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!

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.

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)

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.

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!

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

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!

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.

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.

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)

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.

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.

Book Notes

I’ve recently finished reading two books:

It’s taken me several weeks to read Eden’s Outcasts and at one point I nearly abandoned it because I thought it was too much about Louisa May Alcott’s father. I’m glad I persevered because the second half of the book  concentrates much more on Louisa and I realised that the title does convey the subject matter very well as it reveals the relationship between them. Bronson Alcott was a complicated person who appeared to have mellowed as he grew older. Louisa, well known and loved for her children’s books never achieved her ambition to write serious books for mature readers, enduring debilitating illness in her later years.

I learnt a lot from this book about their lives and their relationships with other writers such as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. It’s a very detailed book and there is no way I can summarise their lives in a few words and a double biography is even more difficult to deal with. In the final  paragraph Matteson sums this up very well:

To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them. However, as Bronson Alcott learned to his amusement, the life written is never the same as the life lived. Journals and letters tell much. Biographers can sift the sands as they think wisest. But the bonds that two persons share consist also of encouraging words, a reassuring hand on a tired shoulder, fleeting smiles, and soon-forgotten quarrels. These contracts, so indispensable to existence, leave no durable trace. As writers, as reformers, and as inspirations, Bronson and Louisa still exist for us. Yet this existence, on whatever terms we may experience it, is no more than a shadow when measured against the way they existed for each other. (page 428)

Turning to Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams,  I thought an autobiography would maybe include more personal recollections and descriptions of events. It starts off very well with her descriptions of her early childhood – her earliest memory from 1933 when she was three and fell on her head from a swing at the Chelsea Babies’ playground. I was very impressed by her memories of the time she spent in America as a young girl during the Second World War and her self-reliance and independence.

However, much of the book consists of her accounts of her political life, making it very much a political history of Britain, rather than a personal account of her life. There are some personal memories and I particularly liked her descriptions of her fellow politicians – Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and so one – very little about Margaret Thatcher and a few pertinent comments about Tony Blair. Having said that she comes over as a very honest, genuine person who cares deeply about being a good politician. And maybe it is more personal than I originally thought because in the last chapter she writes these words:

Being an MP is like being a member of an extended family. You learn to love your family with all its knobbliness, perversity, courage and complexity. You learn respect and build up trust. …

To be a good politician in a democracy you have to care for people and be fascinated by what makes them tick. … The politician whose eyes shift constantly to his watch, or to the apparently most important person in the room, feeds the distrust felt by the electorate. It is a distrust born of being manipulated, conned, even decieved and it is fed by a relentlessly cynical national press. (page 389)

A side effect of reading this book is that I’m going to read her mother’s book, a best seller published in 1933 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Shirley describes it as

… an autobiography of her wartime experience as a nurse and her personal agony in losing all the young men she most loved … (page 13)

In the preface to Testimony of Youth she wrote:

Testimony of Youth is, I think, the only book about the First World War written by a woman, and indeed a woman whose childhood had been a very sheltered one. It is an autobiography and also an elegy for a generation. For many men and women, it described movingly how they themselves felt.

This looks like a much more personal autobiography.

Read, Reading, To Read – Sunday Salon

I’ve just finished reading Exit Lines by Reginald Hill, a Dalziel and Pascoe novel – my post to follow. I’m almost up-to-date with reviews of books I’ve read recently, just Exit Lines and Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden to do.

As usual when I’ve finished one book I’m not sure what to read next. I’m still reading Eden’s Outcasts: the story of  Louisa May Alcott and Her Father and have yet to get going again on The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney, but I fancy reading something different.

I go to a face-to-face book group and the next book we’ll be discussing is Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams. I think I’ll start reading it soon. I know very little about her, other than the bare facts that she was a member of the Labour party for years before becoming one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party, one of the ‘Gang of Four’. I particularly like the title of this autobiography, which came about as she and her brother liked challenges; one challenge being her

parents’ bookcases which ran from floor to ceiling like climbing-frames, with the added zest of forbidden books on the top shelf. Soon after I could read, I sneaked Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes from that top shelf. I had learned from my brother that these were naughty books. They turned out to be very boring, but I was amazed by one illustration, a blurred spot underneath which was written: ‘This photograph of a human egg is several times life-size’. (page 3)

Although we’re not meeting until the last week in April I think I’d better start reading this soon as autobiographies/biographies take me longer to read than novels.

