Books Read in May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite books of the month are:

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini

Impossible to choose between them!

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

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

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

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

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

‘I AM ALIVE.’ 

It was enough.

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

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

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

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

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

I loved it.

First Chapter, First Paragraph

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

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

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

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

Blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

My teaser is from page 29:

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

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

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble

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

FOREWORD

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

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

I noted down a few points she made about jigsaws:

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

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

Sleigh Ride P1010859

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

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books Read in May 2015

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

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

These are the books I read:

Bks May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corvus: A Life With Birds by Esther Woolfson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway

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

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

and:

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

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

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

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

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

In the Epilogue he explained that he came to believe that

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

He went on that he had discovered his real dilemma:

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She deleted large sections of dialogue.

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

Searching for The Secret River: a Book Beginnings Post

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

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

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

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

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

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books for Cat Lovers

I loved both these books by Denis O’Connor:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely books for cat lovers!

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

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!

Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire and moved to Slad when he was three in 1917. He died there in 1997. His best known book is Cider With Rosie (1959) which I loved. It covers his childhood years in Slad and it is absolutely fascinating. He was also a poet and this book reads like a prose poem throughout – I wrote about it here.

I’ve recently read another two of Laurie Lee’s books – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), which is about his life after he left his home in Slad, and A Rose for Winter (1955), which is a record of his travels in Andalusia 15 years after he first went there.

 As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is the second of his autobiographical trilogy which began with Cider With Rosie followed by A Moment of War (1991). It begins in 1934 when Laurie Lee left his home in the Cotswolds and set out ‘to discover the world’. First he walked to London where he got a job on a building site and supplemented his income by playing the violin. He left for Spain a year later, landing at Vigo and then making his way on foot through to Castillo on the south coast, playing his violin in exchange for food and a bed for the night. Then the Spanish Civil War began in earnest and he came home on a Royal Navy destroyer that had been sent from Gibraltar to rescue any ‘British subjects who might be marooned on the coast.’ In an Epilogue he explains how he had shameful doubts about leaving Spain and so he returned to join the Republicans.

Lee writes vivid, lyrical prose with beautiful descriptions of the countryside, the scorching heat, the poverty and the people, so although I haven’t been to any of the places he describes it was easy to visualise the scenes. It’s not just the scenery he captures, but also the atmosphere, the splendour and squalor, and the desperation and also the love and enthusiasm for life.

In A Rose in Winter Lee writes about his travels in Andalusia which he visited with his wife fifteen years after his last time there during the Spanish Civil War. Again, he describes the towns and countryside beautifully, portraying the poverty, the hospitality and the changes the Civil War had inflicted. He takes part in religious processions, goes to a bull fight and watches the ‘most fundamental, most mysterious of all encounters in Andalusian folk-music – the cante flamenco’, a most dramatic and erotic performance.

Reading them one after the other I was struck by his descriptions of the towns – Seville, for example, in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning was

… dazzling – a creamy crustation of flower-banked houses fanning out from each bank of the river. The Moorish occupation had bequeathed the affection for water around which so many of even the poorest dwellings were built – a thousand miniature patios set with inexhaustible fountains which fell trickling upon ferns and leaves, each a nest of green repeated in endless variations around this theme of domestic oasis. (page 126)

and in A Rose for Winter

So Seville remains, favoured and sensual, exuding from the banks of its golden river a miasma of perpetual excitement, compounded of those appetites that are most particularly Spanish – chivalry, bloodshed, poetry and religious mortification. (page 34)

Katrina commented on my previous post about As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning that she was disappointed to read that Laurie Lee’s Spanish experiences were almost all fiction. I tried to find out more about this. There are doubts that Lee falsified and embellished his involvement in the Spanish Civil War in A Moment of War (which I haven’t read). However, his widow denied this. In an interview recorded in The New York Times, 24 February 1985, Lee, talking about Cider With Rosie said  “… it is not so much about me as about the world that I observed from my earliest years. It was a world that I wanted to record because it was such a miracle visitation to me. I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it.” (See this short biography)

Whether his books are fictionalised accounts of his life or not, I like them. They evoke the past – a world long gone – and give a sense of what life was like. I like to think they portray truth, even if all the facts may not be strictly accurate.

