, even if I didn’t agree with his views – or his aggressive approach. It’s toned down in this book, but every now and then his acerbic nature comes across.

The easiest way to describe the book is to look at the chapter headings. There are chapters on ‘Funny Foreigners’, ‘The English Empire’, and ‘There Always Was An England’ – in which he concludes ‘the chasm between the imaginative England and the real England won’t do any longer because it fails to reflect the lives of the majority.‘ Other chapters are about the ‘Ideal Englishman’, the ‘True Born Englishman and Other Lies’ and so on. But it’s the index that shows the full breadth of the topics he covers, from the ‘Abbey National Bank’ to ‘Zadok the Priest (Handel)’.

He writes about food, sport, football hooligans, language, individualism, education, religion, ‘John Bull’, cities and the countryside – the English idyllic village, class structure and social tone, attitudes to women, business and trade to name but a few topics. It’s well researched and very readable, with a bibliography listing all the books he mentions plus others that presumably he has used.

It was published in 1998, so things have moved on a lot since then, but I still think it’s a valid book. I’ve had it for about four years and was prompted to read it now by all the discussion about Scottish Independence, if only to see if he could clarify what it means to be ‘English’. He points out the thoughtless way people have of muddling up ‘England’ with ‘Britain’, as if the Scots and Welsh do not exist (it annoys me too).

But I don’t really feel any clearer about what is is to be ‘English’. It seems there really is no such thing as ‘the English’ – we’re a mixture of all sorts, or as Paxman puts it, The English are a mongrel race‘. (page 59) It’s hard to do justice to this book in one short post and there is so much more that I could write about – but it would be far better to read the book itself.

The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser

The Steel Bonnets 001The full title of this book is The Steel Bonnets: the Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. It’s a detailed account of the Border between England and Scotland up to the accession of James VI’s succession to the English throne in 1603.

The people living in the Borders, both English and Scottish feuded amongst themselves, Scots against Scots, English against English, and Scots against English – robbery, blackmail, raiding, arson, kidnapping, murder and extortion were regular events during that period, amongst a number of families, including Armstrongs, Johnstones, Forsters and Hetheringtons, Elliots, Fenwicks, Bells and Nixons, Littles and Scotts, Maxwells and Kerrs. Some families had both English and Scottish members, making it all very confusing. Fraser searched many sources in compiling this history, including State and Border papers and letters, listed in the Bibliography.

There is a map showing the six Marches that made up the Border – three on each side, East, Middle and West. Each March had its own Warden. It’s not very easy to see on my copy of this map, but it shows the general locations:

Border Marches map

The seamen of the first Elizabeth might sweep the world’s greatest fleet off the seas, but for all the protection she could give to her Northumbrian peasants they might as well have been in Africa. While young Shakespeare wrote his plays, and the monarchs of England and Scotland ruled the comparatively secure hearts of their kingdoms, the narrow hill land between was dominated by the lance and the sword. The tribal leaders from their towers, the broken men and outlaws of the mosses, the ordinary peasants of the valleys, in their own phrase, “Shook loose the Border.” They continued to shake it as long as it was a political reality, practising systematic robbery and destruction on each other. History has christened them the Border Reivers.*

*Reiver, reaver – robber, raider, marauder, plunderer. the term is obsolete, but lingers on in words like bereave. (page 3)

The book is divided into five parts:

  • Part I a brief historical sketch up to 1500 from the Roman period.
  • Part II describing what the Border was like in that century, the people who lived there, who were the leading robber families, how they lived, ate, dressed, built their homes, the games they played (football, the fore-runner of rugby, soccer and American football, horse racing, hawking, hunting, fishing and gambling), and the songs they sang – Border ballads.
  • Part III – about the reivers, how they rode their raids, conducted their feuds etc and the Border Law, and how the March Wardens tried to keep order, what it was like for ordinary folk living in the frontier country.
  • Part IV – historical survey of the reiving century from 1503 – 1603, how the reivers fitted into the history of their time and the part they played in the long-drawn Anglo- Scottish struggle..
  • Part V – how their story ended when England and Scotland came under one king, and the old Border ceased to be.

James became the King of all Britain in 1603:

… he was determined to make one country where there had been two before, to bury the old quarrels, and to keep the peace. (page 360)

Fraser makes the point that whilst James pacified the Borders using a

‘heavy hand and it makes an ugly story’, … ‘at the end of the day he left the old, wild, bloody Border a fit place for ordinary folk to live. If the border riders were harshly dealt with, it is not irrelevant to point out that they had dealt fairly harshly in their time. Undoubtedly injustice and atrocity took place in settling the frontier, but the victims are not to be accounted any nobler just because of that.

It is also wrong to suggest that James was ignorant of Border conditions. He knew a great deal about them, from first-hand experience – certainly more than any occupant of the English throne since Richard III. He may be charged with cruelty, indifference and dishonesty in his attitude to Border affairs, but not with ignorance or stupidity. (pages 360 -361)

It’s taken me since the beginning of December to read this book. I read it slowly in small sections as there is a lot to take in and I found the structure of the book a bit confusing and disjointed, as inevitably it meant that information was repeated. There are a large number of footnotes, which interrupted the flow of the text if I paused to read them – which I did, as they contained much relevant information. I would have preferred it to have been incorporated into the main body of the book.

However, I’m glad I read it – it’s a tour de force, and a mine of information! An ideal book for Read Scotland 2014 if you are interested in the history of the region and/or the families, or like me, you live there.

George MacDonald Fraser (1925 – 2008) was a Scot born in England (Carlisle), a Borderer himself. In 1943 he enlisted in The Border Regiment and served in the Burma Campaign. He was later granted a commission into the Gordon Highlanders. After the War he became a journalist. He was the author of the ‘Flashman‘ books, other novels and movie scripts.

Reading Non-Fiction in 2014

Most of my reading is fiction, but I do like to read non-fiction too. Last year I read 9 non-fiction books and would like to read more this year, maybe 12 which would average out at one a month. I’ve decided that I won’t join any of the non-fiction reading challenges run by other bloggers but I’m going to record what I’ve read on my own personal non-fiction project for 2014 on this page – Reading Non-Fiction in 2014.

Non Fiction books

The photo above shows a small selection of my non-fiction books. I’ve got plenty more to choose from in different categories including Autobiographies, Biographies, Diaries, Letters, History, Philosophy, Religion, Writing, and Nature. I hope by the end of the year I’ll have read at least one book from each category.

At present I’m reading a history book – Steel Bonnets: the Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser. I’m planning on reading one non-fiction book alongside any novels I’m reading, but apart from that I’m leaving my options open and shall see where my fancy takes me.

Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor

Shakespeare’s Restless World was an impulse buy last year. I saw it on display at Main Street Trading bookshop, took it down off the shelf to look at it whilst having lunch there and then couldn’t resist buying it. It’s such a beautiful book recreating Shakespeare’s world through examining twenty objects. It reveals so much about the people who lived then, who went to see Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s and 1600s, and about their ideas and living conditions.

The objects include an iron fork  found, when the Rose Theatre on the south bank of the river Thames was excavated, in the remains of the theatre’s inner gallery walls, relics, medals, gold objects, a rapier and a dagger and strange objects such as an eye relic mounted in silver, complete with photos and illustrations. Through looking at each object MacGregor explores a number of themes, not just the theatre, but including what people ate whilst watching plays, religion, medicine, the plague, magic, city life, treason, and the measuring of time amongst other topics. It’s all fascinating and informative, and easy to read. There are plenty of quotations from Shakespeare’s plays and puts both him and his work into context. For me, it was a new way of seeing into the past, which I missed when the series was broadcast on BBC Radio4.

Read Scotland mapIt may seem strange to include this book in the Read Scotland 2014 challenge, but Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, was born in Glasgow and the challenge is to “read and review Scottish books -any genre, any form- written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland.”

I would have read this book in any case, but I was pleased to find that there are sections in it that fit very well into the challenge, including a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish Play’ ie Macbeth. Shakespeare lived through a period of great change for Britain, not only the changes to be expected through the passage of time, but also changes nationally and politically with the death of Elizabeth I. The big question of the day in the 1590s was the constitutional question of who would succeed her, but in England the Treasons Act of 1571 forbade any discussion of the succession.  But dramatists addressed this through their plays – such as Shakespeare’s dramatization of the Wars of the Roses.

MacGregor covers James VI of Scotland’s succession to the English crown in 1603, bringing the whole island of Britain under one rule for the first time.  It was not clear then how things would change:

Everybody knew that with James as King of England and King of Scotland a new political world had been born. But it was not at all clear how things were going to change. …

But making a new nation turned out to be very difficult. For much of the previous 300 years England and Scotland had been at war; they had very different political and legal systems, a different established church, different currencies, separate parliaments and a long history of intense dislike and deep suspicion. James’s central ambition was to make two very foreign countries into one new state, with a new name – Great Britain.

The succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603 created a dynastic union, and a personal union of political authority, but it did not create a union of the crowns in constitutional, legal, ecclesiastical or economic terms. Forging such a union was James’s paramount aim. (pages 204 – 205)

It was another hundred years before the formal Act of Union united England and Scotland into one state of Great Britain. These days Scotland is currently debating whether to break the union and once again things are very unclear – how will things change if Scotland becomes an independent state?

Mount TBR 2014

ShakespeareThis post is also my contribution to The Classics Club’s event Shakespeare in January, as well as qualifying for the Mount TBR Challenge 2014.

It’s also the first non-fiction book I’ve read this year.

The Steel Bonnets: the opening chapter

A friend has just lent me The Steel Bonnets : the Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser and having looked at the opening chapter I know I just have to read on, rather than waiting for January when Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge starts. It’s a long, detailed book so I shall probably still be reading it in January anyway.

The Steel Bonnets 001I live on the English side of the Border with Scotland and the history of the area just fascinates me. The Steel Bonnets covers the period from the building of Hadrian’s Wall to 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Four hundred or so years ago it was all very different around here and as the history of the Border Reivers is very complicated I’m hoping this book will guide me through it.

The opening paragraph took me by surprise:

At one moment when President Richard Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony, he appeared flanked by Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham. To anyone familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shudder through the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries away in time away from the Debateable Land, the threads came together again; the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes – families who lived and fought within a few miles of each other on the West Marches in Queen Elizabeth’s time – were standing side by side, and it took very little effort of the imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jacks or backs-and-breasts. Only a political commentator would be tactless enough to pursue the resemblance to Border reivers beyond the physical, but there the similarity is strong.

In the following paragraphs he goes on to describe their physical features, particularly those of Nixon and Johnson, as ‘excellent specimens of two distinct but common Border types.’ I hadn’t expected this at all.

For more Book Beginnings see Gilion’s blog Rose City Reader.

Gone With the Wind: Historical Fiction

Gone with the wind 001In a previous post on Gone With the Wind I wrote that I had learned a lot about the American Civil War and Reconstruction, about slavery (very different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and a lot about Georgia and Atlanta. In the comments Jane pointed out, quite correctly, that the book ‘shouldn’t be taken as history, but as reflective of a very strong point-of-view of American history, circa 1930.’

I hadn’t meant that I was taking GWTW as historical fact, but that it had led me to wanting to know more about the period and in that respect it had opened up new areas for me. For example, I’d never heard of ‘Reconstruction’ before in the sense of what happened to the southern states following the Civil War and I knew next to nothing about the causes of the war, other than the fact that the southern states wanted to leave the Union, that they wanted to be an independent nation. I was in no doubt, however, that the book is a novel – historical fiction, not historical fact.

All written history is a selection of facts and involves to a greater or lesser extent an interpretation of those facts. Its accuracy depends on the sources used, and in turn those sources inevitably are subject to perspective and bias. Similarly, historical fiction can throw light on the past; it can flesh out the facts, bringing the past to life – and it can be subject to the bias and opinions of the author.

I was fascinated to read that Margaret Mitchell, who was born in Atlanta in 1900 grew up listening to the war stories of Confederate veterans and yet she didn’t know until she was ten years old that the South had lost the war!

Margaret Mitchell was writing from a Southerner’s perspective, but that does not mean that her book is any the less invalid. She presents the Civil War period and its aftermath as seen through southern eyes and basically it is the story as seen through the women’s eyes. There is little about the actual battles, but this is still a war novel, even though it’s set mostly in the homes of the characters – in Tara, and in Atlanta. It depicts the hardships and suffering of the civilian population as well as the wounded soldiers, their grief and desolation and the devastating effect on the land and townships. You can see Atlanta going up in flames, the devastation of the countryside as the railroads and plantations were destroyed, and feel the hunger as the people starved.

Then there is the question of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, both essential elements in the novel. The depiction of slaves divides them into two categories – house slaves and field hands, raising racial issues and the different attitudes between the North and the South towards the slaves. The plantation owners are portrayed as viewing their slaves, in particular the house slaves, as part of their family, protecting them and caring for them, treating them as children and of lower intelligence, and the slaves responded with loyalty to their owners. Again this is one perspective on the past, one that is at variance that of the northern states – clearly indicated in the novel. There are several references in Gone With the Wind to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Margaret Mitchell contradicts Harriet Beecher Stowe’s scene of bloodhounds chasing runaway slaves. Similarly the view she gives of the Ku Klux Clan is not what I expected. This led me to want to know more about the history of slavery in America and I turned to the one book I own, specifically on American history – Out of Our Past: The Forces that Shaped Modern America by Carl N Degler to find out more.

This is one of the things  I like about reading historical fiction – as well as giving me a glimpse into the past, showing me areas of history I know little or nothing about, bearing in mind that there is always more than one side to a story. And I really need to do more research into these matters.

First Chapter: Shakespeare the Biography by Peter Ackroyd

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

In my last post I mentioned Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Shakespeare when deciding which book to read next. As soon as I began the first chapter I knew that this is the next non fiction book I’ll be reading.

The first paragraph is:

William Shakespeare is popularly supposed to have been born on 23 April 1564, or St George’s Day. The date may in fact have been 21 April or 22 April, but the coincidence of the national festival is at least appropriate.

But it is the second paragraph that caught my attention, after all Shakespeare’s birthday or supposed birthday was not a surprise to me. The second paragraph, however, gives me information I hadn’t known before:

When he emerged from the womb into the world of time, with the assistance of a midwife, an infant of the sixteenth century was washed and then ‘swaddled’ by being wrapped tightly in soft cloth. Then he was carried downstairs in order to be presented to the father. After this ritual greeting, he was taken back to the birth-chamber, still warm and dark where he was lain beside the mother. She was meant to ‘draw to her all the diseases from the child’, before her infant was put in a cradle. A small portion of butter and honey was usually placed in the baby’s mouth. It was the custom in Warwickshire to give the suckling child hare’s brains reduced to jelly. ( page 3)

Ackroyd is not of course saying that this is what happened when Shakespeare was born, merely that this was the ritual at the time and he refers to David Cressy’s book, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England as the source of his information. But it is fascinating, nonetheless to think of the infant William wrapped in swaddling clothes and sucking hare’s brain jelly! Butter and honey sounds far more delectable. And how different from birth today.

Sunday Selection: Choosing the next book to read

Yesterday I finished reading both Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell and Julius by Daphne Du Maurier, leaving me with no books on the go. This morning I started to read The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, but I like to read more than one book at a time of different genres so that I don’t get them mixed up in my mind, preferably with one non-fiction book.

I think I’ll read a biography or an autobiography.

There was a programme on TV last night about D H Lawrence, a Culture Show Special, which reminded me that I haven’t read his biography yet which I bought a few years ago when we visited the house in Eastwood where he was born. It’s D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen who was one of the contributors to the programme. I got the book off the shelf and immediately saw why I haven’t read it yet – it’s in such a small font, with quotations in an even smaller font – not good for my eyes. It’s a pity I don’t have it on Kindle but maybe I’ll give it a go, definitely a book to read in daylight. And as I have just one of D H Lawrence’s books that I haven’t read yet – St Mawr – I may read that. It’s a novella, so it won’t take me long.