But I’d like to fit in something else as well. I have now built up quite a lot of books and samples on my Kindle and having watched some of the My Life in Books programmes last week I’m quite keen to read some of the books mentioned – such as Black Beauty, Crime and Punishment, The Moonstone, Treasure Island and Nicholas Nickleby, all of which I have at my fingertips. As usual, my wishes run away with me – so many books and not enough time to read all of them. And my reading time has been reduced recently as I have started to go to an art group. Painting, even though I’m terrible at it or maybe because I’m so inexperienced and lacking in talent, is just as time-consuming as reading – but it is so very enjoyable.

Crime Fiction Alphabet – A is for …

… Agatha Christie

For the first of this year’s Crime Fiction Alphabet hosted by Kerrie I’ve chosen a double A – AgathaChristie – An Autobiography.

I finished reading it at the end of December. I can’t remember exactly when I began reading it. I think it was the end of May because in a Sunday Salon post then I wrote that I was thinking about starting it. I read short sections of it most days since I started it and felt quite sad when I came to the end. It was like having a daily chat with Agatha.

It took her fifteen years to write it. She stopped in 1965 when she was 75 because she thought that it was the ‘right moment to stop’. It seems right that a book that took her so long to write should take me a long time to read. 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. I’ve written about her Autobiography in a few posts as I was reading it:

It struck me as I was reading her Autobiography that  it’s not very easy to work out the dates of many of the events she described. It follows on chronologically but is so interspersed with her thoughts and reflections that I forgot the date, or she hadn’t mentioned it. 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.

Towards the end of the book she wrote that she had decided not to tidy up her Autobiography too much:

Nothing is more wearying than going over things you have written and trying to arrange them in proper sequence or turn them the other way around. I am perhaps talking to myself – a thing one is apt to do when one is a writer. (page 455)

What she remembered most were things that were most vivid and it was places that remained most clearly in her memory. She never had a good memory for people, apart from her own dear friends:

A sudden thrill of pleasure comes into my mind – a tree, a hill, a white house tucked away somewhere by a canal, the shape of a hill. Sometimes I have to think for a moment to remember where and when. Then the picture comes clearly, and I know. (page 416)

She wrote quite a lot about her writing methods, writing criticism, hearing your own voice, economy in wording, writing detective stories, adapting plays and writing them herself, the right length for a detective story (50,000 words), writing two novels at once, writing books set in historical periods and the joy of creation. The one book that satisfied her completely is not one of her detective books but one she wrote under the name of Mary Westmacott – Absent in Spring – and she wrote it in three days flat (pages 516 -7).

She ended the book with these words:

A child says ‘Thank God for my good dinner’.

What can I say at seventy-five? ‘Thank God for my good life, and for all the love that has been given to me.’ (page 551)

Agatha Christie on Individuality

This morning I was reading more of Agatha Christie’s Autobiography. It feels as though I’m listening to her as she recalls her life and in this morning’s chapter she was talking about individuality and writing. She said that even though you admire certain writers and may wish to write like them, you know you can’t:

If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark or Graham Greene, I should jump to high heaven with delight, but I know that I can’t, and it would never occur to me to attempt to copy them. I have learnt that I am me, that I can do the things, that as one might put it, me can do, but I cannot do the things that me would like to do. As the Bible says, ‘Who by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature?’ (page 422)

So it’s no good me wanting  to write like she did!

She went on to list the things she couldn’t do:

  • she was never good at games
  • she was not a conversationalist
  • she couldn’t draw or paint
  • she couldn’t model or do any kind of sculpture
  • she couldn’t hurry without getting rattled
  • she couldn’t say what she meant easily – she could write it better

and then the things she could do:

  • she could write
  • she could be a reasonable musician, but not a professional one
  • she could improvise when in difficulties

and things she didn’t like:

  • crowds
  • being jammed up against people
  • loud voices
  • noise
  • protracted talking
  • parties, especially cocktail parties
  • cigarette smoke and smoking generally
  • any kind of drink except in cooking
  • marmalade
  • oysters
  • lukewarm food
  • grey skies
  • the feet of birds, or the feel of birds altogether
  • and most of all – the taste and smell of hot milk

finally, things she did like:

  • sunshine
  • apples
  • almost any kind of music
  • railway trains
  • numerical puzzles and anything to do with numbers
  • going to the sea
  • bathing and swimming
  • silence
  • sleeping
  • dreaming
  • eating
  • the smell of coffee
  • lilies of the valley
  • most dogs
  • going to the theatre

Apart from a few exceptions we like and dislike most of the same things – I do like a glass of wine for example, I’m useless at numerical puzzles, can’t do sudoku (I bet she’d have liked that), I’m not fond of swimming, and I like cats as well as dogs.