Books of the Month: April

I’ve finished reading 8 books this month, 7 of them fiction and 1 non-fiction. Three of them are books from my to-be-read shelves (TBR), one is a library book, one borrowed from a friend and one is an e-book.
They are (listed in the order I finished them), with links to my posts:
  1. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier 4/5 (from TBR bks)
  2. The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie 3/5 (Poirot)
  3. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte 3/5 (Kindle)
  4. The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson 3/5 (from TBR books)
  5. The Village by Marghanita Laski 5/5 (borrowed from a friend)
  6. Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng (library book) 3.5/5
  7. Ninepins by Rosy Thornton (author review copy) 4.5/5
  8. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel 4/5 (post to follow)

So, going off my ratings (which are purely subjective) my pick of the month is The Village by Marghanita Laski, with Ninepins by Rosy Thornton a close second.

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. My crime fiction reading this month has been less than usual, with just two books:

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie and The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson

and I’ve rated them both 3/5 – so a dead heat.

Daphne du Maurier: Fact and Fiction

Recently I’ve had a bit of a run on books by and about Daphne du Maurier. First of all I read The Parasites, which reminded me that I’d had Justine Picardie’s novel, Daphne sitting on my bookshelves unread, so I immediately got it down. Then I just had to read My Cousin Rachel, a book I’ve had for years and never got round to reading before now. After that I read Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir by Flavia Leng, just because it was one of the books Justine Picardie consulted in writing her novel. I’ve previously read Margaret Forster’s biography Daphne du Maurier and Daphne du Maurier’s The ‘Rebecca’ Notebook and Other Memories, which is mainly autobiographical.

Daphne by Justine Picardie (2008) – synopsis (from the back cover):

It is 1957. As Daphne du Maurier wanders alone through her remote mansion on the Cornish coast, she is haunted by thoughts of her failing marriage and the legendary heroine of her most famous novel, Rebecca, who now seems close at hand. Seeking distraction, she becomes fascinated by Branwell, the reprobate brother of the Bronte sisters, and begins a correspondence with the enigmatic scholar Alex Symington in which truth and fiction combine. Meanwhile, in present day London, a lonely young woman struggles with her thesis on du Maurier and the Brontes and finds herself retreating from her distant husband into a fifty-year-old literary mystery.

My view: 4/5

This book merges fact and fiction so well that it’s hard to differentiate between the two. I much preferred the story of Daphne herself and her search for information about Branwell. I had to go back to Forster’s biography of Daphne to compare the accounts of her life, which matched up pretty well. I was less keen on the modern day story of a young woman, the second wife of an older man. It had too many obvious parallels with Rebecca for my liking. And if you haven’t read Rebecca, this book gives away the plot. There are also references to My Cousin Rachel, which I glossed over in case there were any spoilers there too (I don’t think there were). All in all, a very satisfying mystery about Daphne and the missing Bronte documents.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951) – synopsis (Amazon):

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet …might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?

My view: 4/5

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, completely taken in by the characters and loving the setting in an old mansion in Cornwall. The story is narrated by Philip, so the other characters are seen through his eyes. The tension mounts as Philip becomes obsessed with Rachel and I was never quite sure what was real and what to believe. He is not a stable character and as Rachel’s own thoughts are not revealed it’s not clear if she can be believed either, whether she is sincere or evil and manipulative.

Daphne du Maurier: a Daughter’s Memoir (1994) – synopsis (from the back cover):

In this moving and revealing memoir, Flavia Leng paints a powerful portrait of her mother, Daphne du Maurier. She presents an account of an unusual and often lonely childhood spent in London and especially Cornwall, at her mother’s beloved home, Menabilly. Family friends included Nelson and Ellen Doubleday, Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward. However, at the centre of this story is Daphne du Maurier herself. The book reveals a writer with a deep attachment to Cornwall, where she put down her roots and found inspiration for her novels, and who spent much of her life as a recluse, withdrawn not only from the outside world but also from members of her own family. A picture emerges of a woman who lived in a world of her own creation that was beyond the comprehension of those around her.