Anther book I’ve been meaning to read before now is Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare:the Biography. The Classics Club is running a new project next year Twelve Months of Classic Literature with different topics for each month and January’s topic is William Shakespeare.  I think Ackroyd’s book would be a good choice for this project. It’s described on the book jacket as

 … neither an academic description, nor a didactic analysis. Written with intuition and imagination unique to Peter Ackroyd, a book by a writer about a writer, brilliant and straightforward, it vividly presents the reader with the circumstances of Shakespeare’s life and art.

It sounds just right. I think I’ll begin with this book.

That leaves me with choosing a crime fiction book and I have quite a lot of those to choose from. I haven’t read an Agatha Christie this month so I’m going to choose one of hers or some of her short stories (I have several collections still unread). I think I’ll read the oldest I have, which is N or M? a Tommy and Tuppence war time mystery, first published in 1941. I have a feeling this will be better than the last Tommy and Tuppence book I read, Postern of Fate, which was Agatha Christie’s last novel and not one of her best.

Remembrance Sunday

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day) marking the anniversary of the end of the First World War in 1918. Remembrance Sunday is held to commemorate those who served the country in two world wars and in more recent conflicts. There will be the traditional two-minute silence at the Cenotaph on Whitehall today and tomorrow at 11 minutes past the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – the symbolic time of the ending of the First World War.

Poppy Day was first held on November 11, 1921. The idea of wearing poppies in remembrance of the dead came from the poem In Flanders Fields by a Canadian medical officer, John McCrae, who did not survive the war. It is now a national tradition.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae

The First World War began in 1914, ending on 11 November 1918. The young men who joined the army had no idea what horrors were ahead of them. During 1915 however, the true character of the war began to emerge with the slaughter on the Western Front.

May, 1915

Let us remember Spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where all the wounded trees
Wait, with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun. And even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please
Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit to-day with their great Dead, hands in their hands, eyes in their eyes,
At one with Love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered things and changing skies.

Charlotte Mew

Poems from A Corner of a Foreign Field: The illustrated Poetry of the First World War selected by Fiona Waters. This is a collection of poems, some written on the battlefields and some with the benefit of hindsight, poems by men and women recording the experience of their daily lives, the war and its horrors and privations, poems of courage and comradeship in the face of darkest adversity.

Library Loot

Library LootLibrary Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. To participate, just write up your post and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

It’s been a while since I did a Library Loot post and as I’ve got quite a pile of books out right now I thought I’d do one today.

Libr Loot Oct 13

There are three books I have on loan that I’m thinking of taking back to the library without finishing reading, all of which I’ve renewed a few times – Dominion by C J Sansom, The Assassin’s Prayer by Ariana Franklin and The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville. It’s a shame because I’ve enjoyed other books by these authors, but each time I start reading these books I lose interest and put them down and am in no hurry to pick them up again. Of course, it could just be that it’s not the right time for me to read these books.

I have actually got up to page 154 in The Assassin’s Prayer, which has 414 pages and maybe it’s just me at the moment but it seems so boring, with Adelia, Henry II’s anatomist accompanying his daughter to Sicily, lusting after Bishop Rowley and once more regretting refusing to marry him.

I haven’t read much of Dominion, but have gone off the idea of reading an alternative history of what could have happened if Britain had made peace with Germany in 1940. Similarly with The Idea of Perfection, the beginning chapters are just not interesting me – too much about bridges. It may be the large print edition that’s putting me off too.

I have finished Elly Griffith’s Dying Fall which I enjoyed despite its being written in the present tense. It’s the fifth of her Ruth Galloway books. In this book Ruth travels from her home in Norfolk up to the north of England – Lancashire, to be precise Blackpool, Lytham, Pendle, Preston and Fleetwood – because Dan Golding a friend from university has died in a house fire. He had written to her just before his death with news of an amazing find. It turns out that Dan was murdered and Ruth and Inspector Harry Nelson are instrumental in discovering the truth. It’s yet another book I’ve read about the whereabouts of King Arthur’s Bones – this time it seems he’s the Raven King. A satisfying if undemanding read.

Then there are the books I haven’t started yet, although I have dipped into them. They are:

In the Woods by Tana French – a while back book bloggers were writing enthusiastically about this book, so when I saw it on the shelf I thought I’d see if I like it too. It’s a psychological thriller, so I hope it’s not too scary!

Two Cornish mysteries by Carola Dunn – Manna from Hades and Valley of the Shadow, Cornish village murder mysteries, featuring Eleanor Trewynn recently widowed who runs a charity shop from the ground floor of her house. They’re set in Port Mabyn a fictional village sometime in the 1960s and 70s. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of the Daisy Dalrymple books set in the 1920s, so I’m hoping these will be good too.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, described on the jacket as Waugh’s most celebrated novel mourning the passing of the aristocratic world Waugh knew in his youth. I missed this when it was serialised on TV and I’ve not seen the film either, so I thought I should read this.

And last but not least a non-fiction book –  Britain’s Last Frontier: a Journey along the Highland Line by Alistair Moffat. The Highland Line marks the furthest north the Romans advanced, dividing the country geologically and culturally, marking the border between Highland and Lowland, Celtic and English-speaking, crofting and farming. This won’t be a quick read as it includes history, myth and anecdote as Moffat makes a journey both in imagination and geographically tracing the route of the Line.  I hope I’ll be able to renew this book.

Saturday Snapshot – Flodden

It’s the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden this year – it was on 9th September 1513 that the armies of England and Scotland met at Flodden Field, near Branxton in Northumberland. There have been events this year to commemorate the battle and the men from both nations who died in this last medieval battle between England and Scotland.

Living not far from the site of the battle this week we went to see what had changed as a result of the anniversary. There’s now a surfaced path leading up to the Monument.

(Click on the photos to see them enlarged)

500th anniversary P1010826

There are some more information boards and signs to guide you round the Battlefield Trail:

Battlefield trail signpost P1010837The monument isn’t actually on the site of the battle but stands on Piper’s Hill.

Flodden MonumentFrom the monument you can look towards the north down on the village of Branxton:

Branxton P1010831The two armies lined up south of the monument with a marshy dip between them. The Scots advanced first, unaware of the of the ground conditions below them. Now it’s a ditch but in 1513 there was a brook surrounded by a reeded quagmire downhill – where the Scots were bogged down, the rear ranks pushing forward into the front ranks, crushing the fallen bodies and causing chaos. They were then easy prey for the deadly English billhooks.

It looks like this now – the ditch between the hedge and fence is now nearly dry, after weeks of rain in 1513 it was a quagmire:

Boggy Ground P1010835

 and the two armies came face to face:

Tthe Killing Fields P1010858

Flodden 1513: Scotland’s Greatest Defeat by John Sadler is an excellent account of the strategies and tactics of both armies, with maps and plans showing how the battle began and a time timeline of the various conflicts giving a detailed account of events.

Having read this book and the information boards around the trail I was able to visualise the battle, even on a peaceful weekday afternoon 500 years later. The Scottish troops had moved from their original position on Flodden Edge as the English approached the battlefield, putting them at a disadvantage. The outcome could have been different if they had seen the dip below them as they charged down the hill – or even if the English had attacked first.

But then, the battle needn’t have taken place at all if James IV of Scotland had not invaded England in an attempt to divert English troops from their fight against the French. Indeed he had entered into a Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England in 1502. But in 1512 he had also renewed the Auld Alliance with the French, putting him in the position of either declaring for France against Henry VIII (James’s brother-in-law) or remaining neutral, which would make him vulnerable to any further English expansion, as Henry had revived his claim to the Scottish throne.

Despite pressure from senior members of his council to avoid an outright breach with England, when Henry arrived in Calais preparing to wage war against the French, James decided to go to war against the English. Prior to the battle at Flodden he had crossed the River Tweed into England where he then attacked and captured Norham Castle, and then destroyed both Etal and Ford Castles whilst the English were still mustering their troops. But the outcome was a disaster for Scotland and James was killed on Flodden Field:

The king’s was but one of many hundreds of bodies, sprawled and piled on the bloodied turf. The whole hillside from the brook northwards was a killing ground, the dead, maimed and horribly injured competing for space, severed limbs and streaming entrails spilling fresh gore. The din would have been terrific, with hoarse shouts and the screams of the dying men, the crash of spears, a crescendo rising and spilling like breakers against the shore. (page 82, Flodden 1513 by John Sadler)

Each time I go to Branxton, or see the monument as we drive south along the A697, I think about the battle and all those who died there in 1513.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Melinda’s blog West Metro Mommy Reads.

Books in Synch

South with Scott, The Birthday Boys, Race to The End

Birthday Boys & SWS Race to the End 2

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Birthday Boys is a fictionalised version of Scott’s 1912 Antarctic expedition. Ever since I bought South with Scott by Lord Mountevans when I was at school I’ve been fascinated by race to reach the South Pole and reading The Birthday Boys made me take down South with Scott from my bookshelves to compare the two. But even so I was wanting to know more and so, when I went to the library yesterday morning I thought I’d see if there was anything else I could read about. AND THERE WAS!

Race to The End cover

As Alex said last week when I wrote about the coincidence of finding The English Spy in the library when I had reserved Road to Referendum it really does seem as if books do call out to each other, because sitting there on the library shelves just as though it was waiting for me was this beautifully illustrated book – Race to The End: Scott, Amundsen and the South Pole by Ross D E MacPhee.

As I read The Birthday Books I was wondering how true to the facts Bainbridge had been in her novel. I’ve had time just to compare one event that is common to all three books, when Dr Wilson (Uncle Bill), Lieutenant ‘Birdie’ Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard set off to Cape Crozier to recover emperor penguin eggs in the middle of the Antarctic winter – and Bainbridge’s version seems remarkable accurate, bringing the terrible hardships vividly to life. I think she must have read South with Scott. I shall write more about these books.

Birthday Boys & SWS Race to the End 1(Click to enlarge photos)

Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill

One of the things that struck me when I was reading Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography was her love of houses. It stemmed from her childhood dolls’ house. She enjoyed buying all the things to put in it – not just furniture, but all the household implements such as brushes and dustpans, and food, cutlery and glasses. She also liked playing at moving house, using a cardboard box as a furniture van.

Writing about her life with her husband, Max Mallowan she wrote:

We were always choosing sites for houses. This was mainly owing to me, houses having always been my passion – there was indeed a moment in my life, not long before the outbreak of the second war, when I was the proud owner of eight houses. (page 440 of An Autobiography)

Agatha Christie at HomeSo when I saw that Hilary Macaskill had written this book – Agatha Christie at Home – I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. It’s a beautiful book, with many photographs – more than 100 colour photos – illustrating Agatha’s life and homes. I took my time reading it, first of all looking at the photos, before reading the text.

There is a Foreword by Mathew Prichard, her grandson, explaining the love his grandmother had for Devon, in particular for Torquay, where she was born and Greenway, the house that had a special place in her heart.  He expressed his hope that this book will ‘transmit some of the magic that my whole family felt when they were there.’  And this book does indeed do that!

There is an overview of Agatha Christie’s life followed by descriptions of the houses and countryside she loved – from Ashfield in Torquay her first home, where she was born and brought up to Greenway, a Georgian mansion above the River Dart, now owned by the National Trust.

There are no spoilers in this book but Hilary Macaskill has identified the settings Agatha Christie used in her books and how some of the place names have been altered, but are still recognizable from her descriptions. I hadn’t realised that the names of some of her characters are taken from the names of streets or villages, such as Luscombe Road in Paignton which she adopted for Colonel Luscombe in At Bertram’s Hotel.

It’s a useful book too if you want to find out more about visiting Devon with tourist information and website addresses. The final chapter is about Agatha Christie’s legacy and her continuing popularity both nationally and internationally. As well as being able to visit Greenway, which has been restored to the way it was when Agatha lived there, there are events to celebrate her life and works, such as the annual Agatha Christie week that takes place in Torquay each September around her birthday.

I haven’t been to Greenway, although I have stayed in Torquay, but that was before Greenway was open to the public. It is enormously popular – on the first day it was opened over 400 visitors came to see the house. But Agatha Christie was a very private person and I can’t imagine what she would have thought about that. After all she had refused permission for an ‘authorized life’ to be written, stating:

‘I write books to be sold and I hope people will enjoy them but I think people should be interested in books and not their authors.’ (page 129)

Knowing that I think I’d feel I was invading her privacy if I did go to Greenway!

A Non-Fiction Adventure

NF Adventure

I don’t read as much non-fiction as fiction. I find it needs more concentration and so often pick up and read fiction. But I do like non-fiction and own quite a lot of it. I’ve been trying to read more and one way that helps me to focus on reading it is the This Isn’t Fiction Reading Challenge run by Birgit at The Book Garden.

Now, thanks to Bev at My Reader’s BlockI’ve found another wayA Non-Fiction Adventure.  Like The Classics Club this one runs for five years. It’s hosted by Michelle of The True Book Addict

The Sign- up is here.

These are the guidelines:

  • Choose 50+ non-fiction books; the number is up to you. Choose 50, 75, 100, 200. It’s entirely your choice.
  • Books must be non-fiction–biography, autobiography, history, memoir, cooking, travel, science, etc.
  • List them at your blog (or on Goodreads or another social media site, if you do not have a blog)
  • Choose your completion goal date five years in the future…

My five years run from 14 August 2013 to 14 August 2018.

My Goal: 50 books, initially choosing from these 60 books: all books I own; there are more, but I think this is enough to start with. I like the idea that your list can change, so this is just a starting point and no doubt I’ll find other books I want to read during the next five years!

Autobiographies/Diaries/Letters

  1. Jane Austen’s Letters
  2. Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years 1969-1979 – Michael Palin
  3. Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates – Patrick Leigh Fermor
  4. Great Meadow: an Evocation – Dirk Bogarde
  5. Slipstream: a Memoir – Elizabeth Jane Howard
  6. Trollope: an Autobiography
  7. A Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela
  8. The Snow Geese – William Fiennes
  9. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep – Rumer Godden
  10. Corvus: a Life with Birds – Esther Woolfson
  11. The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters – Charlotte Mosley  editor
  12. Chronicle of Youth – Vera Brittain

Biographies

  1. Being Shelley – Anne Wroe
  2. The Wolf That Never Sleeps – Marguerite de Beaumont (Baden-Powell)
  3. The Innocent Man – John Gresham
  4. Mary Queen of Scots – Alison Weir
  5. Victorian People – Asa Briggs
  6. D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider – John Worthen
  7. Billy – Pamela Stephenson
  8. The Life of Samuel Johnson – James Boswell
  9. William Barclay – Clive Rawlins
  10. Thomas Hardy: the Time-torn Man – Claire Tomalin
  11. Howard Hughes – Peter Harry Brown
  12. Marilyn Monroe – Barbara Leeming
  13. Shakespeare: the biography – Peter Ackroyd
  14. Charles Dickens: a Life – Claire Tomalin
  15. Dickens – Peter Ackroyd
  16. The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey – Leanda de Lisle
  17. Virginia Woolf: a Writer’s Life – Gordon Lyndall
  18. Mary Queen of Scots – Antonia Fraser
  19. L S Lowry: a Life – Shelley Rhode
  20. Agatha Christie at Home – Hilary Macaskill

History

  1. Great Escape Stories – Eric Williams
  2. Big Chief Elizabeth – Giles Milton
  3. Band of Brothers – Stephen E Ambrose
  4. How the Girl Guides Won the War – Jane Hampton
  5. The Making of Modern Britain – Andrew Marr
  6. After Elizabeth: the death of Elizabeth and the coming of King James – Leanda de Lisle
  7. Stalingrad – Anthony Beevor
  8. The English – Jeremy Paxman
  9. Shakespeare’s Restless World: An Unexpected History in 20 Objects – Dr N Mcgregor
  10. Wartime Britain – Juliet Gardiner
  11. 1599:  A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro
  12. The Games We Played – Susan Kelleher
  13. Glencoe – John Prebble
  14. On the Trail of the Assassins – Jim Garrison

Philosophy/ Religion

  1. Sovereignty of Good – Iris Murdoch
  2. Think: a compelling introduction to philosophy – Simon Blackburn
  3. Meditations – Aurelius
  4. C S Lewis: the Man and His God – Richard Harries
  5. Islam: a very short introduction – Malise Ruthven

Reading/ Writing

  1. Virginia Woolf on Women and Writing
  2. A Reading Diary – Alberto Manguel
  3. The Companion to the History of the Book – Simon Eliot & Jonathan Rose editors
  4. How Fiction Works by James Wood
  5. You English Words – John Moore

Miscellaneous

  1. Weeds – Richard Mabey
  2. Gorillas in the Mist – Dian Fossey
  3. Rivers – Griff Rhys Jones
  4. The Penguin Book of Lies – Philip Kerr editor

Sunday Selection: Sisters

One of my aims this year is to reduce my massive backlog of unread books, hence the reason for joining the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.  I’m not doing too badly as so far I’ve read 19, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean. In June I wrote about some of the books I’ve owned for more than a year and today I’m looking at some more the books on the list – in some cases I’ve had these books for several years! It’s about time I read at least one of these sometime soon. I don’t like to plan too far ahead what I’m going to read but I like to have some titles in mind.