Weekly Geeks – The books you’ve waited too long to read

This weekend, Weekly Geeks host EH asks about books we have waited too long to read.

Is there a book that has been hanging around your reading pile for far too long before you got to it. A book that probably got packed away until you accidentally got to it or a book that you read a few pages in and never got back to.

There are quite a few books over the last few years that I have started to read and not finished. I don’t mean the ones that I don’t intend to finish. Rather these are books I would like to read all the way through but have not so far got round to it. They are mainly non-fiction and the reason I’ve not finished them is usually that they take more time to read than fiction and so I slot other books in between reading sessions and sometimes just don’t get back to the non-fiction.

These are some of them – all books I do intend to finish:

  1. Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin – I stopped reading this partway in as I decided I needed to read more of Hardy’s own books before going further. I’ve read a few more of his books, but have never got back to this biography.
  2. A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela – I must have read about half of this book before I stopped. It was so long ago that I can’t remember why I didn’t finish it.
  3. A Dead Language by Peter Rushforth – this one is fiction. I loved Pinkerton’s Sister by Rushforth. I found A Dead Language hard-going, but I will get back to it one day. The downside is that I’ll have to start it again as I’ve forgotten who all the characters are.
  4. 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro – I can’t remember any specific reason I haven’t finished this book.
  5. Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each essay that I’ve read so far. As the essays are self-contained there is no problem in reading it in instalments.

Sunday Salon – Book Connections

The Sunday Salon is the place to meet and blog about the books we’re reading.

This morning I read some more from Agatha Christie’s book An Autobiography. It’s now 1917 and Agatha is working in a hospital dispensary in Torquay and also studying to take her Apothecaries Hall examination so she could dispense for a medical officer or a chemist. As part of her training she had instruction from a proper commercial chemist – a Mr P, one of the principal pharmacists in Torquay. She described him as

… a rather funny-looking little man, very roundabout and robin redbreast looking, with a nice pink face. There was a general air of childish satisfaction about him. (page 261)

He once showed her a piece of deadly curare that he carried around with him in his pocket. Curare once it has entered the bloodstream paralyses and kills you. He said he carried it in his pocket because it made him feel powerful. Agatha often wondered about him afterwards. In spite of his cherubic appearance she thought he was possibly a dangerous man and years later used her memory in writing The Pale Horse.

I then picked up H R F Keating’s book A Detective at Death’s Door and started reading it, whilst drinking a cup of coffee. I had intended reading one of my own books but this library book was closer to hand than any of my own books. In this book Superintendent Harriet Martens is just recovering from a nearly fatal dose of aconitine. Her husband, John recognised the symptoms from reading their description in an imaginary Agatha Christie book, Twisted Wolfsbane – aconitine is also known as wolfsbane.  Then a few pages later I came across this coincidence – Harriet quoted the passage in Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography about the chemist carrying round a piece of curare – the same passage I’d read half an hour or so earlier.

Agatha Christie on …

I’ve been reading Agatha Christie’s Autobiography for a while now – just a chapter or so each day. Instead of writing about the details of her life I thought I’d do a few posts now and then on things she drops into the narrative. Ideas she had, thoughts on various things, books she liked and so on.

Today, I’ve chosen to focus on her joy in being alive and happiness.

She’s writing about the time in her life when she was thirteen or fourteen:

Always when I woke up, I had the feeling which I am sure must be natural to all of us, a joy in being alive. I don’t say you feel it consciously – you don’t – but there you are, you are alive, and you open your eyes, and here is another day; another step as it were, on your journey to an unknown place. That very exciting journey which is your life. Not that it is necessarily going to be exciting as a life, but it will be exciting to you because it is your life. That is one of the great secrets of existence, enjoying the gift of life that has been given to you.(page 133)

She goes on to say that not every day will be enjoyable, for example if you remember you’re going to the dentist. However, she thinks it does depend upon your temperament – whether you’re a happy person or melancholic:

Naturally happy people can be unhappy and melancholic people enjoy themselves. But if I were taking a gift to a child at a christening that is what I would choose: a naturally happy frame of mind. (page 133)

I like that.