My view: 3.5/5

In the epilogue Flavia Leng, Daphne du Maurier younger daughter, explained that she began to write this memoir of her childhood two years before her mother died in 1989 and it was never meant for publication – it was just for the family. And that to me epitomises this memoir – it’s an account of her childhood and of her family as seen through a child’s eyes. It seems a lonely childhood, despite being the middle child. As children Flavia and her older sister Tessa didn’t get on and both she and Tessa saw that their mother lavished more affection on her beloved son, Christopher who they called Kits. But a picture emerges of Daphne, who they called Bing, as a solitary person, closeted away with her typewriter or lost in her world of ‘never, never land’, peopled by the characters she invented, with little time for her children, who were looked after by Nanny and then ‘Tod’, their governess.

Like her mother Flavia has a great love of Cornwall which shines through the book – she was never happier than when alone in Menabilly and the surrounding woodlands. It’s a sad memoir ending with Flavia feeling she had no roots left after her parents died:

I have heard it said that a person only really grows up when both parents have gone; what I do know is that life will never be quite the same again. Cornwall no longer holds the enchantment it once did. Gone is the excitement of driving down those leafy, winding roads to the lovely old houses, my beloved Menabilly, and then later Kilmarth where Bing lived out her years.

Crime Fiction Alphabet – Letter I

Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey by Ian Rankin is my choice to illustrate the letter I in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet.

If you like the Rebus books, like me, then you’ll also like this book. It is fascinating to read, with insights into Ian Rankin’s own life and that of the character he has invented, along with his thoughts on Scotland and the Scottish character. It’s partly autobiographical, blending his own life with Rebus’s biography. It also describes many of the real life locations of the books, in particular Edinburgh, Rebus’s own territory.

I particularly enjoyed Ian Rankin’s views on writing – how writers mine their own experiences, reshaping their memories to create fiction and the similarities between novelists and detectives:

Both seek the truth, through creating a narrative from apparently chaotic or unconnected events. Both are interested in human nature and motivation. Both are voyeurs. (The Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark says that she and her fellow novelists ‘loiter with intent’ – playing on the idea of a criminal activity.) I certainly enjoy dipping into other people’s lives, giving fresh texture and tone to them, while Rebus has his own reasons for prying into everyone else’s secrets. (page 31)

He went on to quote from The Hanging Garden and then The Falls giving Rebus’s reasons – which were ‘to stop him examining his own frailties and failings.’

I’ve read all the Rebus books – links to my posts are in the Author Index (the tab at the top of the blog). Some of these are brief and last year I decided to make a page on each one to flesh them out a bit more. So far, that just remains an intention, although the parent page has a list of all the books. In preparing to write Rebus’s Scotland Ian Rankin re-read all his Rebus books. Here is his own analysis:

Authors seldom read their own work: by the time a book has been published, we’re busy with our next project. When a story is done, it’s done – reading it through would only make most authors want to tinker with it. Having said that, I enjoyed the majority of the Rebus novels. Knots & Crosses I thought wildly overwritten – definitely a young man’s book. Dead Souls possesses too many characters and story-lines: at points it confused even its author! But several books which had seemed real chores to write surprised me with their deftness – Set in Darkness and Let it Bleed especially. (I think they probably seemed chores because of the amount of political detail they had to embrace – it’s never easy to make politics seem exciting to the layman.) (page 125)

Throughout this book Ian Rankin quotes liberally from his books to illustrate the points he makes. He begins with a chapter on the place where he was born and grew up, which was in the same cul-de-sac as John Rebus – even in the same house. But really, of course, Rebus was not born there. He was created in a bed-sit in Edinburgh where Rankin was living and writing. He deals with Rebus’s ‘prodigious intake of alcohol‘, the Oxford Bar, his taste in music, the city of Edinburgh (Rebus’s territory) and Fife, where Rebus and Rankin have shared memories. I like the way he writes about Rebus as though he were a real person, sometimes admitting that he’s not sure what Rebus will do, but at the same time acknowledging that he is his creation.