When I looked through my books I realised that I was picking out books about SISTERS:

First up for consideration are two non fiction books (the blurbs are extracts from Amazon/Goodreads):

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle – this is the story of the tumultuous lives of Lady Jane Grey, known as the “Nine-Day Queen” and her sisters. I’ve had this book for 3 years. I was full of enthusiasm when I first bought it because I’d been reading novels about the Tudor period and thought I’d balance them with non fiction.

Lady Jane Grey is an iconic figure in English history. Misremembered as the ‘Nine Days Queen’, she has been mythologized as a child-woman destroyed on the altar of political expediency. Exploding the many myths of Lady Jane’s life and casting fresh light onto Elizabeth’s reign, acclaimed historian Leanda de Lisle brings the tumultuous world of the Grey sisters to life, at a time when a royal marriage could gain you a kingdom or cost you everything.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley – a selection of unpublished letters between the Mitford sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. I’ve had this book for 5 years! I think two of the reasons I’ve not read it before now is that it is so long – over 800 pages and it’s in a very small font.

Carefree, revelatory and intimate, this selection of unpublished letters between the six legendary Mitford sisters, compiled by Diana Mitford’s daughter-in-law, is alive with wit, passion and heartbreak. The letters chronicle the social quirks and political upheavals of the twentieth century but also chart the stormy, enduring relationships between the uniquely gifted – and collectively notorious – Mitford sisters. 

And then some novels featuring sisters:

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton. I’ve not had this one for that long – just since last November. I down loaded it on my Kindle because it’s a free book and I thought maybe I should try another book by Edith Wharton, having failed to finish The House of Mirth. At the time I was not in the mood for it.

In the days when New York’s traffic moved at the pace of the drooping horse-car, when society applauded Christine Nilsson at the Academy of Music and basked in the sunsets of the Hudson River School on the walls of the National Academy of Design, an inconspicuous shop with a single show-window was intimately and favourably known to the feminine population of the quarter bordering on Stuyvesant Square. It was a very small shop, in a shabby basement, in a side-street already doomed to decline; its fame was so purely local that the customers on whom its existence depended were almost congenitally aware of the exact range of “goods” to be found at Bunner Sisters’.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger – I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book, but it’s about three years. I’m not sure I’ll like it as I wasn’t keen on The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it was the time travelling aspect that irritated me with that book – the constant switching backwards and forwards in time. This one looks a bit different.

Set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers with an abnormally intense attachment to one another. The girls move to their aunt’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London and as the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including–perhaps–their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen, a book I’ve had for six years! I bought it because I’d enjoyed Blessings a satisfying but sad novel about an abandoned baby. 

A novel about two sisters, the true meaning of success, and the qualities in life that matter most. It’s an otherwise ordinary Monday when Meghan Fitzmaurice’s perfect life hits a wall. A household name as the host of Rise and Shine, the country’s highest-rated morning talk show, Meghan cuts to a commercial break–but not before she mutters two forbidden words into her open mike. 

In an instant, it’s the end of an era, not only for Meghan, who is unaccustomed to dealing with adversity, but also for her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx who has always lived in Meghan’s long shadow.

I’ve nearly finished reading Third Girl by Agatha Christie, also one of my to-be-read books, so now all I have to do is decide which book to read next. At the moment I’m leaning towards Her Fearful Symmetry, despite my misgivings about The Time Traveler’s Wife.

July’s Books

July was a bumper reading month for me, as I finished reading 11 books and I’ve written about 8 of them (those in blue font link to my posts on the books). (And I’ve actually been able to spend some time gardening – when it hasn’t been too hot – or too wet!!!)

  1. Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier (from TBR books) Historical Fiction
  2. Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville (library book) Non Fiction
  3. The Drowning by Camilla Lackberg Crime Fiction
  4. Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (from TBR books) Historical/Crime Fiction
  5. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  6. The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett Historical/Crime Fiction
  7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (from TBR books)
  8. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (from TBR books)
  9. The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland (from TBR books) Historical/Crime Fiction
  10. Agatha Christie: an English Mystery by Laura Thompson (library book) Non Fiction
  11. The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner (from TBR books) Crime Fiction

It’s been a good month as I’ve read 6 books from my huge pile of unread books, bringing my total of TBRs up to 20 for the year so far. I’m aiming to read as many of my own unread books as I can this year.

There are also 2 non fiction books – shown underlined – a total of 8 for the year so far. I always intend reading more non fiction but usually get sidetracked by the fiction. It generally takes me longer to read non fiction than fiction, so to read 2 in one month is good for me.

Four of the books I read are historical fiction and this means I’ve nearly reached my target of 15 books for the year.

I think the best book I’ve read this month has to be To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I loved it and hope to write more about it soon.

Crime fiction is currently making up about half of my reading and this month I’ve read 5. Each month Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise hosts a post linking to bloggers’ Crime Fiction Picks of the Month.  My Pick this month is The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland.

 Synopsis

It is 1939. The world stands on the brink of Armageddon. In the Soviet Union, years of revolution, fear and persecution have left the country unprepared to face the onslaught of Nazi Germany. For the coming battles, Stalin has placed his hopes on a 30-ton steel monster, known to its inventors as the T-34 tank, and, the ‘Red Coffin’ to those men who will soon be using it. But the design is not yet complete. And when Colonel Nagorski, the weapon’s secretive and eccentric architect, is found murdered, Stalin sends for Pekkala, his most trusted investigator. Stalin is convinced that a sinister group calling itself the White Guild, made up of former soldiers of the Tsar, intend to bring about a German invasion before the Red Coffin is ready. While Soviet engineers struggle to complete the design of the tank, Pekkala must track down the White Guild and expose their plans to propel Germany and Russia into conflict.

My view:

I haven’t read Sam Eastland’s first book, Eye of the Red Tsar, about Inspector Pekkala but I had no difficulty in understanding the background to the novel – it works well as a stand-alone. It’s a fast paced plot with flashbacks to Pekkala’s earlier life as an investigator for the Tsar. He is now an investigator for Stalin, charged with discovering the murderer of Colonel Nagorski. A nicely complicated plot, mixed in with historical facts, but as I know very little Russian history I can’t comment on its accuracy – some interesting information about the Tsarina and Rasputin, and Stalin doesn’t come across as the character I thought he was though. I enjoyed it and it kept me guessing until the end.

Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson

It took me weeks to read Laura Thompson’s book Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. It has taken me several days to write and re-write this post because I’ve found it difficult to put down my thoughts about it without going into too much detail (and this is still a long post). My overall impression of the book is that I felt as though I was intruding into Agatha Christie’s private life that she had not wanted to be made known. I also think that Laura Thompson had found it difficult to separate the woman from her writing, because throughout the book facts are interspersed with suppositions drawn from Agatha Christie’s novels and in particular from Unfinished Portrait, a novel Agatha wrote under the pseudonym, Mary Westmacott.

Agatha Christie: An English Mystery is described as a ‘perceptive and stylish biography‘ on the jacket sleeve, but it is not just a biography; it is also a study of Agatha Christie’s novels, drawing conclusions from her writing about her thoughts, feelings and emotions and a fictionalised version of Agatha’s disappearance in 1926. Laura Thompson’s sources are unpublished letters, papers and notebooks.

First of all, concerning the study of the novels I was dismayed as I was reading this book at the amount of information she reveals about the crime fiction novels, including giving away who the murderers are in a number of cases. Charles Osborne’s book The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie is much better, outlining the books, not just her crime novels but also her non-fiction, stories for children, poetry and plays in chronological order and nowhere does he reveal the identity of any of the murderers.

Then the fictionalised version of Agatha’s disappearance is in a chapter called ‘The Quarry‘, which begins ‘Time for a new story‘, words which did not immediately alert me that Laura Thompson was no longer writing strictly from the sources at her disposal but also from her imagination, putting words into Agatha Christie’s mouth that she could not have known, and describing her reactions to the people she met and the newspaper reports of her disappearance. Later in this chapter she wrote:

All biography is story-telling. No life is a code to be deciphered: there will always be gaps and inconsistencies, and it is stories that make the missing connections. Omniscience is for Hercule Poirot. Real life knows less; it has the beauty of mystery; and this, despite the books she wrote, was something that Agatha understood very well. She must have known she had created a puzzle of a different order, with all the geometric complexity of ‘Roger Ackroyd’ – and how to work it out? Turn it this way? That way? – and yet the twist in the tale: it was true, and therefore it could never be solved. It was perfect in fact. The perfect metaphor for human mystery. What could be more impenetrable than the woman who moved through Harrogate like a smiling ghost, reading newspaper reports about her own vanished self? (page 219)

I just wish she had not gone so far down the story-telling line in this book and had left this episode of Agatha Christie’s life as an impenetrable mystery, or at least had made it clear straight away when she was writing imaginatively. I have absolutely no objections to fictionalised versions of a life (for example I really liked Justine Picardie’s book Daphne: a novel, which merges fact and fiction) but I do think it should be obvious that it is fictionalised. Nor do I object to different interpretations of

Laura Thompson quotes from Unfinished Portrait, using this as evidence of Agatha’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. In Osborne’s book he also states that Unfinished Portrait, which was published in 1934, is based on events in Agatha’s life:

The story of Celia is remarkably similar to the story of Agatha as readers were eventually to be offered it in ‘An Autobiography’ more than forty years later. Several incidents are common to ‘An Autobiography’  and ‘Unfinished Portrait’, and the novel is quite clearly a fictionalised, more detailed, and emotionally more forthcoming version of the first third of the biography. The portraits of Celia’s mother and her grandmother are really of young Agatha Miller’s mother and the grandmother with who she stayed in Ealing. The men in Celia’s life are the men in Agatha’s life, and Dermot, whom Celia marries, is Archie Christie. (page 105)

but he also quotes from Max Mallowan’s writings about the book, pointing out it is a blend of fact and fiction:

The book is not one of her best because, exceptionally, it is a blend of real people and events with imagination. Only the initiated can know how much actual history is contained therein, but in Celia we have more nearly than anywhere else a portrait of Agatha. (page 106 of ‘The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie’)

It is evident that Agatha Christie wrote about things she knew – the use of poisons from her work in a pharmacy during the First World War and her journey on the Orient Express are just two examples. Laura Thompson later in the book acknowledges that it is impossible to know what Agatha really thought – this is in the chapter called ‘The Second Husband‘, (page 298) writing about Agatha’s reaction to the Woolleys’ interference with her honeymoon with Max Mallowan. And she acknowledges that it would not have occurred to Agatha Christie that conclusions about her character would be drawn from her remarks in the novels about Jews, ‘blacks’ and servants, so I think it is difficult to decide what inferences can be drawn about Agatha from her fiction!

The last sections of Thompson’s book deal in detail with Agatha Christie’s tax problems and there is a rather ‘gossipy’ section about whether or not Max was having affairs. Overall, I think that the book as a biography is unbalanced, concentrating on the events surrounding Agatha’s disappearance and there is much speculation and supposition. I prefer Agatha’s own version of her life: An Autobiography, in which she merely referred to the events of 1926 thus:

The next year of my life is one I hate recalling. As so often in life, when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong. (page 356)

Finally, if biography is ‘story-telling’, about making connections to fill in the missing gaps with stories, then I’m not sure I want to read it and there have been several times when reading this book that I’ve thought about abandoning it. I’m uncomfortable with the feelings it can provoke – disliking gossip, distrusting witnesses who may have a private agenda, and squeamishness about reading private correspondence. I felt all of this whilst reading this book.

I went back to a book I read a few years ago – Hermione Lee’s book Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing.This is about writing biography and the relationship of biography to fiction and history. Lee writes that biographies must give a ‘quasi-fictional, story-like shape to their material (or no none will read them)’, but against this there is the ‘responsibility for likeness and the need for accuracy’.Gaps and silences give rise to interpretations ‘through a process of conjecture, invention, intuition and manipulation of the evidence.’  Biography may seem as if it is factual because it is constructed from sources such as letters, diaries and other people’s accounts, etc but it is inevitably an interpretation and quasi-fictional. I have to remember that – it’s a reading between the lines! And as Lee says:

Whether we think of biography as more like history or more like fiction, what we want is a vivid sense of the person.

What makes biography so curious and endlessly absorbing is that through all the documents and letters, the context and the witnesses, the conflicting opinions and the evidence of work, we keep catching sight of a real body, a physical life: the young Dickens coming quickly out of a room, sprightly, long-haired, bright-eyed, dandyish, in crimson velvet waistcoat or tartan trousers …

As I read Laura Thompson’s book I did catch glimpses of Agatha Christie, but they were rather swamped by inferences drawn from her books, by the fictionalised version of her disappearance and by the descriptions of her tax problems towards the end of her life. I felt closer to the real Agatha Christie whilst reading her Autobiography. As well as being a record of her life as she remembered it and wanted to relate it, it’s also full of her thoughts on life and writing and in particular about her love of life and the joy of being alive.

But I will carry on reading biographies!

Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville

Searching for the Secret River is Kate Grenville’s account of how she came to write The Secret River. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,who was the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people.

It is a fascinating book detailing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

She writes about reading. As a short-sighted child reading was her whole life:

I read in the bath, I read on the toilet, I read under the desk at school, I read up in my tree house, feeling the branches of the jacaranda swell and subside under me.

I can identify so well with this. I was a short-sighted child and read everywhere too, walking round the house, in bed under the covers with a torch when I should have been asleep, all the places Kate Grenville read, although not in a tree house – I would have loved a tree house!

She writes about writing. As a writer she couldn’t help examining how other writers went about their writing – seeing how books had been made. One book that helped her with writing The Secret River is Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, a novel based on historical events in which some of the characters are apparently versions of real people. She had come to the point in her book where she had written lots of notes, forty-seven folders of notes!! So she made lists to try to organise her writing and then began just writing scenes and descriptions of various aspects – about London and Sydney, the convict system, and what she called ‘elements of memoir.’ But she thought that lots of her writing was dry and dead.

Reading Anil’s Ghost, however she realised that she had to take herself out of the book and find a character to carry out the search for the story of Wiseman and his dealings with the Aboriginal people. To do this she had to see the scenes before she could write them:

The hard part of the writing wasn’t finding the words – they seemed to come reasonably easily. If they started to come reluctantly, I stopped writing and began with something else. The hard part was finding the picture. Once I could see and hear the moment, I could write it.