Dame Agatha Christie: An A-Z

This is my contribution to The Agatha Christie blog tour to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth in September, in which each participant focuses on some aspect of Agatha Christie’s life and work. As I’m reading her books and writing about them already I thought I’d concentrate more on her life. I’ve listed the books I’ve read on my Agatha Christie Reading Challenge page.

This is a mixture of quotations and Agatha’s thoughts and observations that I noted whilst reading her book An Autobiography (I’m reading the paperback version). First of all a quotation which I think sums up her attitude so well:

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing. (An Autobiography, page 11)

Here is an A-Z of miscellaneous information relating to Agatha Christie, all found in An Autobiography, except for the letters G, X and Z. For many letters I could have chosen many different subjects, so this is really just a sketchy look at Agatha’s life. I have tried not to use the titles of her books or the characters, but there are one or two:

A is for An Autobiography. She started to write this in April 1950 when she was 60 and stopped writing it 15 years later. She didn’t include everything and there is no mention of her disappearance in 1926.  In the Epilogue she wrote:

I have remembered, I suppose, what I wanted to remember; many ridiculous things for no reason that makes sense. That is the way humans are made. (page 548)

B is for Baghdad. When Agatha first met her second husband, Max Mallowan he took her on a tour of Baghdad. She accompanied Max on many of his archaeological expeditions, staying in different places. Agatha’s house in Baghdad was an old Turkish house on the west bank of the Tigris. It was cool, with a courtyard and palm-trees coming up to the balcony rail, in front of palm-gardens and a tiny squatter’s house made out of petrol tins. (page 546-7)

C is for Crime and Criminals. Agatha was interested in reading books by people who had been in contact with criminals, especially those who had tried to help them, or ‘reform’ them. (page 452)

D is for Divorce. She wrote:

I had been brought up, of course, like everyone in my day to have a horror of divorce, and I still have it. (page 365)

E is for Earliest Memory. Agatha had  a happy childhood. Her first memory is of her 3rd birthday and having tea in the garden at Ashfield. There was  a birthday cake with sugar icing and candles and what was exciting to her was a tiny red spider that ran across the white tablecoth, which her mother told her was ‘a lucky spider, Agatha, a lucky spider for  your birthday’. (page 19)

F is for her First short story written when she was a child:

It was in the nature of a melodrama, very short, since both writing and spelling were a pain to me. It concerned the noble Lady Madge (good) and the bloody Lady Agatha (bad) and a plot that involved the inheritance of a castle. (page 55)

G is for Grave. Agatha died on 12 January 1976 at Winterbrook, her home in Wallingford. Her grave is in St Mary’s Parish Church in Cholsey, a village near Wallingford. I wrote about it last September (including photos).

H is for Houses. Agatha’s love of houses 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.

I can see quite plainly now that I have continued to play houses ever since. I have gone over innumerable houses, bought houses, exchanged them for other houses, furnished houses, decorated houses, made structural alterations to houses. Houses! God bless houses! (page 62)

I is for Imagination and Ideas. Sometimes Agatha’s ideas just came into her head, and she jotted them down in her notebooks, which she invariably then lost. Sometimes she devised plots that teased her mind and she liked to think about and play with them before fixing the details. (pages 451-2) She liked the light-hearted thriller and the intricate detective story with an involved plot, which required a great deal of work, but was always rewarding.(page 453)

J is for Jane Marple. When Miss Marple first appeared she was about 65 -70 years old. Agatha envisaged her as ‘the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother’s Ealing cronies’. But she was not like Agatha’s grandmother at all – being ‘far more fussy and spinsterish‘. People suggested that Miss Marple and Poirot should meet, but Agatha dismissed that idea because she didn’t think they would enjoy it at all and wouldn’t be at home in each other’s world. In one way Miss Marple was like her grandmother – in her powers of prophecy and kindness. (pages 447 -50)

K is for Nancy Kon. Nancy and Agatha met when Madge, her sister, married James Watts, Nancy’s brother. They were friends from then on. They both liked to drink cream by the half-pint.