An excellent book. My only criticism is that I would have loved it to have an index – maybe I’ll do one for myself

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Orion; New Ed edition (1 Jun 2006)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0752877712
  • ISBN-13: 978-0752877716
  • Source: my own copy

Teaser Tuesday – The Tent, the Bucket and Me

I’m reading Emma Kennedy’s The Tent, the Bucket and Me.  As the subtitle explains this is about her ‘Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70s‘, and that is not an understatement. I wish that I had the same powers of recall as Emma does to remember what I thought, felt and said at the age of 3. Emma is of course, writing comedy. It reminds me of those TV programmes that make you think ‘this just wouldn’t happen in real life’. I’m not saying that what she writes about didn’t happen, but I do suspect it’s been embellished somewhat.

Emma Kennedy would be great on Rob Brydon’s programme Would I Lie to You? All the events she describes would be ideal for the programme because no-one would believe they were true from the way she describes them. Passages in this book both make me laugh out loud and groan at the stupidity that led up to them. Just imagine you’re three, you’re drenched in wee (from a bucket full of the stuff that had tipped over when you tried to sit on it) and your parents told you to run naked round the car in a howling gale to wash off the wee! And that was Emma’s introduction to the joys of life under canvas.

There are more than enough toilet incidents, but these are not the only disasters that befall Emma and her teacher parents Tony and Brenda.  Having put up a frame tent in a howling gale in a field on the side of a cliff they abandon the tent and break into an empty caravan on the campsite, only to find that it went from bad to worse. The caravan was ‘ a stinking hole’, the back window blew out and, fighting against the wind the front end of the  caravan came off its bricks. They managed to jump out just as:

The caravan groaned; a deep crunch shattered out from its underbelly. With one terrifying yaw, the rear cracked up to the verical, tipped over and then rolled end over end, crashing down the field, metallic smashes punching through the howling wind. Then with one sliding finale, the caravan fell off the edge of the cliff.

‘We’re in hell!’ wailed Mam, as she watched it go. ‘Hell!’ (page 37)

They’d been in the eye of a force-ten gale, without realising it. Nothing daunted they carry on camping (holidays, that is) for the next 9 years.

100 Days On Holy Island: a Writer’s Exile by Peter Mortimer

After I finished reading 100 Days On Holy Island the main impression it made on me was that Peter Mortimer endured his hundred days there, feeling insecure, wanting company and to be accepted. He always felt an ‘outsider’, not accepted by the locals. He recognised his paranoia:

Part of Mortimer’s paranoia while on Lindisfarne was of being constantly observed and judged, that my every act was noted and recorded by some amorphous body established purely to note down all behaviour of nosy incomers such as I. The truth, of course, was that people had their own lives to live but anyone in a similar position to mine will know what I mean. (page 199)

This sense of being an outsider pervades the book. It can’t have helped that people knew he was on the island in order to write about his experience. He wasn’t there as a tourist, nor had he gone to settle there, but he went with the intention of seeing how he coped with living there  for one hundred days and writing about it. This book is written with empathy for the island and its inhabitants but because of his sense of being an ‘incomer’ all the time I was reading it I found it uncomfortable, whether he was sitting in one of the pubs on his own, or visiting some of the people he did get to know, or spending time on St Cuthbert’s Isle alone. 

I now know a bit more about the geography of the island, and the way the tide cuts it off from the mainline (which I knew before but this book emphasises the isolation it brings). Most of all I suppose I know more about Peter Mortimer, a writer I had never heard of before. He is a playwright and a poet. His other memoirs are The Last of the Hunters about the six months he spent at sea working with North Shields fisherman, and Broke Through Britain, about his 500 mile odyssey from Plymouth to Edinburgh.

His time on Holy Island was from January to April 2001, when foot and mouth disease swept through the UK, and although it never got to Holy Island it was affected by the closure of the countryside. The islanders were hit by the threat to the tourist trade. It was freezing cold, blasted by snow storms and afflicted by power cuts. It was also a bad time for Mortimer to be away from his family, as his father died just before he went, his mother was in hospital desperate to see him, his son had his 17th birthday and his nephew was seriously ill. Although he did go and visit his mother, he couldn’t have picked a worse time, which may well be a major reason he struggled there on his own.