In her first draft some parts were in the first person, some in the third person, but always from Wiseman’s point of view. The first-person point of view seemed right but then she decided that that didn’t match Wiseman’s character and there were things she wanted the book to say that Wiseman couldn’t say – about the Aboriginal culture for one thing. So, it had to be in the third person, but the ‘third person subjective’ – ‘from Wiseman’s point of view but only partly in his voice.’

There is so much in this book – the research, the notes, the descriptive passage, the numerous drafts, finding the right voices, the characters, identifying the central drama of the novel, the right eighteenth century names, developing Wiseman into a character, renaming him William Thornhill and building a picture of the Thornhill family. Then the dialogue had to be right, to be convincing. She listened to a recording of Robert Browning, went through transcripts of Old Bailey trials, looked at how Dickens, Defoe and other writers put words into their characters’ mouths.She remembered her mother’s and grandfather’s sayings, phrases and idioms. In the end she decided that she wouldn’t try

to reconstruct the authentic sound of nineteenth century vernacular. My job was to produce something that sounded authentic. … I read all the dialogue aloud. If anything hit a false note, it was obvious straight away. This was a bad one for example: ‘That bit of land, he said. Remember, I told you. We’ll lose it if we don’t move soon.’

This sounded terribly drawing-room. I muddied it up: ‘that bit of land, he said. Remember he telled you. We’ll miss out if we don’t grab it.’

She deleted large sections of dialogue.

The whole book is compelling reading, not just because it’s about how she wrote the book and the enormous amount of work she put into research, but also because in itself it paints a picture of life in London in the late eighteenth century and Australia in the early years of settlement in the early nineteenth century. I was captivated from start to finish.

Searching for The Secret River: a Book Beginnings Post

Book Beginnings ButtonGilion at Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday in which you share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’m currently reading Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It begins:

In the puritan Australia of my childhood, you could only get a drink on a Sunday if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’. That meant you had to have travelled fifty miles or more. Around Sydney a ring of townships at exactly the fifty-mile mark filled with cheerful people every Sunday. One of them was a little place called Wiseman’s Ferry.

I loved Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River, so when I discovered that she had written a book about how she came to write it I just had to get a copy. Her interest began with her great-great-great grandfather, Solomon Wiseman,the original ferryman at Wiseman’s Ferry. Her mother had told her stories about him, but she wanted to know more about, what he was like and what he might have done when he first encountered Aboriginal people … she needed to know.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but it is fascinating – seeing how she went about her research into family history and how she imagined his life from facts gleaned from the records and the places he had lived.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor a few weeks ago and have been mulling it over ever since. It began so well and I thought it was one of those books I was going to love. And then there are later passages which are so tedious and hard work to read, so full of dry facts and arcane words that I began to wonder why I was reading any further. But I did and then the writing swept me away and I became engrossed in the book again.

My reaction, I think, is to the two sides of this book, in which Patrick Leigh Fermor describes his travels on foot in 1933 from the Hook of Holland through Germany, to Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, on his way to Constantinople. (He continued his journey in Between the Woods and the Water, which describes his experiences up to the Iron Gates border between Rumania and Bulgaria.) The two sides are because he wrote this book in later life so his direct experiences and reactions are intermingled with the results of his later research and with the benefit of hindsight. I prefer the immediacy of his earlier writings taken from the diaries he kept along the way, bringing the countryside to life and recounting his encounters with the local people.

There are passages like the one below where he linked his journey to painting:

When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse, or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel. The white flakes falling beside the Waal – or the Rhine or the Neckar or the Danube – and the zigzag gables and the muffled roofs, were all his. The icicles, too, and the trampled snow, the logs piled on the sledges and the peasants stooped double under loads of faggots. … When the wintry light crept dimly from slits close to the horizon or an orange sun was setting through the branches of a frozen osier-bed, the identity was complete.

In the end I scan read page after page of detailed descriptions of churches, of sociological, political or historical people and places.  I was too impatient to read all those details and I was reading the book too quickly. It’s a book to take your time with, to read a section, put the book down and come back to it later – and I didn’t do that, I swallowed it down with the result that parts were indigestible.

In a way his journey was a gilded experience as he had introductions to people in different places – people who gave him a bed for the night, or longer stays. There were also people who didn’t know him who welcomed him into their homes as a guest – as the title says it was a time of gifts. It was the period when Hitler came to power in Germany:

Appalling things had happened since Hitler had come into power ten months earlier: but the range of horror was not yet fully unfolded. In the country the prevailing mood was a bewildered acquiescence. Occasionally it rose to fanaticism.

But whereas not everyone liked the English there were some who did:

I answered many earnest questions about England: how lucky and enviable I was, they said, to belong to that fortunate kingdom where all was so just and sensible. The allied occupation of the Rhineland had come to an end less than ten years before, and the British, she said, had left an excellent impression.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. There are many passages so vividly described that I can remember them now weeks later – the vision of this young man, nearly nineteen years old striding through the German countryside reciting Shakespeare, in a loud voice and accompanied with gestures, sword thrusts, a staggering gait and with his arms upflung, looking as though he was drunk, or a lunatic. Then there was the time in Vienna when the money he was expecting hadn’t arrived and Konrad, a Don Quixote type character, took him round to a block of flats and encouraged him to knock on doors asking if the occupants wanted to pay him for a sketch of themselves.

In fact even with the dull passages, I liked this book well enough to buy the second book by Fermor Leigh, Between the Woods and the Water and I see that a third book is to be published later this year – The Broken Road, completing the account of his journey to Constantinople.

Following his walk across Europe, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) lived and travelled in the Balkans and Greek Archipelago. He joined the Irish Guards and during the occupation of Crete led the party that captured the German commander. He was awarded the DSO and OBE.

Saturday Snapshot

This is the Flodden Visitor Centre. It’s in a former telephone box in the village of Branxton in Northumberland. Flodden Visitor Centre P1080503It claims to be the smallest visitor centre in the world:

Flodden Visitor Centre P1080499

It’s part of the commemoration of the Battle of Flodden which took place 500 years ago in September between the English and Scottish armies in the fields near Branxton.

Flodden Visitor Centre P1080501Inside there is a map showing the routes of the two armies and indicating several sites related to the battle. There are leaflets and even a button to press the hear about the battle.

If you are in London on 14 May you can get tickets for a lunchtime lecture on the Battle of Flodden 1513 by historian Clive Hallam Baker at the Tower of London. He is the author of The Battle of Flodden: Why and How.

Other books about Flodden, with links to my reviews:

Fiction:

Non fiction:

  •  Flodden: the Scottish Invasion of Henry VIII’s England by Nigel Barr
  • New Light on Floddon (sic) by Gerard F T Leather – I have not written about this short book published in 1938, which Leather, a member of the Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club had written after studying the battle for a talk. As he explained there were actually four distinct fights going on a more or less the same time and the old name of the battle was that of Branxton Moor, a more correct title, in his opinion, as the battle scene was a mile and a half from Flodden.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alyce’s blog At Home With Books.

Weekend Cooking: Ultimate Chocolate Brownies

Slender Frenchwomen often told the co-founder of Green & Black’s chocolate that ‘they kept a bar of Green & Black’s in their desk drawer, to have a square at 4 pm which would keep them going till dinner …’ Could I be so disciplined and just eat one square?

Well, I can restrict myself to eating just one Ultimate Chocolate Brownie and whilst that can never really be thought to help keep anyone slender, eating one at 4 pm will certainly keep anyone going until dinner time!

Chocolate Brownie

I made a batch recently using the recipe from Green & Black’s Organic Ultimate Chocolate Recipes: the New Collection. This is a book mainly about baking, and it makes my mouth water just looking at it, full of recipes for cakes, cookies, cupcakes, cheesecakes, tarts  soufflés, puddings, pies, and sweets such as truffles and chocolate marshmallows. They are all decadently chocolatey and scrumptious.

To make 24 chocolate brownies you need:

  • 300g unsalted butter
  • 300g dark (70% cocoa solids) chocolate broken into pieces
  • 5 large free-range eggs
  • 450g granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 200g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Preheat oven to 180°C/gas mark 4
  • Melt butter and sugar together in a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water
  • Beat eggs, sugar and vanilla extract together until the mixture is thick and creamy and when chocolate and sugar have melted together beat in the egg mixture
  • Add flour and salted (sifted together first) and beat until smooth
  • Bake in a tin 30x24x6cm, lined with greaseproof or baking parchment for about 20-25 minutes until the top has formed a crust just starting to crack.
  • The brownie will not wobble but will be gooey inside
  • Leave in the tin for 20 minutes and then cut into 24 squares and remove from the tin

Eat and enjoy!

N.B. I wrote about Green & Black’s first cookbook in an earlier Weekend Cooking post where I described making chocolate mousse – Dark with Coffee.

weekend cookingWeekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish ReadsIt’s open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs.  For more information, see the welcome post.

BooksPlease is 6: A Celebration of Books

Today my blog is six years old. Reading has always been a great pleasure and I began my blog to try and capture some of that pleasure. So, I thought that for today’s anniversary post I’d look back at some of the books I’ve read over the last six years that stand out in my mind as being most enjoyable.

It’s difficult with so many books to choose from and there are plenty more I could highlight, but here are six of the best fiction books and six of the best non fiction. I think the books I’ve chosen show the range of books that I enjoy – historical fiction, crime fiction, contemporary fiction, autobiography, history, poetry (just a few poets) and philosophy/psychology.

Over these last six years I’ve seen blogs come and go and there have been times when I’ve considered giving up blogging, but somehow I’ve hung on and looking back over my blog to do this post has proved to me the value of keeping it – it’s not just a record of what I’ve read but also a reminder of what I thought of the books too. And I hope my posts do convey the pleasure reading gives me.

Fiction (one from each year)

2007 – 

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. This is historical crime fiction set  in Cambridge in 1170 during the reign of Henry II. A child has been murdered and others have disappeared.The Jews are suspected and Henry is keen to find the culprit as the Jewish community in Cambridge are major contributors to his Exchequer. He enlists the help of Simon of Naples, who is accompanied by Adelia, a female doctor who specialises in studying corpses. I loved this book, reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales. The medieval world is vividly brought to life and it’s a fascinating murder mystery.

2008 – 

Atonement by Ian McEwan – a book that moved me to tears. It begins on a hot day in the summer of 1935 when Briony, then aged thirteen witnesses an event between her older sister Cecelia and her childhood friend Robbie that changed all three of their lives. It’s a captivating story of the use of imagination, shame and forgiveness, love, war and class-consciousness in England in the twentieth century.

From 2009 – 

Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky – a gem of a book, this is  set in a small village based on Issy-l’Eveque between the two world wars. The narrator is Silvio looking back on his life and gradually secrets that have long been hidden rise to the surface, disrupting the lives of the small community.  It is an intense story of life and death, love and burning passion. It’s about families and their relationships – husbands and wives, young women married to old men,  lovers, mothers, daughters and stepdaughters.

From 2010 – 

Wolf Hall coverWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – this is my favourite, so far, of Mantel’s trilogy about the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and his political rise, set against the background of Henry VIII’s England.This first book in the trilogy is about his struggle with the King over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. It transported me back to that time, with Mantel’s descriptions of the pageantry, the people, the places and the beliefs and attitudes of the protagonists. A wonderful book.

From 2011 – 

Blood HarvestBlood Harvest by S J Bolton. Crime fiction set in the fictional town of Heptonclough in Lancashire where the Fletcher family have just moved into a new house built on land right next to the boundary wall of the churchyard.  I was completely convinced not only by the setting but also by the characterisation that the place and the people in this book were real. It’s full of tension, terror and suspense and I was in several minds before the end as to what it was all about. I had an inkling but I hadn’t realised the full and shocking truth.

From 2012 – 

The Secret River 001The Secret River by Kate Grenville – this book completely captivated me and I could hardly wait to get back to it each time I had to put it down. It’s historical fiction, straight-forward story-telling following William Thornhill from his childhood in the slums of London to his new life in Australia in the early 19th century. Dramatic, vivid and thought-provoking, this novel raises several issues – about crime and punishment, about landownership, defence of property, power, class and colonisation.

Non Fiction:

2007 –

On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski  about her travels during a year when she visited New Zealand, spent three months in a cottage in Somerset and went to sample the life of the Sami people of Swedish Lapland. This is also a personal memoir, and is about being still, being alone, wanting to be alone, phobias and the problems of coping with life and especially with aging.  I can indentify with her feelings such as not wanting to make a noise in case people notice that I’m there, not wanting others to worry about me, and worrying that others are worrying about me; feeling the need to do something such as going out for a walk – not the desire to do it for itself but the feeling that I should want to. It’s a moving, amusing, thought-provoking and original book.

2008 –

Our Longest Days  by the writers of Mass Observation, edited by Sandra Koa Wing. In August 1939, with war approaching, the Mass Observation 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. 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.

also from 2008:

Robert Frost (The Illustrated Poets series) – a slim little book with a selection of Frost’s verse illustrated by American, English and French painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Frost’s poems are written in deceptively simple language but they convey great depth of meaning. They are compact and powerful. And the illustrations are beautiful.

2009 – 

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson, a fascinating look at life in Britain during the summer of George V’s Coronation year, 1911.  It was one of the hottest years of the twentieth century and also a summer of discontent as the country was almost brought to a standstill by industrial strikes and the enormous gap between the privileged and the poor was becoming more and more obvious. It covers a wide spectrum – from King George’s accession to the throne to débutantes  politicians, poets, factory workers, writers, and women trade unionists. There is little about the suffragettes – they agreed a summer truce for the Coronation.

 2010 –

Agatha Christie: an Autobiography As well as being a record of her life as she remembered it and wanted to relate it, it’s also full of  her thoughts and reflections on life and writing. She wrote about her childhood, teenage years, friends and family, and her marriage to Archibald Christie; but although she wrote about their divorce she didn’t write about her disappearance in 1926. She wrote about her travels around the world, the two world wars, her interest and involvement with archaeology and her marriage to Max Mallowan.  I read it in short sections and felt quite sad when I came to the end. It was like having a daily chat with Agatha.

2011 –

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – this is about the Allies’ deception plan code-named Operation Mincemeat in 1943, which underpinned the invasion of Sicily. It was framed around a man who never was. The plan was to take a dead body, equipped with false documents, deposit it on a beach in Spain, so that it would be passed over to the Germans and divert them from the real target. Totally outside my usual range of reading this was so far-fetched as to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. I marvelled at the ingenuity of the minds of the plans’ originators and the daring it took to carry it out.

PS – I’ve enjoyed compiling this post so much that I’m thinking of doing something similar for the paintings and places I’ve written about.

Turn of the Century Salon: March

Turn of the Century SalonThe Turn of the Century Salon, is a monthly literary event where you can share recent posts related to literature or authors from the 1880s-1930s. One of Katherine’s suggestions for this month’s post is to find a work of art or music within the same time-period that reflect the book and share it.

After reading Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man I decided to read more of his works, including his poetry and bought The War Poems of Siegfried SassonWorld War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others, edited by Candace Ward. I’ve also borrowed Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Siegfried Sassoon: a Biography by Max Egremont and am slowly reading through these.

I’m familiar with some of the World War One war poets, such as Rupert Brooke (The Soldier – ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is forever England), Wilfred Owen (Dulce et Decorum Est), and Thomas Hardy (Channel Firing) and so on, but I hadn’t read any of Sassoon’s poems.

They are satires condemning the war. Sassoon described his poems such as The One-Legged Man as “satirical drawings”, which he intended to “disturb complacency”. Here is his poem In the Pink

So Davies wrote: ‘ This leaves me in the pink. ‘
Then scrawled his name: ‘ Your loving sweetheart Willie ‘
With crosses for a hug. He’d had a drink
Of rum and tea; and, though the barn was chilly,
For once his blood ram warm; he had pay to spend,
Winter was passing; soon the year would mend.

He couldn’t sleep that night. Stiff in the dark
He groaned and thought of Sundays at the farm,
When he’d go out as cheerful as a lark
In his best suit to wander arm-in-arm
With brown-eyed Gwen, and whisper in her ear
The simple, silly things she liked to hear.