L is for Life. She wrote that life seemed to fall into three parts: the present, absorbing and rushing by, the future, dim and uncertain, and the past ‘the memories and realities that are the bedrock of one’s present   life…’ (page 10)

M is for Memories. She thought that:

one’s memories represent those moments, which insignificant as they may seem, nevertheless represent the inner self and oneself as most really oneself.  (page 11)

N is for Nimrud where Agatha was living when she started writing her autobiography, on an expedition with her second husband, Max Mallowan, who was leading the British School of Archaeology in Iraq team’s excavations of the ancient city. They lived in the Expedition House, built of mud-brick. She wrote in a room added to the House, a room measuring about three metres square, with rush mats and rugs. Through the window she looked out east towards the snow-topped mountains of Kurdistan. (page 9)

O is for Orient Express. It was Agatha’s ambition to travel on the Orient Express, which she achieved in 1928. She went on her own on a journey on the Simpleton-Orient Express from Calais to Stamboul, and from there to Damascus. Her account of her journey is in pages 374 – 9. After a three-day stay in Damascus she travelled to Baghdad across the desert, a forty-eight-hour trip in a bus operated by two Australian brothers Gerry and Norman Nairn.

P is for Poetry. As well as her fiction works Agatha also wrote poetry and in her teens won several prizes in The Poetry Review. A collection of her poems was published in 1924 – The Road of Dreams and a later collection entitled Poems in 1973.

Q is for Quin. Mr Quin was one of Agatha’s favourite characters;

Mr Quin was a figure who just entered into a story – a catalyst, no more – his mere presence affected human beings. There would be some little fact, some apparently irrelevant phrase, to point him out for what he was: a man shown in a harlequin-coloured light that fell on him through a glass window; a sudden appearance or disappearance. Always he stood for the same thing: he was a friend of lovers, and connected with death. (page 447)

R is for Rosalind. Agatha’s daughter was born in 1919. When she was born Agatha thought that ‘she seemed from an early age both gay and determined.’ (page 274) Later in their lives AgathA wrote that Rosalind had ‘had the valuable role in life of eternally trying to discourage me without success.’ (page 489)

S is for Siblings. As a child Agatha remembered little of her older brother and sister, Monty and Madge, as they were away at school. Madge also wrote stories, many of which were accepted for Vanity Fair, a literary achievement (page 128). Agatha thought she wrote very well. Monty was a source of family trouble and worry. He was intensely musical, very charming and always had someone who would lend him money and do things for him (page 83).

T is for Travel. Agatha loved travelling and longed to see the world, which she did with her first husband, Archie Christie (pages 298 – 317). Later she travelled extensively with her second husband, Max.

U is for Ur. Agatha also visited the archaeological dig at Ur for the first time after her trip on the Orient Express. She went as a guest of the Woolleys (Sir Charles was the leader of the expedition). She was given VIP treament because Sir Charles’s wife, Katherine had just read and enjoyed Agatha’s book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (page 386-9)

V is for VAD. Agatha was a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. She had taken First Aid and Home Nursing classes before the outbreak of war in 1914. She like nursing:

From the beginning I enjoyed nursing. I took to it easily, and found it, and have always found it, one of the most rewarding professions that anyone could follow. I think if I had not married, that after the war I should have trained as a real nurse. (page 236)

W is for Writing. Throughout her autobiography Agatha writes about writing, how she wrote, where she wrote and so on. Just one quote:

… I knew that writing was my steady, solid profession. I could go on inventing my plots and writing my books until I went gaga.

There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself on a sofa, feeling you want to cry your head off. (page 490)

X is an interesting letter. As Dr Thompson thinking about the murderer in The ABC Murders, said:

Interesting to know how he’d have dealt with the letter X.

Y is for Yugoslavia. Agatha and Max went to Dubrovnik and Split for their honeymoon, where they ‘had enormous fun with the menus‘; written in Yugoslavian they didn’t know what they were ordering and none of the restaurants ever wished them to pay the bill.

Z is for Zero Hour. I haven’t come across anything in the autobiography for Z. Towards Zero is both a play and a novel in which Agatha asserts that destiny manipulates us, moving us towards a decisive zero hour. (The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie by Charles Osborne, page 172)

Sunday Salon – Current Books

I finished reading The Fall by Simon Mawer yesterday. It is the story of Rob Dewar and Jamie Matthewson from their childhood up to Jamie’s death 40 years later. But it’s also the story of their parents and how their lives are interlinked. I found it enthralling, one of those books that make me want to look at the ending to see how it all turns out. I managed to stop myself, however, and read impatiently to the end anxious to know what actually happened between them all.