Holy Island (also known as Lindisfarne) is a place of pilgrimage, known as the Cradle of Christianity, a place of spiritual heritage. I don’t think Mortimer mentioned Lindisfarne Priory in his book and very little about Lindisfarne Castle, either. This is not a guide book, nor is it about the history of the island, or about Christianity. He does examine his own beliefs and went to the talks on faith at the Heritage Centre, but realised that he

was having trouble with these lecture overall; not the people so much as the basis. I wasn’t enthused. They didn’t tap into my own life passions, the things that excited and moved me, which I was becoming increasingly aware, had very little to do with religion. (page 194) 

He spent time doing jobs such as clearing the overgrown garden of one of the island pubs, painting Ray Simpson’s (who ran the society of St Aidan and St Hilda) bathroom and decorating it with a haiku, dragging a stone from one of the beaches and inscribing it with another haiku. He also helped out at the island school, went to lots of meetings, and walked around as much of the island as he could. The days he spent on St Cuthbert’s Isle are interesting. He called that his Three Tides for St Cuthbert. St Cuthbert taught at the monastery on Holy Island and when he died in 687 he was buried in the church, although eventually his bones were buried at Durham. St Cuthbert’s Isle is the place Cuthbert went for solitude and to meditate. Mortimer describes it thus:

The island was bleak terrain, tortured volcanic rock on the top of which was tufted spongy grass whose uneven surface and hidden potholes made walking difficult. The stone remains of Cuthbert’s cell were slightly sunken, offering some slight protection from the wind, which was, it appeared, on a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a week contract. At one end of the cell was an impressive oak cross erected 60 years previously. …

The sky seemed massive. The view back to Holy Island took in the Priory ruins, St Mary’s church and the row of desirable properties named Fiddler’s Green. Through the binoculars I could trace the progress of the Dinky-sized cars on the distant causeway. This would continue to 11.30am. To the west, across the water, lay the mass of the Northumberland mainland. (page 195)

In some ways I found it a remarkable book which kept me wanting to read it but by the end his own wish to go back home got the better of me and I was glad it ended.

His own summary of the book and his stay on Holy Island ends the book:

I wrote various small poems during my 100 days and finish with another tiddler completed soon after my return, an image that stayed in my mind and in some ways reinforces the fact that I can never belong to, yet never will be free of, that small huddled island which is simultaneously well known and yet not known at all.

On the Cullercoats carpet

My yanked-off boots

spill North Shore sand.

Sunday Salon

I’ve now started reading 100 Days on Holy Island: a Writer’s Exile by Peter Mortimer, a diary of the time he spent living on Lindesfarne, off the coast of north-east England, in a close-knit community of a 150 people. This is not a book about the history of the island but it is about what it was like for Mortimer to live there on his own away from his  family from January to April 2001.

It began badly as his father died just before Mortimer had planned to leave, and his nephew was very ill after an emergency operation. As it was winter there were few, if any, visitors to the island and the pubs and village store were closed for most of the time:

 It was silent in the way cities are never silent, silence not as a brief interruption from traffic, the humans, the incessant noise of civilisation, but silent as a way of being. What lay beneath the surface of this small settlement I had no idea. But on a bitter cold January night in 2001, it offered up silence as a totally natural state. (page12)

In preparation for his stay he had asked ten northern writers to select  a book (not written by themselves) that they thought might amuse,divert or challenge him during his stay. Nine of them gave him a book and I’m looking forward to discovering what they were. 

I can see already that I’m going to enjoy this memoir and hope the rest of the book lives up to the beginning.

I’ve dipped into The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (short stories) this week and will continue reading that later on. Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine has had to take a back seat for a while whilst I read these two books and I’m also tempted to start reading Martin Edward’s Take My Breath Away. I just wish I had more than one set of eyes and one brain to cope with reading multiple books – that would be excellent.

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.

The Music Room by William Fiennes

The Music Room must have been a difficult book to write and in parts it’s a difficult book to read.  It’s lyrical and strong in setting the scene – the castle with its battlements, secret rooms and spiral staircases where William grew up and the landscape, the moat, the fields and birds all came vividly to life as I read it. And yet as I read more and more of it I almost began to tire of it. There was little variation and it felt detached and over-stylised and impassive. But on reflection, I think that maybe that’s the only way Fiennes could write this book.