And then he thought: to-morrow night we trudge
Up to the trenches, and my boots are rotten.
Five miles of stodgy clay and freezing sludge,
And everything but wretchedness forgotten.
To-night he’s in the pink; but soon he’ll die.
And still the war goes on; he don’t know why.

Looking for more information about this poem I found this description in Siegfried Sassoon: a Study of the War Poetry by Patrick Campbell (page 94):

“The first of my ‘outspoken’ war poems.  I wrote it one cold morning at Morlancourt, sitting by the fire in the Quartermaster’s billet, while our Machine-Gun Officer shivered in his blankets on the floor.  He was suffering from alcoholic poisoning, and cold feet, and shortly afterwards departed for England, never to return.  Needless to say, the verses do not refer to him, but to some typical Welshman who probably got killed on the Somme in July, after months and months of a dog’s life and no leave.  The Westminster refused the poem, as they thought it might prejudice recruiting!!”

Reading Sassoon’s war poems brings home the horrors of war, the deaths, the devastating injuries and the appalling indifference of the war leaders and the lack of understanding of the people back home.

Similarly some works of art were considered controversial and not suitable for public viewing. Such a painting is Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson showing the corpses of two dead British soldiers lying face down in the mud among barbed wire behind the Western Front. Their helmets and rifles lie in the mud next to them.

Paths of Glory by Christopher Nevinson 1917 Oil on Canvas Collection: © Imperial War Museum

This painting is held in the Imperial War Museum website. Its description is:

“The title is a quote from ‘Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard’ by Thomas Gray. ‘The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike th’inevitable hour. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.‘ Whereas the poet reflects on bodies dead and buried in a church-yard, the so-called ‘Paths of Glory‘ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland.

Paths of Glory‘ was famously censored by the official censor of paintings and drawings in France, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee. His concern presumably being the representation of the rotting and bloated British corpses at this stage in the war. The decision was confirmed three months before the opening of his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1918 but Nevinson still included the painting with a brown paper strip across the canvas, blatantly inscribed with the word ‘censored’. As a result, Nevinson was reprimanded for exhibiting a censored image and for the unauthorised use of the word ‘censored’ in a public space. Predictably, the stunt created the publicity Nevinson desired. The painting was purchased by the Museum during the course of the exhibition.”

This was the ‘war to end war’! The pity is that it didn’t.

Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingI first read about Quiet by Susan Cain on Diane’s blog, Bibliophile by the Sea and liked the look of it, so when the publishers emailed me the offer of a copy to review I was very pleased.

Quiet is well researched, clearly written and full of fascinating information. I knew before I read it that I’m an introvert and this book confirmed it. Of course there are varying degrees of introversion, just as there are of extroversion and Susan Cain goes into this in some detail. She includes personal details, case studies, and anecdotes from people she interviewed which means that this is more than a factual account. It’s a well balanced examination of the differences between introversion and extroversion.

I was intrigued in particular by the research done by Professor Kagan and his team at Harvard, where they studied 500 four-month old babies to discover if they could predict which babies were more likely to turn into introverts or extroverts. They  found that the ‘high-reactive’ babies, those who reacted most to stimuli, pumping their arms and legs, were the most likely to grow into quiet teenagers. The low-reactive babies were more likely to become relaxed and confident types. High and low reactivity tends to correspond with introversion and extroversion. It seems the more ‘sensitive’ you are the higher the degree of introversion you have.

Kagan hypothesised that infants born with an especially excitable amygdala would wiggle and howl when shown unfamiliar objects – and grow up to be children who were more likely to feel vigilant when meeting new people. And this is just what he found. In other words, the four-months old who thrashed their arms like punk rockers did so not because they were extroverts in the making, but because their little bodies reacted strongly – they were “high-reactive” – to new sights, sounds, and smells. The quiet infants were silent not because they were  future introverts – just the opposite – but because they had nervous systems that were unmoved by novelty. (page 102)

There are chapters on the ‘Extrovert Ideal’, on the effect of nature and nurture, the role of free will, on public speaking and the differences found in different cultures. I think it’s a helpful book for everyone to read to understand the different natures.

The final note in Quiet further defines the words ‘introvert’ and extrovert’:

Introverts have these attributes in varying degrees: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned.

Extrovertsthe ‘man of action’ who is ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold and comfortable in the spotlight.

The ‘extrovert ideal’ can make introverts feel inadequate, as though being an introvert is something that you need to hide or apologise for – indeed Cain emphasises the pain that the bias against quietness causes and the guilt that can cause. I remember very well being told I needed to get my head out of a book, that I should be living life and not reading about it (not by my parents, who were both introverts themselves) – I was relieved to read these words:

Now that you’re an adult you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favour of a good book. … Or you’re told that you’re “in your head  too much”, a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers. (page 7)

I think Quiet is the ideal book to read for both introverts and extroverts. It’s one that made me think – and I like that.

Other reviews:

Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin

Roger Deakin was a writer, broadcaster and film-maker with a particular interest in nature and the environment. He completed the manuscript for Wildwood, his second book, just before he died in 2006. As the sub-title explains it’s about Deakin’s journeys through a wide variety of trees and woods in various parts of the world. It’s a memoir, a travelogue and also it’s about the interdependence of human beings and trees, or in his own words:

Wildwood is about the element of wood, as it exists in nature, in our souls and in our lives. (page x)

I think parts of this book are brilliant and fascinating, but my eyes glazed over in other parts as I got lost in all the facts and details that he recounts, which were just too much at times for me. But sometimes his writing is poetical, full of imagery. For example in writing about pencils he concludes:

The fine-grained, slow grown mother of all pencils is incense cedar from the forests of Oregon, where a single tree may grow 140 feet high, with a trunk five feet across, enough cedar wood to make 150,000 pencils. It is the incense cedar that infuses pencils with the nutty aroma I remember as I open my pencil-box. In a scooped out hollow in my Oregon pine work table in front of me lies a smooth, round pebble from the Hebrides. It sits snugly in the wood, like the pencil between finger and thumb, and like the hidden vein of graphite, poised inside the cedar to spin itself into words like gossamer from the spider. (page 30)

I love the image that last simile brings to my mind. I also marked these passages: ‘The pencil whispers across the page and is never dogmatic.‘ And this, ‘Rub your finger long enough on a soft-pencilled phrase and it will evaporate into a pale-grey cloud. In this way, pencil is close to watercolour painting.’ (both from page 29)

He wrote about Walnut Tree Farm, his house in Suffolk. It was a ruin when he bought it and he took enormous delight in renovating and restoring it, including personally shaping and repairing every single timber beam  – all 323 of them. His love of trees stemmed from his early years and his school days when in the sixth form he and his school friends camped in the New Forest where their Biology teacher filled them with enthusiasm, setting them to studying and mapping the natural history of a stretch of the woodland, bog and heathland.

He covers a huge area of natural history, not just trees, but also plants, birds, moths, hedges, as well as the uses of wood for living, working and pleasure. He also describes his journeys to numerous places – not just in Britain, but also to the Pyrenees, Bieszczady, Australia, east to Kazakhstan, China, and the walnut forests of Kyrgyzstan. There is so much to take in  – I really think this book deserves an index!

Cracking Box by David Nash
Cracking Box by David Nash

I liked the southern English chapters best, as the further afield he went it seemed more of a travel book. It’s a book of several parts and maybe it would have been more of a whole if Deakin had lived to see it through to publication. I think it’s a bit fragmented.

My favourite chapters cover the work of David Nash, a sculptor in wood and the paintings by Mary Newcomb. Deakin visited David Nash’s studio at Blaenau Ffestiniog, where he was particularly drawn to the Cracking Box made of oak:

As if entering the wild life of the wood, or at least taking its side, Nash has put as many difficulties in his way in the making of the box as he can. … The anarchic work thumbs its nose at the basic rules of woodwork, triumphantly so, because it holds together in spite of the wriggling of the wood as it warps and cracks. The more the wood struggles , the tighter the grips of the oak pegs in their augured sockets. (pages 154 -5)

Very Cold Birds Where One has Flown Away it Knocked the Raindrops Off by Mary Newcomb

Mary Newcomb was a Suffolk painter, who Deakin described as belonging ‘in the greenwood tradition, peering unnoticed from behind leaves like the Green Man’.. (page 179) (There is also has a chapter on the Green Man.) I hadn’t heard of Mary Newcomb and was intrigued by Deakin’s description of her work in which people seem to be part of the landscape, where proportion is very often skewed as in children’s art or ‘naive’ painting. I just had to look for her paintings and found some on the BBC’s Your Paintings. I’ve shown one here, on the left, where the raindrops are drawn nearly as big as the birds on the tree. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

I also liked the chapter on walnuts, entitled Among Jaguars, describing how shapes of delicate walnut veneer are cut for the dashboards and door panels of Jaguar cars, and how the rare walnut burr veneer is produced. Walnuts figure quite prominently in Wildwood, with chapters on the walnut forests of Ferghana Valley in Kyrgyzstan.

Throughout the book Deakin referred to other books – one that stands out for me is Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, one of my favourites of Hardy’s books, full of beautiful descriptions of the landscape and woods.

Overall, then I found this an interesting book, with some outstanding chapters. It’s not a book to read quickly and some parts are written much more fluently than others, but it’s full of fascinating information and meditations on the natural world. One final quotation:

To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically , by getting lost. Merlin sends the future King Arthur as a boy into the greenwood to fend for himself in The Sword in the Stone. There, he falls asleep and dreams himself, like a chameleon, into the lives of the animals and the trees. In As You Like It, the banished Duke Senior goes to live in the Forest of Arden like Robin Hood, and in Midsummer Night’s Dream the magical metamorphosis of the lovers takes place in a wood ‘outside Athens’ that is obviously an English wood, full of the faeries  and Robin Goodfellows of our folklore. (page x)

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon

Turn of the Century SalonMemoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfied Sassoon is a perfect choice for the Turn of the Century Salon. It’s the first part of his fictionalised autobiography. The other two books in his trilogy are Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress.

The Book

Fox-Hunting 001

Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 and in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man he relives his childhood, youth and experiences as an officer during the First World War. He wrote it in 1928, ten years after the War had ended, calling himself George Sherston. Life for young George/Siegfried was almost idyllic, living in the country as part of the privileged upper class, although his lifestyle exceeded his income. His aunt’s groom, Dixon, taught him to ride and introduced him to the fox-hunting world. At first Siegfried’s sympathies were with the fox and, at one of his first hunts, on spotting a fox he was alarmed so much that when his companion shrieked ‘Huick-holler’ (meaning the fox has been seen) he uttered the words ‘Don’t do that; they’ll catch him.’

Sassoon paints a beautiful picture of the English countryside and country life at the turn of the century. In the passage quoted below he wakes early on the morning of the local village flower show, looking forward to playing in the Flower Show Cricket Match:

When I unlocked the door into the garden the early morning air met me with its cold purity; on the stone step were the bowls of roses and delphiniums and sweet peas which Aunt Evelyn had carried out there before she went to bed [in preparation for the Flower Show]; the scarlet disc of the sun had climbed an inch above the hills. Thrushes and blackbirds hopped and pecked busily on the dew-soaked lawn, and a pigeon was cooing monotonously from the belt of woodland which sloped from the garden toward the Weald. Down there in the belt of river-mist a goods train whistled as it puffed steadily away from the station with a distinctly heard clanking of buffers. How little I knew of the enormous world beyond that valley and those low green hills. (page 53)

The first part of the book is carefree, as Siegfried passes through his school years and time at Cambridge University, which he left before completing his degree. Not a lot happens. His life, despite his lack of funds was a seemingly endless round of riding and hunting. He describes his friends and fox-hunting companions with affection and realism – the old country gentlemen, the benevolent gentry, the newly rich and the dare-devil younger riders, who were ‘reckless, insolent, unprincipled and aggressively competitive; but they were never dull, frequently amusing, and, when they chose, had charming manners.’ (page 235)

Siegfried, himself comes across as a likeable young man, shy, reserved, and modest, happy-go-lucky but aware of his own shortcomings.

All this changed with the onset of the First World War. He enlisted and was eventually posted to France, where because of his connections and abilities, he was appointed as a Transportation Officer stationed behind the trenches and the Front Line. But war brought him face to face with the grim realities of life and death. At first he was philosophical about the War – it seemed ‘inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue.’ But writing in 1928 he considered:

And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War, which as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity. (page 256)

He sees men under his command die and suffer appallingly, his friends die, and Dixon his former groom who had enlisted died of pneumonia. Whilst home on leave as he talked to an old friend of Dixon’s he realised the past had gone …

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; 2nd edition (31 Jan 1974)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057106454X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571064540
  • Source: library book

The Author

Siegfried Sassoon 1915 (from Wikipedia)

Sassoon is one of the of the War Poets. Unlike others, such as Rupert Brooke, he survived the War. He came to the conclusion that the war was being needlessly prolonged. In 1917 he wrote a protest to his commanding officer. Its impact was reduced because rather than facing a court martial he was tried by a medical board and was judged to be suffering from severe shell shock. His account of the ruling is in the second part of his trilogy Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1931). He was sent to Craiglockhart military hospital where he met Wilfred Owen, also one of the War Poets. It was in the hospital that Sassoon published some of his war poems. I’ll write more about those in another post and also more about his life when I’ve read Siegfried Sassoon: a biography by Max Egremont (which I’ve reserved at the library). In his later years he wrote The Old CenturyThe Weald of Youth andSiegfried’s Journey, three volumes of non-fictionalised autobiography.

January’s Books

If you look at how many books I read in January it doesn’t look as though I did much reading with just 4 books completed. I usually average about 8 books a month! But that statistic is misleading because I’ve read just as much if not more than usual because of the length of the books.

Jaunary 2013

I began reading Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang last year but by January I’d only read less than a quarter of it, so I began January by reading the rest of the book, which took me up to the middle of the month. Wild Swans is an amazing book (720 pages). I wrote about it in this post.It’s a harrowing book to read, but it’s also an eye-opener (for me at any rate) about what happened in China under Mao. It’s a personal story, reflecting the twentieth century history of China. A remarkable book, full of courage and spirit.

I read just one crime fiction – The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner (from TBR books). I was disappointed really with this Perry Mason book and didn’t think it was as good as other books by him that I’ve read.

Next was Deaf Sentence by David Lodge, which I liked but didn’t love. Unlike the reviewer in the Literary Review (quoted on the back cover) I didn’t find it had ‘many laugh-out-loud moments‘, just a few amusing bits that made me smile. But is it a moving and at times melancholy book.

In a much lighter vein, although sad in parts is Paw Tracks at Owl Cottage by Denis O’Connor, which I read on my Kindle. It chronicles O’Connor’s experiences with four more cats, all Maine Coons, at his Northumberland cottage.

So, not a large number of books but a lot of reading, because I’ve also been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, another long book which I’ve finished this morning. I suppose that goes under February’s books!

Books for Cat Lovers

I loved both these books by Denis O’Connor:

Paw Tracks in the Moonlight and Paw Tracks at Owl Cottage.

Denis O’Connor trained as a psychologist and teacher. Throughout his career he taught in schools and lectured in colleges and universities. He holds a doctorate in education and psychology and is now retired, living with his wife Catherine and his two Maine Coon cats in a remote country cottage in Northumberland.

Paw Tracks in the Moonlight tells the story of how he rescued a kitten during a snowstorm and how kitten survived, despite the vet’s prediction that he wouldn’t. O’Connor lived at Owl Cottage and as he was out at work all day he put the kitten in a jug to keep him safe and named him Toby Jug. This memoir covers the first year of Toby Jug’s life and it’s a remarkable story because this is no ordinary cat (if such a creature exists, that is). He is a Maine Coon cross. He learns to walk on a lead and even goes on a camping trip on horseback during the summer in the Cheviot Hills with O’Connor.

