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New additions to the shelves

After months of admirable self restraint, the flood gates opened in the last few months and all my attempts to whittle down my stack of owned-but-unread books have been thwarted.

Scriveners-BooksOur holiday through the middle of England took us to Buxton in Derbyshire which happens to be the home of Scriveners — one of the 10 best second hand bookshops in the country according to The Guardian newspaper. Five floors of books I was promised. So of course I had to visit. And of course I had to buy.  So keen was I that I was outside the shop waiting for it to open. Long after the announced opening time, I was still waiting. But minor frustration set aside I had a wonderful hour browsing their collection which included a lovely section on literature in translation. I haven’t seen other second hand shops do that but it’s a great idea.

I ended up with the three Virago Modern Classics editions you can see in the photograph because I can’t get those easily anywhere near my home.So when I see a green cover in reasonably good condition peeking at me from a shelf, it’s an opportunity too good to miss.  books aquired summer 2018

The Rising Tide by M. J Farrell (an early pseudonym for Molly Keane) was first published in 1937, her seventh novel. Like many of her other works this is a tale of an Irish family.  Miles Franklin is an author I’ve heard about many times over from bloggers in Australia and since I am trying to read more from that part of the world,

My Brilliant Career seemed the perfect purchase. It’s her first novel, written when she was only sixteen years old. The publisher’s summary on the back cover says it has the faults of immaturity but “it is impossible not to love.”

And finally, we have Willa Cather, an author I came late to via My Antonia which I didn’t expect to enjoy but thought it was glorious. Oh Pioneers is the first of her ‘Great Plains’ trilogy which actually ends with My Antonia. So I’m reading them in the reverse order but it probably doesn’t matter too much.

The copy of A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel is another second-hand shop purchase, this time from the Oxfam book shop in Stratford upon Avon. This isn’t one of her historical novels but I see that it is partly set in South Africa, a region of the world which fascinates me. Mantel lived for many years in Botswana which is where the idea for this story about a missionary couple originated.

My acquisitions haven’t been all used books.

When I got home from the holiday it was to find several packages awaiting me including a copy of  Wally Funk’s Race for Space by Sue Nelson, courtesy of the lovely team at Westbourne Press. This is an extraordinary true story of a woman who was in the first group of American pilots to pass the Women in Space programme. She went on to become the country’s first aviation safety inspector.

Also on the doormat were the monthly choices from three book subscription services (I’ll tell you all about these in a separate post later this week).  Plus my ordered copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, one of the very few Booker prize winners I have yet to read, and Adam Thorpe’s Missing Fay which is a book club choice for this month.

Now I have all of these two questions are causing much furrowing of brows in the BookerTalk household. Where am I going to put all these new books given every bookshelf is full and the floor around them is equally congested. And when am I ever going to read them?

But aren’t these wonderful problems to have????

Snapshot of August 2017

As a  new month  begins I’m sitting here feeling very sorry for myself . After a year of being stuffed with chemicals and radiation before three rounds of surgery to remove nasty tumours, I thought I’d  had my quota of medical treatments. Life was beginning to look up with a holiday even being planned. All of which I scuppered by falling over while helping to set up a community event, breaking my humerus in three places. So now my dominant arm is in a sling making it extremely difficult to do basic things like eating and dressing (I dare you to try fastening a bra one handed). My blogging is curtailed because it’s so slow to type one-handed so if you find I’m not commenting much on your posts it’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with you.  Reading is about all I’m good for but even that begins to lose its appeal after a few hours. Sigh…

Apart from nursing my damaged paw, what else was I up to on August 1, 2017?

 Reading now

I’m gradually making my way through the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list.  After a diversion to read The Monster’s Daughter, a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius) I was looking for something from my list that promised to be equally well constructed and thought-provoking. Sacred Hunger ( joint winner of the Booker Prize in  1992) by Barry Unsworth gets that bill perfectly. It’s set in the eighteenth century when the slave trade was in full flow. The action takes place on a ship sailing from Liverpol to pick up a human cargo in Africa and sell it in the sugar plantations of Jamaica. It makes for grim reading understandably though Unsworth doesn’t wallow in details of the inhumane conditions under which the captured Africans were kept on board. His theme is  the lust – the hunger –  for money which drives men to extraordinary actions.