I never felt I really got to know William himself or most of his family, certainly not his mother, father, or his twin brother and sister. Most of the book is about his brother Richard, who was epileptic, and about the brain – the discovery of how it worked and the causes and treatment of epilepsy. William’s reactions to Richard are there – how as a small child, eleven years younger than Richard, he just accepted that that was how Richard was and how as he got older he became fascinated with the anger and aggression that could dominate Richard, how William almost tested him to see how far he would go. His love for Richard is also evident and Richard himself is a strong presence, with his violent outbursts and his passion for football, his mood swings and  his tenderness and remorse for what he has done.

William and the rest of the family almost faded into the background and I wanted to know more about them. There were glimpses of them such as the passages where  his father finds strength from the castle itself:

One afternoon I saw Dad standing next to the house, his right arm stretched out, palm pressed flat against a buttress, his head dropped. He didn’t move.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

He said he was asking the house for some of its strength. (page 131)

William describes hearing his mother playing the viola in the music room. The music room is a place of refuge – his mother

… didn’t want to leave the music; she wanted longer in that private room, away from everything, playing each piece as if she were trying to say how much she loved it. (page 48)

Music played its part in Richard’s life too. He had a ‘clear, soft baritone voice’ and liked to sing songs from Gilbert and Sullivan and Welsh hymns such as ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’.

He sang in the music room. Often he started too low or too high, and when the melody got away from his range he’d change key like someone shifting gear in a car so he could keep a grip on the tune. Sometimes in the evening, inspired, he’d dress up in suit, waistcoat and bow tie, and stand in the music room with the score held out in front of his chest just as a professional would, the Anglepoise at full extension over his shoulder. (page 210)

A disturbing book that has stayed with me over the last week or so, the idyllic setting, an extraordinary childhood and an outstanding portrait of his brother.

Book Notes

I’ve read a few books recently and not written about them.They’re library books and due back very soon so  I thought I’d jot down a few notes about each one.

  • Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell (audio book)
  • Dave and I listened to this in the car whilst travelling to Northumberland and back. This is an Inspector Wexford mystery – a man taking his dog for a walk discovers a severed hand, which turns out to be part of a skeleton wrapped in a purple sheet. The police have to discover the identity of the victim – and of the body of a second corpse found in a nearby house. Both have been lying undiscovered for at least ten years. I’m not used to listening to books and I did find it a bit difficult to follow. Of course, the sat nav and traffic news kept interrupting which didn’t help, but even so I did get confused. There were too many people and sub-plots. Maybe I should read the book.

    It seemed overlong. I thought it would have been improved if it had been shorter and less rambling. It was narrated by Christopher Ravenscroft who plays Mike Burden in the Wexford TV series. He took Wexford’s voice so well I could almost imagine it was George Baker reading that part.

  • Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
  • I loved this memoir. Diana Athill comes across as an honest writer, not afraid to say what she thinks, now she is no longer an editor. As the title indicates, she writes about what it is like getting towards the end of her life. At the time of writing she was 89 years old and looking back on her life with few regrets. This is a book I may well buy to re-read at leisure.

  • All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson 
  • I have mixed feelings about this book, parts of it really interested me, but I could have done without the terrorist attack and involvement of MI5 and MI6. This is only the 2nd Inspector Banks book I’ve read and it’s the 18th in Robinson’s series. I think that doesn’t matter as I had no difficulty in sorting out his relationships and although other cases are referred to this reads OK as a stand-alone book. What I did have difficulty with was believing the spy stuff – one of the victims had been a spook. What I do like is Robinson’s descriptive writing eg:

    It was after sunset, but there was a still glow deep in the cloudless western sky, dark orange and indigo. Banks could smell warm grass and manure mingled with something sweet, perhaps flowers that only opened at night. A horse whinied in a distant field. The stone he sat on was still warm and he could see the lights of Helmshore beneath the tree, down at the bottom of the dale, the outline of the sqaure church tower with its odd round turret, dark and heavy against the sky. Low on the western horizon, he could see a planet, which he took to be Venus, and higher up, towards the north, a red dot he guessed was Mars. (page 224)

  • Murder in the Museum by Simon Brett
  • This is the fourth in Simon Brett’s Fethering Mysteries series. It’s set in Bracketts, an Elizabethan house, the former home of Esmond Chadleigh, a celebrated poet during his lifetime. The house is about to be turned into a museum, although not all the Trustees agree. Carole Seddon has been co-opted onto the Board of Trustees and when a skeleton is discovered in the kitchen garden she soon becomes involved in solving the mystery. Then Sheila Cartwright, the bossy domineering former Director of the Trustees is shot, and Carole finds her own life is in danger.