Paw Tracks at Owl Cottage chronicles O’Connor’s experiences with four more cats, all Maine Coons. He had moved from Owl Cottage, unable to face living there after Toby Jug died in 1978, but years later, when he took early retirement, Owl Cottage came up for sale – and he and his wife bought it. it’s a wonderful place for cats and they acquired four – Pablo, Carlos, Luis and Max. The book is divided into sections describing each cat and there are also reminisces of Toby Jug, with more stories of their lives together.

Both contain beautiful descriptions of the Northumberland countryside, most of which I’m familiar with, which made the books even more special for me. Inevitably the death of Toby Jug filled me with sadness, but both books are full of the cats’ personalities and the joy they brought to O’Connor and his wife. They demonstrate the close bonds that are possible between people and cats:

I tell them [his friends who are astonished at the close bonds]  I believe that any animal, be it a horse, dog, cat, parrot or budgerigar, will always respond to kindly attention and caring affection, and that I know this because I’ve made good friendships with them all.

But to return to how I am with our cats, I can honestly state that quite apart from loving them deeply and being loved in return, I know them inside their minds and they know me; we are linked on a mental plane of mutual affection and understanding. (page 222 of Paw Tracks at Owl Cottage)

Definitely books for cat lovers!

Denis O’Connor has written a third book (which I haven’t read) – Paw Tracks: a Childhood Memoir, described on Amazon as ‘a searingly honest account of how the power of nature can lift the human spirit and overcome the most unloving of childhoods.’

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

It’s taken me a couple of months to read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (first published in 1991), Jung Chang’s book about her grandmother, her mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Needless to say that this is a harrowing book to read, but it’s also an eye-opener (for me at any rate) about what happened in China under Mao.

Jung Chang was born in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. She was briefly a Red Guard at the age of fourteen, and then a peasant, a ‘barefoot doctor’, a steelworker and an electrician. She came to Britain in 1978, and in 1982 became the first person from the People’s Republic of China to receive a doctorate from a British university. ‘Wild Swans’  won the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year. She lives in London.

In Wild Swans she casts light on why and how Mao was able to exercise such paralysing control over the Chinese people. His magnetism and power was so strong and coupled with his immense skill at manipulation and his ability to inspire fear, it proved enough to subdue the spirit of most of the population; not to mention the absolute cruelty, torture and hardships they had to endure.

I wondered how she knew so much about what happened to her mother and grandmother (I don’t know nearly as much about mine) but in the Introduction she explains that when her mother came to visit her in London they talked every day for months. She talked about their eventful lives – her grandmother had been a concubine of a warlord general and her mother had joined the Communist underground at the age of 15. She also recorded sixty hours of her memories.

I wrote a bit about the book in a Book Beginnings post at the end of last November, when I’d just started to read it. It’s a personal story, reflecting the twentieth century history of China. A remarkable book, full of courage and spirit.

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; New edition edition (1 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007463405
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007463404
  • Source: borrowed from a friend

This Isn’t Fiction Reading Challenge

Last year I read just 12 non fiction books, a very small percentage of all the books I read. So, this year I’m aiming to read more widely, perhaps cutting back on reading crime fiction, which made up more than half my reading last year. When I saw that Birgit is hosting a non fiction challenge I thought that it would give me a push in that direction.

All non fiction genres are allowed!

Books must be at least 100 pages long (excluding appendix and annotations)!

Books must be read in their entirety and not just in part (which consequently excludes encyclopedias, then again who in their right mind would want to read one of those from beginning to end)!

No picture heavy books – you’re supposed to read not just look at pretty photos (that said, books should have a 75:25 text/picture ratio – if it’s a big tome with 300 or more pages, then it may be a 50:50 ratio)!

ARCs and re-reads are allowed!

So, what’s it going to be for you?
  • 5 Books – Kindergarden
  • 10 Books – Elementary School
  • 15 Books – High School
  • 20 or more Books – College

After looking at my list of unread non fiction on my LibraryThing catalogue I found that I have 30+ books, so I should find plenty of choice to go for the High School  level and maybe even for the College level. Most of them are autobiographies/biographies, with some history and a touch of philosophy and travel.

The Day Gone By: an Autobiography by Richard Adams

This book has been sat waiting patiently for me to read it for some years now. I can’t remember when I bought it, but I bought it because I loved the other books by Richard Adams that I’d read – Watership Down, the story he originally told to his children to while a way a long car journey, Shardik, The Plague Dogs, and The Girl in a Swing.

The Day Gone By is his memoir of his early life from his 1920s childhood at home with his parents in Newbury, Berkshire, to his time at boarding school, then life at university in Oxford and his service in World War Two, up to his return home in 1946 and his first meeting with the girl who became his wife.

He was born in 1920, the youngest child of George and Lilian Adams. The early chapters are about his earliest memories, full of wonder at the natural world around him. It was his father, a doctor, who taught him to recognise and love birds and the countryside. These chapters convey vividly his family’s idyllic post-Victorian pastoral lifestyle. His talent for storytelling came out when he went away to pep school at Horris Hill at the age of 8:

To Horris Hill’s lack of electric light I owe more than I can tell. Indeed, it may very well have been the greatest blessing of my life, for it was this that made me a dormitory story-teller. The shadowy, candle-lit dormitories of winter; or those same dormitories in the fading twilight after sunset; these were the settings for a story-teller such as no electrically lit room could ever provide. (page 138)

At first the stories he told were from those he’d read, but when he had no more to tell he was forced to make them up. During the day he began thinking about what he was going to tell the other boys at night.

The Day Gone By is a detailed account of his early life throwing light on the society in which he lived, the class structure and attitudes and above all the changes that were brought about by the Second World War. His experiences during the war are equally as detailed, conveying the effect it had on his life:

To anyone at all who lived through it, in whatever capacity, the Second World War was an enormous, shattering experience. It was – and I say this in all seriousness – difficult to believe it was really over; one could not remember what things had been like before. Anyway, that no longer mattered much: they weren’t ever going to be the same again. (page 379)

His style of writing changed in the section on his wartime experiences, almost as though he was using the language he spoke at the time. I liked his reflections on life; his opinions on the terrible suffering and cruelties of the war years are especially moving.

The Day Gone By: an Autobiography by Richard Adams. Penguin Books. 1991. 399 pages.

This is the last book completing the What’s In a Name? 5 Challenge – a book with something you’d find on a calendar in the title.

Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy

Dervla Murphy was born in County Waterford, Ireland. In a Book Beginnings post I wrote about how when she was ten she decided she wanted to cycle to India. And that is what she did 21 years later.

Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi on a Bicycle, first published in 1965  is an account of her journey in 1963, which took her through Europe, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and into India. She travelled on her own, with a revolver in her saddle bag. I’m full of admiration for her courage and determination.

Reading this book made me wonder about the countries she cycled through and how they’ve changed since the early 1960s. It would certainly be a different experience if anyone tried to do the same these days! T

Here are a few quotes to give a taste of the book:

The border between Persia and Afghanistan

The only indication of the Persian-Afghan frontier is a seven-foot stone pillar, conspicuous from far across the desert, which lucidly announces ‘Afghanistan’.  Here I stopped to photograph Roz [her bicycle]. Three miles further on a long branch served as Customs barrier and beside it lay a very young soldier in a very ragged uniform, sound asleep with one hand on his rifle. I quietly raised the barrier for myself and continued towards the Customs and Passport Office two hundred yards ahead.

There, no one took the slightest notice of either my kit or my passport, no uniformed officials appeared and no series of dingy, uncomfortable offices had to be visited. (page 47)

The concept of time:

… people here have no concept of time as we understand it. The majority wear watches as ornaments and I was diverted to discover that they can’t read the time and don’t see why they should learn! Yesterday is over, today is something to be enjoyed without fuss, and tomorrow – well, it’s sinful to plan anything for the future because that’s Allah’s department and humans have no business to meddle with it. (page 58)

Dervla Murphy loved the Afghan way of life and deplored the modernisation of countries:

The more I see of life in these ‘undeveloped countries’ and of the methods adopted to ‘improve’ them, the more depressed I become. It seems criminal that the backwardness of a country like Afghanistan should be used as an excuse for America and Russia to have a tug-of-war for possession. (page 69)

Her thoughts on the attitude of Westerners:

… what an artificial life is led by the foreign colonies in these Asian cities! The sense of their isolation from the world around them is quite stifling. At a dinner party tonight I met a European couple who have been in Kabul for eighteen months without once entering the home of an ordinary Afghan – and they are not exceptions. The attitude is that the ‘natives’ are people to be observed from  a discreet distance and photographed as often as possible, but not lived among. The result is boredom and an obsessional longing for home leave, (page 101)

This was not her attitude as she stayed with local people wherever she could, accepting their food and lodgings which was given freely – they would not let her pay for anything and would have been offended if she had insisted.

Her essentials for a five-month trip – she needed less than I would want!

… the further you travel the less you find you need and I see no sense in frolicking around the Himalayas with a load of inessentials. So, I’m down to two pens, writing paper, Blake’s poems, map, passport, compass, comb, toothbrush, one spare pare of nylon pants and nylon shirt – and there’s plenty of room left over for food as required from day to day. It’s a good life that teaches you how little you need to be healthy and happy, if not particularly clean! (page 105)

Her views on ‘Progress’:

The more I see of unmechanized places and people the more convinced  I become that machines have done incalculable damage by unbalancing the relationship between Man and Nature.

people now use less than half their potential forces because ‘Progress’ has deprived them of the incentive to live fully. (page 149)

… I don’t know what the end result of all this ‘progress’ will be – something pretty dire, I should think. We remain part of Nature, however startling our scientific advances, and the more successfully we forget or ignore this fact, the less we can be proud of being men. (pages 149 – 150)

I enjoyed Full Tilt, as much for her descriptions of the places she visited as for her thoughts along the way. I’m not sure that I would find her easy company though!

Weekend Cooking: Cakes Please!

Yesterday was CatsPlease on my blog and today it’s CakesPlease! I used to bake cakes every week, but haven’t done so for years.

Earlier this year I got the baking bug after watching The Great British Bake Off, and I was so taken with Mary Berry that I bought one of her books – Mary Berry’s Baking Bible. For the first time I bought a cookery book to read on my new Kindle Fire, partly because I have lots of cookery books and there’s no room for any more and also because the Kindle Fire has colour and the cover has a built-in stand so I can stand it up on the kitchen table to refer to it easily whilst cooking.

This contains a huge range of cakes, biscuits, traybakes, breads, buns, scones, hot puddings and pies, souffles and meringues and cheesecakes! Over 250 classic recipes.

Mary Berry writes:

Cakes are made to be shared so, once you have mastered a recipe, invite your friends and family to enjoy the fruits of your labour with a good pot of tea – happy baking!

So, I’m sharing the recipe for the Banana Loaf, which I made earlier this week and as I can’t physically share it here are my photos. First the ingredients:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/ Fan 160°C/Gas 4. Lightly grease a 900g loaf tine then line sides and base with baking parchment.
  2. Put all ingredients into a mixing bowl and beat for 2 minutes until well blended. Spoon mixture into the loaf tine and level the surface.
  3. Bake for about 1 hour, until well risen and golden brown. Leave in the tin to cool for a few minutes then turn out, peel off the parchment and finish cooling on a wire rack.

This is what mine looked like:

It tasted delicious:

For more Weekend Cooking posts see Beth Fish Reads.

Scottish History

Ever since we moved to live just south of the border with Scotland I’ve been interested in learning more about its history. My knowledge was limited to the basics and mainly related to the monarchy – Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland and I of England, the Jacobite Rebellions, and Bonnie Prince Charlie and so on.

Many books have been written on Scottish history and when I saw this little book some years ago I thought it could be a good place to start to find out more:

A Short History of Scotland by Richard Killeen is by its very nature a summary account and a basic introduction. There are 31 short chapters covering the period from Prehistoric Scotland up to the Twentieth Century – all in 69 pages, including coloured illustrations of people and places.

I found the early chapters the most interesting (maybe because it was mainly new information for me) covering the early periods – Iron Age Celts, Roman Scotland and later invaders – Anglo-Saxons, raiders from Dalriada in Ireland (Irish Celts), Picts and Vikings.

Much of the book is the history of the monarchy. Kenneth MacAlpin was the first King of Scotland (9th century) but not of all modern Scotland – he never established himself in the Borders, which was held by the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrians. Northumbria had formerly extended from the Humber right up to the Forth, and it was not until Malcolm II (1005-34) won the battle of Carham in 1018 that the land north of the Tweed became part of his kingdom.

The book traces the history of Scotland through the various battles for power and control – the Norman settlement of the lowlands founding abbeys and cathedrals, the contest for the crown between John Balliol and Robert Bruce (both members of the Norman aristocracy) and the intervention of Edward I of England in choosing John Balliol as king in 1292 and claiming formal overlordship for himself and his successors.

Scottish kings had paid feudal homage to English kings before the 1290s. As far back as 1174, William the Lion had acknowledged himself the formal vassal of Henry II. Such acts did not imply that Scotland was a dependency of England. In the first place, England and Scotland hardly existed in the modern sense. The age of centralised states with uniform laws, secure boundaries with centralised administration – all things we take completely for granted – lay well in the future. (page 28)

Edward’s actions triggered Scottish resistance, with William Wallace winning victory over the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297. Wallace was then defeated within a year at the Battle of Falkirk. Robert the Bruce gained the crown, and in 1314 defeated Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn: ‘the battle which confirmed Scotland as an independent kingdom.’ (page 31)

Moving forward in time, Killeen describes the history of Scotland until the Reformation as ‘a guignol of intrigue, faction and murder mixed with solid achievement.’ The rest of the book includes chapters on the Stewarts, Mary Queen of Scots, the Union of Crowns (1603), the Civil War, Glencoe, the Act of Union (1707), Scottish Enlightenment, the Clearances and the Industrial Revolution.

Reading this little book has spurred me on to read more detailed histories and I’ve started with Neil Oliver’s A History of Scotland. More about that another time.

Book Beginnings: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

I’m currently reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

It begins:

At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general, the police chief of a tenuous national government of China. The year was 1924 and China was in chaos. Much of it, including Manchuria, where my grandmother lived, was ruled by warlords. the liaison was arranged by her father, a police official in the provincial town of Xixian in southwest Manchuria, about a hundred miles north of the Great Wall and 250 miles northeast of Peking.

Wild Swans is a family memoir – the story of three generations of woman in Jung Chang’s family – her grandmother, mother and herself. This is the 2003 edition with an introduction by Jung Chang explaining how she came to write the book. She had always dreamed of being a writer, but growing up in Mao’s China it seemed out of the question, with most writers suffering in endless police persecutions. It was only after she had been allowed to come to Britain in 1978 to study that she had the freedom to write and to write what she wanted.

So far, I’m finding it fascinating, reading about her grandmother, who was one of the last generation of Chinese woman to suffer the practice of binding feet. I knew of this practice, but hadn’t realised just how much the little girls suffered and continued to suffer throughout their lives.

As this book is so long (over 600 pages in a small font) it’s going to take me quite a while to read it. I’l probably write a few posts on my progress.

First Chapter, First Paragraph is hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea.

Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman by Susan Cummings

I received Susan Cumming’s book Adventures of a One-Breasted Woman: Reclaiming My Moxie After Cancer from the publisher via LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer programme.

About the author from Goodreads:

Susan Cummings is a writer, an actress and now a 20-year breast cancer survivor. Once a newspaper reporter, she has since been published in a number of literary journals and written songs and plays. Feeling alone and vulnerable after her mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer, she looked, in vain, for a memoir of another woman’s experiences after cancer treatment. Eventually she wrote the book she had sought. She lived in New York City for many years, but is now settled in western Massachusets.