You couldn’t get more of a contrast between this and a book I just started today – What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullen. It’s a collection of twenty essays about different aspects of Austen’s work. One deals with the names  characters call each other and how this is often used to denote not just their different social status but their changing relationships to each other. Another looks at the question of the age at which its deemed appropriate for people to marry. I’ve read three essays so far as part of my participation in Austen in August and am impressed by how thoroughly Mullen knows these novels. He deals with details and nuances that escaped me when reading Austen but know I can see add new perspectives. Fascinating stuff.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.  I’m now down to 278 ( it would have been lower except I indulged with four new purchases and two ARCs in July).  I had been thinking to buy a few more once the judges chose the Booker long list but when the announcement came last week I was underwhelmed. I’m sure there are many fine books on that list but with one or two exceptions it felt rather predictable. So I’m just going to get some samples and se if anything sparks my interest.

Thinking of reading next…

This month is All August/All Virago month so I have Good Behavior by Molly Keane lined up. This is the first novel she  published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

I also have Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch which was recently published by Seren ( a Welsh publishing house based about 45 minutes from my house). It’s part mystery, part biography, part romance set in 1950s Hull and recreates the world of Philip Larkin. Larkin makes an appearance in the guise of librarian Arthur Merryweather and through his poems which are woven into the narrative.

Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK is coming to an end. I ddo nt enjoy the one episode which showed the backstory of Offred’s husband but everything eelse about this series has been first class.

Listening: Since I stopped commuting to work I’ve not listened to anywhere near the same number of audiobooks this year. I did try one in the Aurelio Zen series about a fictional Italian detective but the narration was really off putting so I gave up after an hour. A pity because this series written by Michael Dobdin is meant to be excellent.

And that is it for this month. Lets hope by the time of the next snapshot I’ll be feeling more perky. A Chinese friend tells me that this is the year of the Roster which is my animal sign. According to Chinese traditional beliefs, you may face big challenges in your animal year. However once those are overcome good fortune will come. It can’t come too soon for me! I’m advised that wearing red ( especially red underwear) will help. Time to get the credit cards out I think.

A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford: #Virago

bedfordcomposite2The Favourite of the Gods is the first novel by Sybille Bedford that I’ve read . It will not be the last. This is a writer at ease with the nuances of European social classes and alert, even sympathetic to the oddities of human behaviour. Conscious of their propensity to make poor decisions, she is also alive to the possibilities of their struggle towards fulfilment and happiness.

This 1963 novel is a tale of three generations of women and their, often problematic, relationships: Anna, an American heiress who marries an Italian prince; their Italian born daughter Constanza upon whom the Gods appear to look favourably and her British born daughter Flavia. It’s  tale of character and motivation that unfolds within the framing device of a train journey taken across continental Europe by Constanza and Flavia in late 1920s.  Almost as an afterthought readers learn that Constanza is travelling to her wedding in Belgium. But the pair never make it further than France. Through their carelessness they lose a valuable ruby ring (an heirloom from Constanza’s father), miss their train connection and end up having to spend the night in a small fishing village in the South of France. Not until the last chapters of the novel do we discover the consequences of those mishaps, the life changing decision taken by Constanza and why the overnight stop become their home for the next 11 years.

In between we learn the story of Anna’s upbringing in New England, her marriage to the prince and her early married years in an Italian palazzo. Anna tries to find a purpose to her life through travel and (misdirected) ‘good works’. But all comes crashing down when she discovers her husband Rico has been unfaithful to her for most of that time (her embarrassment exacerbated because the whole community near their Italian palace knows of the affair). War is declared. Anna departs in a flurry for London, taking 16 year old Constanza with her and vowing that the girl will never see her father again. Her son Giorgio, who is already a spoiled brat by the age of 10, will continue to live with his father.