    I haven’t read any of the other Fethering mysteries so have yet again  jumped into the middle of a series. In this case I think it would have helped to read the earlier ones. Carole and her neighbour Jude obviously have acted as sleuths in the past. I liked this book, once I’d read a few chapters and thought Carole and Jude’s relationship was well described. Carole likes everything cut and dried and out in the open with her friends. She cannot understand and resents Jude’s reticence. I’m going to look out for more of Simon Brett’s books.

    Seventy Years Ago Today …

    … Neville Chamberlain broadcast that Britain was at war with Germany. In Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner she quotes from the diary of  a twenty-four year old civil servant living in Croydon on 3 September 1939:

    The sun is shining, the garden never looked lovelier – everything is in bloom. Tiger [the cat] lies there in the sun; all looks happy and peaceful. But it’s not. War has broken out between England and Germany, beastly, beastly war.

     Winston Churchill’s frame of mind was rather different. He wrote in his memoirs, The Second World War Volume 1: The Gathering Storm, that he knew if war came a major burden would fall on him. On 3 September 1939 he wrote

    As I sat in my place [in the House of Commons], listening to the speeches, a very strong sense of calm came over me, after the intense passions and excitements of the last few days. I felt a serenity of mind and was conscious of a kind of uplifted detachment from human and personal affairs. The glory of Old England, peace-loving and ill-prepared as she was, but instant and fearless at the call of honour, thrilled my being and seemed to lift our fate to those spheres far removed from earthly facts and physical sensation.

    And so it began …

    Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

    In the first chapter of Hilary Mantel’s memoir she writes, “I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done.” She then advises herself to trust the reader, to stop spoon-feeding and patronising and write in “the most direct and vigorous way that you can.” She worries that her writing isn’t clear, or that it is “deceptively clear”. It comes across to me as being clear, honest and very moving. She’s not looking for sympathy but has written this memoir to take charge of her memories, her childhood and childlessness, feeling that it is necessary to write herself into being.

    When I read Beyond Black a couple of years ago I was struck by the biographical information at the end of the book – that as a child she believed their house was haunted and that she was often very frightened. She expands on this in her memoir. From the age of 4 she believed that she had done something wrong and she was “beyond remedy and beyond redemption”. She thought it was because of her that her parents were not happy and that without her they would have had a chance in life. It didn’t get any better as her father left home and she was left to live with two younger brothers and their mother and her mother’s lover. Home was a place where secrets were kept and opinions were not voiced. Her experience of ghosts at the age of 7 was horrifying she felt as though something came inside her, “some formless, borderless evil”.

    She wasn’t happy at school; and by the age of twelve she no longer believed in God and as she was at a convent this must have been difficult. She went to university to study law, and was married at 20, struggling to combat the prejudice against women prevailing in the early 1970s:

    “It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of the mental one. It was assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book-learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees. When you went for an interview, you would be asked, if you were not wearing a wedding ring, whether you were engaged; if you were engaged or married, you would be asked when you intended to ‘start your family’.”

    Oh yes, I remember that too!

    Life got worse for Hilary as her health deteriorated and the doctors thinking depression was the cause prescribed anti-depressants, which in turn damaged her further. From being underweight she went from a size 10 up to size 20 and developed akathisia as a side effect of the drugs she was given. This condition looks and feels like madness and was the worst thing she had ever experienced, apart that is from the horror she had felt as a child of 7. As a result of the misdiagnosis of her condition (eventually it was diagnosed as endometriosis) she was unable to have children. She sees the children she never had as ghosts within her life; ghost children who never age, who never leave home. Ghosts in her definition are also

    “the tags and rags of everyday life, information you acquire that you don’t know what to do with, knowledge that you can’t process; they’re cards thrown out of your card index, blots on the page. … It’s just the little dead, I say to myself, kicking up a fuss, demanding attention by the infantile methods that are the only ones available to them.”

    I found it a remarkable memoir.