The fact that I’ve read this book shows how I’ve become more adjusted to reading about cancer than I was a few years ago. At that time I had grave misgivings about reading about breast cancer because my mother had died from it many years ago. But I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year last August and was so encouraged by how treatment has improved over the years that I’m now able to face reading about it. I haven’t had a mastectomy as Susan Cummings had but I was able to identity with some of the feelings she describes. Even so, I hesitated about reading the book as everyone has their own ways of coping and everybody’s experience is different.

Susan Cummings was diagnosed with cancer in 1992 and she chose to have a mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy followed by radiation because her surgeon said it would be a more assured cure. She didn’t move on after the operation and struggled with fear that the cancer would recur and with shame about her disfigured body.

Her book follows her thoughts and feelings over the six years after her surgery with openness. At times she was depressed, at others more optimistic and cheerful, accepting her body for what it is. I thought it was very good, easy to read and encouraging to read about someone who had not only survived but had managed to overcome her problems and face up to life with courage. Throughout the book I thought she looked realistically at the options open to her. It’s also an account of relationships and how they change, about her childhood and about different and alternative methods of healing.  I’m glad to have received and read it.

Full Tilt: Book Beginnings

One of the books I’m reading is Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Dunkirk to Delhi on a Bicycle. It was first published in 1965 and is an account of her journey in 1963. I’m finding it slow reading because I’m constantly wondering about the places she describes, how they’ve changed since the early 1960s and looking them up.

Her journey took her through Europe, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan and into India. She travelled on her own, with a revolver in her saddle bag. It’s amazing.

It begins with her desire to cycle to India:

On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as presents and a few days later I decided to cycle to India. I’ve never forgotten the exact spot on a hill near my home at Lismore, County Waterford, where the decision was made and it seemed to me then, as it still seems to me now, a logical decision, based on the discoveries that cycling was a most satisfactory method of transport and that (excluding the USSR for political reasons) the way to India offered few watery obstacles than any other destination at a similar distance. (page 1)

And that is what she did 21 years later.

So far I have travelled with her to Afghanistan, where she is on her way to Kabul via Khandahar. Needless to say I’m struck with thoughts about how much has changed in the world since then. I’m full of questions, not just about the current situation with all the places she describes, but also about how she managed it, how she found out where to stay, and how she communicated with people for example.

It’s very much a personal account, not so much about the actual cycling, although I was amused by her account of getting her cycle repaired in a Persian cycle shop where they would not use a screwdriver but hammered every screw into place. Not so funny, because a few days later the back wheel came off, as the relevant screw had been ruined!

Book Beginnings on Fridays is hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader.

October’s Books

October has been another good month for reading. As in September I read ten books, listed below (the titles are linked to my posts on the books):

  1. The Judgement of Strangers by Andrew Taylor 4/5
  2. Dancing Backwards by Salley Vickers 3.5/5 (library book)
  3. Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson 3/5 (Kindle)
  4. The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas 4.5/5 (library book)
  5. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan 3/5
  6. The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz 4/5
  7. Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie 4.5/5
  8. Mrs Harris MP by Paul Gallico 4/5
  9. The History of Scotland by Richard Killen 4/5 (from TBR books)
  10. The Expats by Chris Pavone 3.5/5 (Kindle)

So, a total of 9 fiction books of which 6 were crime fiction, and 1 non fiction. Two of the books were library books, 2 were e-books and 1 book was from my to-be-read books (books I’ve owned before January 2012).

It’s difficult to pick a Book of the Month this time as I’ve rated all of the books as 3 and over (meaning they were good, enjoyable books), with just two as 4.5/5 (meaning I thought they were very good and I wanted to get back to them each time I had to stop reading).

I was tempted to say my Book of the Month is Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, because it’s good on characterisation, but overall I think it has to be The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas for it’s sheer quirkiness and cleverly constructed plot.

For more books of the month see Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Pick of the Month on her blog Mysteries in Paradise.

 

Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire and moved to Slad when he was three in 1917. He died there in 1997. His best known book is Cider With Rosie (1959) which I loved. It covers his childhood years in Slad and it is absolutely fascinating. He was also a poet and this book reads like a prose poem throughout – I wrote about it here.

I’ve recently read another two of Laurie Lee’s books – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), which is about his life after he left his home in Slad, and A Rose for Winter (1955), which is a record of his travels in Andalusia 15 years after he first went there.

 As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is the second of his autobiographical trilogy which began with Cider With Rosie followed by A Moment of War (1991). It begins in 1934 when Laurie Lee left his home in the Cotswolds and set out ‘to discover the world’. First he walked to London where he got a job on a building site and supplemented his income by playing the violin. He left for Spain a year later, landing at Vigo and then making his way on foot through to Castillo on the south coast, playing his violin in exchange for food and a bed for the night. Then the Spanish Civil War began in earnest and he came home on a Royal Navy destroyer that had been sent from Gibraltar to rescue any ‘British subjects who might be marooned on the coast.’ In an Epilogue he explains how he had shameful doubts about leaving Spain and so he returned to join the Republicans.

Lee writes vivid, lyrical prose with beautiful descriptions of the countryside, the scorching heat, the poverty and the people, so although I haven’t been to any of the places he describes it was easy to visualise the scenes. It’s not just the scenery he captures, but also the atmosphere, the splendour and squalor, and the desperation and also the love and enthusiasm for life.

In A Rose in Winter Lee writes about his travels in Andalusia which he visited with his wife fifteen years after his last time there during the Spanish Civil War. Again, he describes the towns and countryside beautifully, portraying the poverty, the hospitality and the changes the Civil War had inflicted. He takes part in religious processions, goes to a bull fight and watches the ‘most fundamental, most mysterious of all encounters in Andalusian folk-music – the cante flamenco’, a most dramatic and erotic performance.

Reading them one after the other I was struck by his descriptions of the towns – Seville, for example, in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning was

… dazzling – a creamy crustation of flower-banked houses fanning out from each bank of the river. The Moorish occupation had bequeathed the affection for water around which so many of even the poorest dwellings were built – a thousand miniature patios set with inexhaustible fountains which fell trickling upon ferns and leaves, each a nest of green repeated in endless variations around this theme of domestic oasis. (page 126)

and in A Rose for Winter

So Seville remains, favoured and sensual, exuding from the banks of its golden river a miasma of perpetual excitement, compounded of those appetites that are most particularly Spanish – chivalry, bloodshed, poetry and religious mortification. (page 34)

Katrina commented on my previous post about As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning that she was disappointed to read that Laurie Lee’s Spanish experiences were almost all fiction. I tried to find out more about this. There are doubts that Lee falsified and embellished his involvement in the Spanish Civil War in A Moment of War (which I haven’t read). However, his widow denied this. In an interview recorded in The New York Times, 24 February 1985, Lee, talking about Cider With Rosie said  “… it is not so much about me as about the world that I observed from my earliest years. It was a world that I wanted to record because it was such a miracle visitation to me. I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it.” (See this short biography)

Whether his books are fictionalised accounts of his life or not, I like them. They evoke the past – a world long gone – and give a sense of what life was like. I like to think they portray truth, even if all the facts may not be strictly accurate.

From the Archives: Biographies

This is a second post in which I’m following Simon’s example at Stuck in a Book of posts in which he revisits his old reviews. I’ve been looking back into my archives at biographies – triggered by Katrina’s post on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca Notebook, which I’ve also read and written about in 2010.

So here’s a list of some of my posts on biographies of authors – with links to the posts, a short summary and a quotation from my review.

First of all two from 2007:

  • Daphne by Margaret Forster – a biography of Daphne Du Maurier, the author of Rebecca etc

From my post: There is too much I could say about ‘Daphne’, not least that it is a candid account of her relationships, eg her troubled married life; wartime love affair; and friendships with Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday, as well as an excellent source of information on Du Maurier’s method of writing and views on life.

  • Lewis Carroll by Morton N Cohen – a biography of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) a long post  which has a somewhat controversial interpretation of some aspects of Dodgson’s life.

From my post: his account of Charles Dodgson’s life is basically chronological, but because he also looks at different aspects of Charles’s life it is a bit repetitive. As biographies go this is not one of the most straightforward or readable. It’s extremely detailed and at nearly 600 pages it is not a quick read.

One from 2008:

  • Dear Dodie by Valerie Grove – biography of Dodie Smith, the author of I Capture the Castle etc.

From my post: It is very readable and gives a very full picture of Dodie’s life, and it has an excellent index (always a plus for me). 

And two from 2009:

  • Wild Mary by Patrick Marnham – biography of Mary Wesley, the author of Camomile Lawn and other books.

From my post:  … I certainly wouldn’t like to have met Mary. She seems to have been a difficult and determined woman who aroused strong passions in those who knew and loved her.

From my post: My outstanding impression of the book is how amazingly detailed it is given the fact that few records of her life have survived.

Teaser Tuesday: Laurie Lee

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of ‘Should Be Reading’.

I’m currently reading As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee, his autobiographical account of what he did after he left home in the Cotswolds in 1934 and walked through Spain. (He tells the story of his early years in Cider With Rosie, which I read and wrote about over three years ago.) Initially he had travelled to London, where he worked as a labourer on a building site, then knowing just one Spanish phrase for ‘Will you please give me a glass of water?’, he decided to go to Spain.

This passage shows how that phrase came in useful in one of the hottest days of that Spanish summer when he set out in the morning to walk to Valladolid:

After a while, being out-doors became a hallucination, and I felt there was no longer any air to breathe, only clinkered fumes and blasts of sulphur that seemed to rise through cracks in the ground. I remember stopping for water at silent farms where even the dogs were too exhausted to snarl, and where the water was scooped up from wells and irrigation  ditches and handed to me warm and green.

By mid-morning I was in a state of developing madness, possessed by deliriums of thirst, my brain running and reeling through all the usual obsessions that are said to accompany the man in the desert. Fantasies of water rose up and wrapped me in cool wet leaves, or pressed the thought of cucumber peel across my stinging eyes and filled my mouth with dripping moss. (page 72)

Just like Cider With Rosie, this book is beautifully written, lyrical and poetic capturing Spain as it was in the 1930s before the Civil War, beautiful countryside, both dazzling and squalid.

A book to savour.

A Card From Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp: Book Notes

I liked the look of A Card from Angela Carter when I saw it in the library. It’s a small book that slots easily into a pocket or handbag and is very short – just 103 pages. I thought it would be a nice change after some of the very long books I’ve been reading recently.

I also liked the concept – a study of Angela Carter using the postcards she had sent to Susannah Clapp, who is the literary executor of Angela Carter as well as being a publisher’s reader, editor and critic. She and Angela had been friends for a number of years.

Now, Angela Carter is one of those writers whose books I’ve been meaning to read and have never got round to them, so I thought this book, which forms a sort of biography would give me at least an elementary picture  of her life and work. And that’s just what it did. Now I really do want to read some of her books – Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales and Nights at the Circus, for example. I really find it hard to realise that it is twenty years ago now since she died at the age of 51 from lung cancer.  The fact that she had never made the shortlists of the Booker Prize led to the foundation of the Orange Prize, but this book, slight as it is, is the only biographical work to have been published.

Susannah Clapp uses the postcards Angela had sent to her ‘form a paper trail through her life.’ Sent from various places around the world some have a full message, some only a few words, which Susannah uses to paint a picture of what Angela was like, a ‘great curser’, capable of the sharpest of remarks, clever, unpredictable, quirky, and funny. She laughed and talked a lot. Using the postcards as a trigger, the book is mainly Susannah’s recollections of Angela, full of stories of her family life, her political views and what the critics made of her work. There’s also a considerable amount, considering the length of the book, about her physical appearance.

As for the postcards, I was disappointed at the black and white reproductions. I was also disappointed that as she is not a cat lover, Angela had not sent her any cards featuring felines, although she did send them to her friend and publisher Carmen Callil. Angela herself loved cats and her first book written at the age of six was called ‘Tom Cat Goes to Market’, which her mother eventually threw away!

Susannah Clapp, whilst allowing that Angela’s fiction and prose did not go unacknowledged while she was alive, considers that her work did not receive the acclamation it deserved because:

She was ten years too old and entirely too female to be mentioned routinely alongside Martin Amis,  Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan as being a young pillar of British fiction. She was twenty years too young to belong to what she considered the ‘alternate pantheon’ of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark in the forties, when ‘in a curious way, women formed the ascendancy.’ (page 3)

This is an entertaining and vivid account in miniature which left me wanting to know more and to read Angela Carter’s books for myself.

Library Loot

It’s been ages since I did a Library Loot post. These reflect the variety of books that I enjoy. For more details about the books click on the links which take you to Amazon UK:

  • D H Lawrence – Daughters of the Vicar. This is a novella written in 1911. I’d never come across this before and thought it looked interesting. It has a foreword by Anita Desai – she writes that ‘here in the little story, Daughters of the Vicar (could any title be more redolent of the England of its time?) we have the essential D H Lawrence – the little contained world in a mossy valley of coal-veined hills from which that D H Lawrence grew’.
  • Kate Atkinson – Started Early, Took My Dog. This is the fourth Jackson Brodie book, described by The Times as ‘A comic novel of great wit and virtuosity.’ I’ve been meaning to get this since it came out a couple of years ago.
  • Edna O’Brien – The Country Girls. This was first published in 1960 and it’s set in a country village in Ireland in the early 1960s – a period piece now. Her books then were both successful and scandalous. In her native Ireland she was considered irreligious.
  • Guilty Consciences: a Crime Writers’ Association Anthology, edited by Martin Edwards (himself a successful crime fiction writer and blogger). I had to borrow this collection of short stories from some of my favourite crime fiction authors.
  • Peter James – Looking Good Dead. Even though I’ve had a couple of Peter James’s books for a few years I’d never read them, until I started Dead Simple (the first Detective Superintendent Grace book) this week. I’m hooked – it’s really good. So when I saw this in the library today I was delighted – it’s the second of his Roy Grace books!
  • M R Hall – The Flight. Another series of crime fiction that I like – this is the fourth in Hall’s Coroner Jenny Cooper series. I’ve read the first and the third – Jenny Cooper is a coroner who acts as a detective. Again, another series that has me captivated.

And finally, two books on a subject that is equally as absorbing as reading and blogging – painting:

Both books include demonstrations and advice on techniques, types of paint and pastels, and composition. I just need to get painting – and reading!

Books of the Month: April

I’ve finished reading 8 books this month, 7 of them fiction and 1 non-fiction. Three of them are books from my to-be-read shelves (TBR), one is a library book, one borrowed from a friend and one is an e-book.
They are (listed in the order I finished them), with links to my posts:
  1. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier 4/5 (from TBR bks)
  2. The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie 3/5 (Poirot)
  3. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte 3/5 (Kindle)
  4. The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson 3/5 (from TBR books)
  5. The Village by Marghanita Laski 5/5 (borrowed from a friend)
  6. Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng (library book) 3.5/5
  7. Ninepins by Rosy Thornton (author review copy) 4.5/5
  8. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel 4/5 (post to follow)

So, going off my ratings (which are purely subjective) my pick of the month is The Village by Marghanita Laski, with Ninepins by Rosy Thornton a close second.

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. My crime fiction reading this month has been less than usual, with just two books:

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie and The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson

and I’ve rated them both 3/5 – so a dead heat.

Daphne du Maurier: Fact and Fiction

Recently I’ve had a bit of a run on books by and about Daphne du Maurier. First of all I read The Parasites, which reminded me that I’d had Justine Picardie’s novel, Daphne sitting on my bookshelves unread, so I immediately got it down. Then I just had to read My Cousin Rachel, a book I’ve had for years and never got round to reading before now. After that I read Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng, just because it was one of the books Justine Picardie consulted in writing her novel. I’ve previously read Margaret Forster’s biography Daphne du Maurier and Daphne du Maurier’s The ‘Rebecca’ Notebook and Other Memories, which is mainly autobiographical.