Constanza is one of life’s golden girls. Naturally intelligent and inquisitive her mother ensures these qualities are polished and honed to perfection through a succession of scholars and tutors in literature, botany, social history and economics. Constanza soaks it all up.

She was as quick as a bird, and as live, and it all came easy to her, natural as life, as breathing, talking, reading, thinking , arguing…. She enjoyed being with people who knew things, she enjoyed logic and pulling questions apart and going to the heart of a matter and looking at more than one side.

Her time in London is one of a heady social life in which she floats between authors, military men, aesthetes, academics and the hunting set. Her’s is also the London of the suffragettes, the young T.S Eliot and Henry James and of ‘rather a magic girl, Virginia Stephen’ (AKA Virgina Woolf). Constanza’ life is not without its setbacks including a rather marriage to a  man who begins as a charming rebel but ends as a pompous politician, involvement in a scandalous divorce, feelings of estrangement from her father and a sense that she doesn’t know the truth of the schism between her parents. She suffers for a time, uncertain of what life holds for and conscious of her dwindling ability to engage in adventures. And yet:

She had what all mortals pray for and unfortunately few are given. She had health, she had looks, she had money for her needs. … She was equipped to appreciate, to derive entertainment, connotations, pleasure, from almost any situation she happened to find herself placed in. … And she was not unhappy, there was only a vague disquiet, a nagging question: What is it for? What have I made of it? Where is it going, where can it go?

The qualities that Constanza has in abundance are transferred to her daughter Flavia. She has her mother’s curiosity and independence, though more of a desire for a structured education. But is blessed by a greater sense of proportional and rational thinking than her somewhat mercurial grandmother.

sybille-bedford

Sybille Bedford

These relationships are all played out against a background of political and social change across Europe: female emancipation, the Great War, the rise of Mussolini, the spectre of the Wall Street crash and depression, the introduction of National Insurance are among the developments mentioned in the novel. Bedford marks the passage of time too by tracing the reading habits of her protagonists. Constanza devoures Racine, Byron, Shelley, Swift and Geoge Eliot before she turns 15. She then moves on to the Sitwells, Erza Pound and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her mother’s tastes remain more conservative – holding H. G Wells in awe and extolled the virtues of John Galsworthy . “But what she saw no loin in was formlessness, ugliness, obscurity” which is how she views Virginia Woolf’s A Voyage Out. D H Lawrence she considered incomprehensible, E. M Forster pointless and drab and Proust ‘affected’.

The richness of issues and themes plus the wonderful characterisation of these three women make this novel a fascinating read.  If you don’t believe me, just try it for yourself.

Footnotes

Author: A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

Published: 1963 by Collins. Republished by Virago Modern Classics in 1984

Length: 312 pages

My copy: Bought from a charity shop in Oxford. Read as part of AllVirago/All August month in 2016. Also counts towards the #20booksofsummer challenge for 2016

Read further: There is a sequel to A Favourite of the Godscalled A Compass Error (published in 1968) which further develops the character of Flavia.

 

The Guardian gives a good insight into Bedford’s legacy with this article

Holiday week catch up

Suitcase is unpacked and laundry is in the washing machine. I’ve done a walk along the coastal path taking advantage of a dry morning. Raspberry and white chocolate muffins are cooling off ready for a little afternoon tea indulgence. So now I needn’t feel guilty about spending some time with a catch up on the blog about the last week.

travelcompanionI expected to get a lot of reading done while we took a mini holiday in Dorset but it didn’t quite work out that way because the weather was much nicer than expected. Lucky us for picking one week when the clouds parted and we saw the sun. Everywhere looks more attractive under a blue sky but this part of England certainly knows how to sparkle in sunshine. So we got out our walking shoes and explored. Of course I took a book with me in my sturdy rucksack but darn it, my eyes kept getting diverted by all the scenery around me. That was when they were not closed for a quick nap due to the effects of all the fresh air.