It moves between the two generations beginning in the present day, when Rob hears on the news that Jamie, a renowned mountaineer has fallen to his death in Snowdonia. No one is sure whether it was an accident or suicide. Then it moves  back 40 years to the time when the two boys met, both fatherless – Jamie’s dad, Guy went missing when climbing Kangchenjunga and Rob’s parents are divorced, and back yet further again to 1940 when Guy Matthewson met the boys’ mothers – Meg (later calling herself Caroline) and Diana. And so  the drama unfolds in the mountains of Wales and the Alps, culminating on the North Face of the Eiger.

The Fall is not just a gripping account of the dangers of rock climbing and mountaineering, but it’s also a love story, with the intricacies of relationships, and love, loss and betrayal at its core. The love stories and the climbing scenes are both shown through the imagery of falling with all its ambiguities – actual falls, falling in love, falling pregnant and falling from grace. It’s beautifully written, capturing not only the mountain landscape but also London during the Blitz. This is the second excellent book by Mawer that I’ve read, even though it has a rather predictable ending.

I’m still reading Agatha Christie’s  An Autobiography and will be for some time as it is long and detailed – 550 pages printed in a very small font, which makes it impossible for me to read it in bed. But it is fascinating. It’s not just an account of her life but is full of her thoughts and questions about the nature of life and memory:

I am today the same person as that solemn little girl with pale flaxen sausage-curls. the house in which the spirit dwells, grows, develops instincts and tastes and emotions and intellectual capacities, but I myself, the true Agatha, am the same. I do not know the whole Agatha. The whole Agatha, so I believe, is known only to God.

So there we are, all of us, little Agatha Miller, and big Agatha Miller, and Agatha Christie and Agatha Mallowan proceeding on our way – where? That one doesn’t know – which of course makes life exciting. I have always thought life exciting and I still do. (page 11)

I’ll be writing more about Agatha Christie on Wednesday for my contribution to the Agatha Christie Blog Tour.

Borrowed Books

The mobile library came last week. I wasn’t going to borrow many, if any books, but there were some on the shelves that looked interesting and the van isn’t coming again until 21 October so I thought, why not borrow them. Then we went to our granddaughter’s 10th birthday party on Saturday and our son lent me a book too. It’s the top one in the pile shown below. Finally we went into town yesterday and as I returned a book to the library there I had a quick look round and borrowed the book at the bottom of the pile.

From top to bottom they are:

  • The Tent, the Bucket and Me: My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70s by Emma Kennedy. Apparently (I say this because I haven’t got that far in the book) they go to Carnac where we also went camping (well in a caravan) in the 80s. I checked on Amazon and this book has widely different reviews – some love it and think it very funny and others think it’s dreadful and not at all funny. I wonder which ‘camp’ I’ll be in.
  • Borrower of the Night: a Vicky Bliss Murder Mystery by Elizabeth Peters. I haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Peters, but as I’ve seen some reviews on a few blogs, I thought I’d have a look at this one. I haven’t started it yet. Vicky Bliss is an art historian, beautiful and brainy, according to the back cover. This one is about a search for a missing masterwork in wood by a master carver who died in Germany in the 16th century.
  • The Fall by Simon Mawer. I’ve read one other by by Simon Mawer – The Gospel of Judas, which I’d enjoyed. The Fall is the story of Rob and Jamie, friends from childhood, with a passion for mountaineering and climbing. From just a quick look at it, I see that it begins in Snowdon (another place where went on holiday and have camped and climbed (well D climbed, I just walked). Jamie and Rob take on greater challenges, culminating in the Eiger’s North Face. The jacket description appealed to me: ‘a story that captures nature at its most beautiful and most brutal, and which unlocks the intricacies at the heart of human relationships.’
  • A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. I’ve not been too keen on the latest books by Anita Shreve, although I loved her earlier ones, so I thought I’d borrow this one rather than buy it. I have started to read it, but just a few pages in it hasn’t ‘grabbed’ me yet. It’s about two couples on a climbing expedition to Mount Kenya when a horrific accident occurs.
  • Sepulchre by Kate Mosse. I read Labyrinth a few years ago (before I began this blog) and at the time I noted that it was ‘OK but too long’. So this is another book I decided not to buy, but if I saw it in the library I’d borrow it. It is enormously long! So far I’ve read a few chapters, set in 1891 in Paris and I’m not sure whether I’ll ever finish it. It’s a time-split book, divided 1891 and 2007, ‘the story of a tragic love, a missing girl, a unique set of tarot cards and the strange events of a cataclysmic night.’ (from the back cover)
  • The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd. I’ve always enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s books and this one looked like a candidate for the RIP Challenge (as does Sepulchre). So far I’ve read about Victor Frankenstein’s love of learning and his desire to know the secrets of nature and the source of life. He has met Shelley at Oxford University, attended lessons at the dissecting room of St Thomas’s Hospital in London and is fascinated by Humphrey Davy’s experiments with electrical experiments. So far, so good. This book also has very mixed reviews on Amazon and in the press – the Guardian, ‘disappointing‘ and the Telegraph, ‘a brilliant jeu d’esprit.’