Daphne by Justine Picardie (2008) – synopsis (from the back cover):

It is 1957. As Daphne du Maurier wanders alone through her remote mansion on the Cornish coast, she is haunted by thoughts of her failing marriage and the legendary heroine of her most famous novel, Rebecca, who now seems close at hand. Seeking distraction, she becomes fascinated by Branwell, the reprobate brother of the Bronte sisters, and begins a correspondence with the enigmatic scholar Alex Symington in which truth and fiction combine. Meanwhile, in present day London, a lonely young woman struggles with her thesis on du Maurier and the Brontes and finds herself retreating from her distant husband into a fifty-year-old literary mystery.

My view: 4/5

This book merges fact and fiction so well that it’s hard to differentiate between the two. I much preferred the story of Daphne herself and her search for information about Branwell. I had to go back to Forster’s biography of Daphne to compare the accounts of her life, which matched up pretty well. I was less keen on the modern day story of a young woman, the second wife of an older man. It had too many obvious parallels with Rebecca for my liking. And if you haven’t read Rebecca, this book gives away the plot. There are also references to My Cousin Rachel, which I glossed over in case there were any spoilers there too (I don’t think there were). All in all, a very satisfying mystery about Daphne and the missing Bronte documents.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951) – synopsis (Amazon):

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet …might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?

My view: 4/5

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, completely taken in by the characters and loving the setting in an old mansion in Cornwall. The story is narrated by Philip, so the other characters are seen through his eyes. The tension mounts as Philip becomes obsessed with Rachel and I was never quite sure what was real and what to believe. He is not a stable character and as Rachel’s own thoughts are not revealed it’s not clear if she can be believed either, whether she is sincere or evil and manipulative.

Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir (1994) – synopsis (from the back cover):

In this moving and revealing memoir, Flavia Leng paints a powerful portrait of her mother, Daphne du Maurier. She presents an account of an unusual and often lonely childhood spent in London and especially Cornwall, at her mother’s beloved home, Menabilly. Family friends included Nelson and Ellen Doubleday, Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward. However, at the centre of this story is Daphne du Maurier herself. The book reveals a writer with a deep attachment to Cornwall, where she put down her roots and found inspiration for her novels, and who spent much of her life as a recluse, withdrawn not only from the outside world but also from members of her own family. A picture emerges of a woman who lived in a world of her own creation that was beyond the comprehension of those around her.

My view: 3.5/5

In the epilogue Flavia Leng, Daphne du Maurier younger daughter, explained that she began to write this memoir of her childhood two years before her mother died in 1989 and it was never meant for publication – it was just for the family. And that to me epitomises this memoir – it’s an account of her childhood and of her family as seen through a child’s eyes. It seems a lonely childhood, despite being the middle child. As children Flavia and her older sister Tessa didn’t get on and both she and Tessa saw that their mother lavished more affection on her beloved son, Christopher who they called Kits. But a picture emerges of Daphne, who they called Bing, as a solitary person, closeted away with her typewriter or lost in her world of ‘never, never land’, peopled by the characters she invented, with little time for her children, who were looked after by Nanny and then ‘Tod’, their governess.

Like her mother Flavia has a great love of Cornwall which shines through the book – she was never happier than when alone in Menabilly and the surrounding woodlands. It’s a sad memoir ending with Flavia feeling she had no roots left after her parents died:

I have heard it said that a person only really grows up when both parents have gone; what I do know is that life will never be quite the same again. Cornwall no longer holds the enchantment it once did. Gone is the excitement of driving down those leafy, winding roads to the lovely old houses, my beloved Menabilly, and then later Kilmarth where Bing lived out her years.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain is based on her diaries, telling of her life up to 1925, concentrating on the World War One years.

It is an absolutely fascinating account of the war and all its horror and sufferings, and very moving. Vera was a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) during the war, nursing casualties both in Britain and France. The conditions were appalling.

During the war her fiance, Roland Leighton, her brother, Edward, and two friends, Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson, were all killed. Roland was killed the day before he was due home on leave at Christmas 1915 and Edward was killed just a few months before the Armistice – all heart-breaking. Vera’s life was irrevocably changed – as were those of so many others.

For me, her account of the war years is the most outstanding in this book, the most personal and vivid. The preceding years are about her childhood and youth and bring to life the social conditions and her struggles for education. By the outbreak of war she was an undergraduate at Somerville College, Oxford. But I found the final section after the war to be more detached. It’s about her work as a speaker on the League of Nations and International Relations, about the development of the peace ideal. The language in this section is more formal and so does not come across as fresh and immediate as in those on her childhood and war years.

 I read this book as a result of reading Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams, Vera’s daughter. It slots nicely into the War through the Generations Challenge – World War One.

  • Paperback: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Virago; New Edition with new cover edition (2004)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0860680355
  • ISBN-13: 978-0860680352
  • Source: borrowed from a friend – I’ve now bought the e-book version
  • My rating 4/5 (it would have been 5/5 apart from the change in writing in the last section)

Happy Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day, or Mothering Sunday. My son knows what I like and sent me this book:

OakOak by Stephen Taylor

It’s a beautiful book telling and showing how British artist Stephen Taylor has painted the same oak tree in a field in Essex, England, dozens of times over a period of three years in extremes of weather and light, at all times of the year and hours of the day.

I’m fascinated by how artists create their pictures and this book is excellent. Not only is it full of illustrations, but Stephen also describes his methods of painting, outside and in the studio and explains what he was aiming to achieve.

I hope to write more about this book when I’ve had more time to study it. One thing that struck me immediately was this fact stated in Alain de Botton’s introduction:

The oak is estimated to be 250 years old. It was therefore already home to skylarks and starlings when Jane Austen was a baby and George III the ruler of the American colonies.

I love such connections! Thank you, Paul.

Teaser Tuesday – Testament of Youth

I’m currently reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. She was born in 1896 and this book is an Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900 – 1925. 

I’ve read up to the beginning of 1915, just after the outbreak of the First World War. It’s fascinating and there are so many passages I could highlight, but for now I’m quoting these that I read this morning. Vera Brittain wrote this book in 1933 and she pointed out the change from 1915 to 1933. Just think  of the vast difference between life now and then, nearly 100 years ago.

Sophisticated present-day girls, free immediately after leaving school to come and go as they wish, or living, as independent professional women, in their own rooms or flats, have no conception of the difficulties under which courtships were contracted by provincial young ladies in 1915. There was no privacy for a boy and girl whose mutual feelings had reached their most delicate and bewildering stage; the whole series of complicated relationships leading from acquaintance to engagement had to be conducted in public or not at all. (page 120)

Everything in a young woman’s life was supervised and discussed in the family circle, letters were observed and commented upon. Vera had never been anywhere by herself until she left home to go to Oxford University, on train journeys her ticket was bought for her and she had to send a telegram home immediately she arrived.

In 1915 (aged 19) she was deeply in love with a young man, Roland Leighton, her brother’s friend, but had never been alone with him or without constant observation and the possibility of interruption. She wrote:

Consequently, by the middle of that January, our desire to see one another alone had passed beyond the bounds of toleration. (page 121)

For more Teaser Tuesdays go to Should Be Reading.

‘New to Me’ Books

I had a good time at Barter Books in Alnwick yesterday. Bartering books is a good way to recycle the books I’m not going to read again. I took in a box of books and came home with these. As I had built up a nice little sum over my last few visits, I was able to indulge myself!

As you can see I was looking out for crime fiction and found three Agatha Christie’s I haven’t read:

  1. The Labours of Hercules – Poirot undertakes twelve cases before he retires to grow superior vegetable marrows.
  2. N or M? – a Tommy and Tuppence wartime mission.
  3. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – Poirot investigates the death of his dentist.

I also got another Wycliffe book by W J Burley – Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death, in which he investigates the murder of a bookseller.

And another Perry Mason book by Erle Stanley Gardner- The Case of the Howling Dog – according to superstition a howling dog means a death in the neighbourhood, then both the dog and his owner are killed.

I’ve read one of H R F Keating’s books before but none of his Inspector Ghote’s books – this one caught my eye, Inspector Ghote’s Good Crusade, in which a millionaire philanthropist, the founder of a Bombay home for vagrants is murdered.

I’ve never read any of Sue Grafton’s books but have read reviews of a few, so I was pleased to find the first of her A-Z series – A is for Alibi. Kinsey Malone, Private Investigator has a cold case, hired by Nikki Fife, convicted of the murder of her husband eight years earlier, to find the real killer. If I like these there are plenty more in the series to look out for – and yesterday Barter Books had a shelf-full.

As I still had credit left I splashed out and bought two rather more expensive hardback books on crime fiction, which are at the bottom of the pile in my photo:

  1. The Great Detectives by Julian Symons, fictional ‘biographies’ of seven detectives, including Sherlock Holmes in retirement! I’ve been watching the fantastic TV series Sherlock, so my interest is very high right now.
  2. Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler. I’m really excited by this book, even though it’s over 30 years since it was published. It’s a big, heavy volume which I’m sure is an excellent reference book, containing biographies and bibliographies of crime writers and articles on films, plays radio and TV series and so on. I’ll be dipping into it regularly.

And because I do like to read other books than crime fiction I also got these two books:

I’ve been attempting to draw and paint and this book, How to Draw Anything by Angela Gair makes it look easy, which of course it isn’t. But I’m hoping it will help me improve.

I looked briefly at the many bookcases of general fiction and was drawn (pun not intended!) to Still Life by A S Byatt. Maybe my mind was still on art but this book certainly caught my eye. It’s a novel set in the 1950s. The cover is Still Life with Coffeepot by Vincent Van Gogh.

Mini Reviews

I’ve been reading books recently and not writing anything about them. So, before they drop out of my mind completely here are a few notes:

Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee – this is a book about writing biography, which I’ve been reading on and off since I started it in 2007! I first wrote about my impressions in this post. It’s very good with an interesting selection, although some essays are a lot shorter than others. As with all books about writing it includes books and authors I haven’t read – and makes me want to read them – Eudora Welty for one. There are essays on T S Eliot, J M Coetzee, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few.

My rating 4/5

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – I bought this book several years ago, so it’s one off my to-be-read list. A fantasy/science fiction magical classic and 1963 Newbery Medal winning book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the story of Meg and Charles, searching for their father, a scientist, lost through a ‘wrinkle in time’, with wonderful characters such as Mrs  Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which to help them.

My rating 4.5/5

Maigret in Court by Georges Simenon. Maigret is two years from retirement and is wondering about this with foreboding. He does seem rather tired as he investigates the murder of a woman and small child. The book begins in court as Maigret gives evidence against Gaston Meurat, but he is beginning to have doubts that Meurat is the murderer and carries on investigating to save Meurat from execution. A complicated story, packed into 126 pages, that at times had me completely puzzled.

My rating 3/5

I read two books on Kindle:

Breakfast at the Hotel Deja Vu by Paul Torday. I rather liked this little e-book about a politician, a former MP exposed in the expenses scandal and staying in a hotel abroad, whilst he recovers from an illness and writes his memoirs. All is not as it seems, however, as each day he discovers he hasn’t actually written anything.And just who are the woman and young boy he sees each morning?

My rating 4/5

Crime in the Community by Cecilia Peartree – a free e-book from Amazon. I was disappointed with this one – too wordy, and convoluted. It’s about a small group of people who are supposed to be organising events to improve their community, but who actually don’t do anything except go to meetings. I found this part quite true to life for some committees I’ve known. But then it got tedious and eventually too far-fetched with a retired spy, a missing person and a mental breakdown.

My rating 2/5

Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

I didn’t watch the TV series Faulks on Fiction but was interested enough to buy the book. It seemed a good idea to trace the history of the novel through a selection of fictional characters. To a certain extent Sebastian Faulks has done that, but the book is really about the characters and only touches on the development of the novel. Faulks, he reveals in the Acknowledgements, would prefer his book to be called Novel People, which I think would be better.

And if you haven’t read the books and don’t want to know the plot don’t read this book, because Faulks gives these in detail. There are 28 characters, categorised into Heroes, Lovers, Snobs and Villains. It is a very personal book as Faulks himself features in his descriptions, telling of when he first read a book and what he thought on reading it and his impressions on re-reading. I liked that. He also discusses the way literary criticism has changed in that over the last twenty years the author’s life and its bearing on the works has become an issue:

The bad news was that it opened the door to speculation and gossip. By assuming that all works of art are an expression of the authors’ personality, the biographical critics reduced the act of creation to a sideshow. It has now reached such a pass that the only topic some literary journalists seem able to approach with confidence is the question of whom or what people and events in novels are ‘based on’. (page 2)

Accordingly, Faulks focuses on the plot and the characters rather than on the authors, although oddly enough he does indulge in some ‘based on’ descriptions, eg in his chapter on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair where he discusses whether or not the character of Sarah was ‘based on’ a real life lover of Greene’s.

Faulks is rather disparaging about monthly book groups where the topic is not the novel but a discussion about the author’s life and how it is reflected in the book, together with how this is borne out by the ‘readers’ own experience of such matters’. (page 6) His book aims to show how novelists ‘create – from nothing, or from imagination’. It’s hard to imagine that novels are so divorced from life!

However, despite this and despite not agreeing with all of his interpretations – it would be strange if we all agreed about everything – I enjoyed reading this book. I’d read the majority of the books he discusses and enjoyed being reminded of them – books such as Pride and Prejudice, although Faulks fails to see the attraction of Mr Darcy, who he places in the section on Lovers, describing him as a  ‘rude and gloomy man‘, a ‘manipulative, hypocritical, self-centred depressive‘ and considers that Elizabeth is his ‘lifelong Prozac‘.  I really must re-read Pride and Prejudice, because my memory of Darcy and Elizabeth is very different from Faulks’s picture of them.

Other books he discusses include Robinson Crusoe, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Clarissa and Great Expectations, to name but a few.

I haven’t read Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and as I  want to read it without Faulks’s opinion in my mind I haven’t read the chapter on Count Fosco in the section on Villains.

As for the other books I haven’t read, which he describes, I think I don’t need or want to read them, such as Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Money by Martin Amis,or The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollingsworth. I also don’t want to read Faulks’s new James Bond book, Devil May Care, which he plugs in the section on Snobs. But maybe I’m being too dismissive, because as I didn’t agree with all his views on the books I have read, so maybe I should read the books for myself.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: BBC Books (1 Sep 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1846079608
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846079603
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 3/5

War Through the Generations Challenge – World War One

I’ve been thinking about Reading Challenges for next year. At first I thought I would only do one or two, because I start out full of enthusiasm and then find that by listing the books I want to read often ends up with me forgetting about them and reading something completely different. I’m very much a ‘mood’ reader. This made me feel a bit pressured when I remembered that I haven’t read the books/finished a particular challenge.

But then I realised that the pressure is purely of my own making, and as I really enjoy making lists and seeing which books I already own would fit into a challenge, I’ve decided to go ahead, make my lists and if I do complete the challenge, so much the better. This of course, means that I’m not treating it as a ‘challenge’, but then I don’t consider reading is or should be a ‘challenge’.  I  think I’ll call it ‘themed reading‘.

My books fit so well into this theme, so I’m signing up for The War Through the Generations:World War 1 Challenge.

Here are the details:

The challenge will run from January 1, 2012, through December 31, 2012.

The books, whether fiction or non-fiction must have WWI as the primary or secondary theme and occur before, during, or after the war, so long as the conflicts that led to the war or the war itself are important to the story. Books from other challenges count so long as they meet the above criteria.

  • Dip: Read 1-3 books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.
  • Wade: Read 4-10 books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.
  • Swim: Read 11 or more books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

And these are my books:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – a book I mean to read each year. I started it a couple of years ago and never finished it. I’ll have to start again.
  • The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – set in 1918 as the War came to an end. This is the third in the trilogy. I haven’t got the first two, so hope this stands well on its own.
  • Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. This is Vera Brittain’s autobiography. She was 21 in 1914.
  • Chronicle of Youth by Vera Brittain. This is her war diary 1913 – 1917 on which she based Testament of Youth.