One book I did read was the rather odd but mesmerising Booker long listed title The Many by Wyl Menmuir.  It’s set in a fishing village somewhere in Cornwall so not far along the coast from Poole, a harbour town and fishing port where we were staying.  It was rather sobering reading about the fictitious village whose livliehood is threatened by pollution and then to look out onto the lobster pots and fishermen in Poole who are still trying to make a living from the sea. Beyond the dangers posed to our coastal heritage I’m still trying to think what what the message of this book is, but an exchange with Jen at The Readers Room pulled me up short. I thought of a dream sequence as a foretaste of what happens to Timothy one of the two main characters in the future. Jen suggests it’s actually a recollection of what happened to him and provides the reason why he  moves into a derelict house in the village. It just shows how elusive this novel can be ….

I also read Harry Potter and The Philosophers’ Stone ready for the Open University course on children’s literature that I’ve signed up to take in October and got a quarter of the way through The Sleeping World, a debut novel from the Spanish author Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes. I had planned this to be part of my Women in Translation month reading but though the theme and setting of 1970s post-Franco Spain was something that interested me, the book was so poorly written I simply couldn’t get through to the end. I’ve now moved on to the far more intriguing All that Man Is by David Szalay which is on the Man Booker longlist this year. He takes nine different men, all at a different stage of their lives, and puts them into a situation in which they have to make a decision that will affect the rest of their life. It’s described as a novel though each story is entirely separate from the rest so they read more like a collection of short pieces to me. It’s a book that slips down very easily so I’ve already got to the half way mark.

In between walking, eating, reading I’ve been playing around with the Feedly feedreader that many people mentioned when I asked for recommendations on a better option than Bloglovin. Feedly is set up to make it easy to find a site, follow it and then group it with other similar blogs into ‘collections’ that you can review as a block. I’ve been migrating some of the feeds I have on Bloglovin over to this new site so you may find an ‘unfollow’ message from me – it’s not that I don’t love you, just moving you into your new home. I’m going to give it a month and then will share with you all how the new tool is going.

So that was my week – no time to catch up on reviews unfortunately so the backlog is creeping up once again. Expect to see a flurry of those next week including my final book for All Virago/All August which also got me to the end of #20booksofsummer.

Reading Snapshot September 2016

poole quays

Poole, Dorset. Building in the background is Booker Talk’s ‘home’ for a few days

BookerTalk is on a little holiday in the UK – what apparently we now supposed to label as a ‘staycation’ and feel proud that we’re doing our bit for the UK economy instead of jetting off to far climes. When the sun is shining the British coast is indeed a wonder – especially around Dorset which has spectacular cliffs and hills rolling down to the sea. This is Thomas Hardy country (it’s the Wessex in his novels) but though I should really be re-reading one of his books I forgot to bring one with me.

 

Just Finished

I managed to squeeze in a third Virago title just before the end of AllVirago/All August which also enabled me to complete the #20booksofsummer challenge (or 10 in my case). A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford more than made up for the disappointing The Ice House by Nina Bawden. With a name like Bedford you’d imagine she was a British author but not a bit of it – she was born in Germany to an aristocratic family,  fled to USA to escape the Nazi regime of which she was vocally critical and spent most of the post war years living in France and Italy. A Favourite of the Gods is her second novel – I’ll get around to reviewing this soon but if you haven’t read it, its a wonderful portrait of three generations of strong women.

Reading Currently 

I’m deep into the Booker prize 2016 longlist at the moment. There’s no chance of reading all – or even most – of the 13 titles before the shortlist is announced mid September but I wanted to try a few just to get the measure of what’s in contention. I know many people are anti-Amazon but I do like the option to download a free sample of an ebook. It’s meant I’ve been able to get a feel of some of the longlist without having to fork out too many pennies to buy hard copies. I do have full versions of three to read yet though: J.M. Coetzee’s  The Schooldays of Jesus; Graeme Macrae Burnet’s  His Bloody Project and David Szalay’s All That Man Is.  But first I need to finish the rather wonderful  The Many by Wyl Menmuir. This is a short novel but the atmosphere of foreboding he creates is superb. Hope this one makes it to the shortlist – it deserves to be on it.