The links are to Amazon.co.uk (except for the press reviews). The only book to get consistent reviews on Amazon is The Fall. I don’t take much notice of these reviews, unless I know the reviewer, but I find it interesting to read such varying responses.

Sunday Salon

Not much reading here today as D and I are off out with the family this afternoon.

This morning I’ll be reading more from Griff Rhys Jones’s memoir Semi-Detached, which is coming on nicely. I’m now up to the part where Griff is in his final year at school. I loved his description of cricket that I read yesterday.

I hate and abhor cricket. I loathe cricket. I abominate cricket. There is only one thing more boring than the abysmal English habit of watching a game of cricket and that is an afternoon playing the wretched game. It is sport for the indolently paralysed. Only three people out of twenty two are engaged in any proper activity. The rest simply sit and wait their turn.

The excruciating tedium of ‘fielding’ – standing about, like a man in a queue with nothing to read, in case a sequence of repetitive events, ponderously unfolding in front of you, should suddenly require your direct intervention … (page 179)

Football is a game. Tiddly-winks is a game. A sack race involves energy and fun. Cricket is like a cucumber sandwich: indulged in for reasons of tradition, despite being totally eclipsed by every other alternative on offer. (page 181)

I can well imagine that fielding would be much more pleasurable if one could read at the same time. One of my fond memories of childhood is going with my parents to watch cricket, but then I did used to lie in the grass making daisy chains.

I’d like to finish reading Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig this evening, if I have time before I fall asleep. I have very mixed ideas about it right now, varying from liking it to wishing I’d never bothered to pick it up. It’s a tough read – from a subject point of view, that is. This is by no means a ‘comfy’ read, more of a rollercoaster to batter and bruise. But I must finish it before writing about it properly.

Coming up next week I’m looking forward to reading one of these books:

At the moment it’s King Arthur’s Bones that is calling out to me. It’s five interlinked mysteries from Michael Jecks, Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson and Philip Gooden.

It’s All About Me – Booking Through Thursday

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Deb’s question today is: Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?

I’m not sure I can decide which I prefer.

I read both biographies and autobiographies and they both have their pros and cons. Both can be biased and written to present a certain portrait, either flattering or otherwise. Biographers are trying to reconstruct a person’s life from different sources, including letters, diaries, and personal accounts. The end result may seem as if it is factual, but it is an interpretation and quasi-fictional. I don’t like biographies that make general assumptions about a person’s thoughts and motives based on speculation and the author’s own views and impressions.

Inevitably neither a biography nor an autobiography can retell the whole of a person’s life so there has to be a selection and the skill is deciding what to include and what to leave out. This does of course mean that secrets/events a person doesn’t want reveal may be revealed by a biographer with a particular axe to grind or be left out to paint a more flattering portrait.

A good example of a biography is Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin. It’s well researched, detailed, based on documentary evidence such as diaries and Jane Austen’s own letters.

Memoirs are what a person remembers about their life. Generally they’re more about a particular part of a life rather than the whole. I’ve recently read Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, which is a good example of an autobiography/memoir. It won the Costa Biography Award in 2008 and I think the judges comment sums up what makes a good autobiography/biography:

A perfect memoir of old age – candid, detailed, charming, totally lacking in self-pity or sentimentality and, above all, beautifully, beautifully written.