Category Archives: Non-fiction

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.