On the Horizon

Probably I’ll be opening the J.M. Coetzee  The Schooldays of Jesus shortly. I’ve enjoyed the two other novels I’ve read by him so expecting a lot from this one. After that it will be a case of head down to read the titles on the syllabus of a course on children’s literature I start in October. Hoist the sails for Treasure Island and (sigh) Swallows and Amazons…..

 

Adultery in Islington: Nina Bawden’s The Ice House #Virago

the-ice-houseWhen asked in an interview for The Independent newspaper how she would describe her novel The Ice House was about, Nina Bawden answered:

Asked what The Ice House is ‘about’, I would probably say ‘adultery in Islington’. But that would be to speak dismissively, protectively, as a parent in a superstitious culture might cover a child’s face and call it plain and stupid. In fact, it is a novel about love and friendship; in particular, the friendship between two women who have been close since a dreadful episode in childhood when one of them was viciously beaten by her father.

Friendship is the theme that runs through the four sections of this novel. It begins in around 1951 with two fifteen year old girls Daisy Brown and Ruth Perkins who live in London. Their different backgrounds and characters make them rather unusual friends. Daisy lives within the warm embrace of a loving modestly well-off family who take a relaxed, open attitude to their domestic situation.   Ruth Perkin comes from a wealthy family who live in a turreted house hidden behind large gates complete with a disused ice house in one of the corners of the grounds. She’s a quiet child who says little about her family and her father’s rather strict form of upbringing. She explains this by his years spent as a prisoner of war in Japan. No-one else that Daisy knows has ever been invited to the Perkin’s house before so an unexpected invitation to tea gives her a thrill. it will give her a chance maybe to discover information about Ruth’s family that Ruth has never shared with her friend.

The real explanation for Ruth’s reticence becomes abundantly clear soon after Daisy enters the Perkin household and encounters her father Captain Perkins. Daisy is a bit of a flirt but even she is surprised at the forwardness of the Captain’s comments

“Captain Perkin said, ‘I daresay you have lots of boyfriends, Daisy,’ and she was conscious that her last year’s summer dress was too tight across the chest. … ‘I hope your mother knows what she is doing,’ Captain Perkin said. ‘I am careful with Ruth. But I have seen a bit of the world, you understand. I know what men are, with ripe young girls.’ He spluttered as he laughed, as if his mouth was full of juice. And, with a gloating emphasis, ‘I know what girls are, come to that!’ His eyes were on her breasts.”

The experience of that afternoon, though never spoken about between the two girls, cements their relationship, Thirty years later, they live on the same street in the Islington district of London, they are still friends though married and with families of their own. They live nearby, keep in regular touch. When Luke, Daisy’s husband, is killed in a road accident which may be a suicide, secrets are revealed that shock Ruth. Instead of a the loving marriage she thought her friend had she finds Daisy  launches into a series of diatribes against her husband and reveals she’d been bored with her marriage.

The development comes at a time when Ruth is also experiencing some difficulties with her own marriage. Her husband Joe becomes more distant having taken his friend’s death very hard and Ruth fears what he is keeping hidden from her. Eventually he comes clean and discloses there has been someone else in his life for some time.

The two friends move onto a different phase of their lives in which they contemplate life without a partner or with only a semblance of a relationship. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way over the next few years as the different personalities of the friends shape their responses. And Ruth’s previous experience as a child plays a significant part in her own ability to deal with life.

I wanted to enjoy this rather more than I did. I didn’t warm to either character and found the rather tedious at times. I just wanted the book to be over. It’s the third title I’ve read by Nina Bawden. The first A Little Love, a Little Learning was wonderful, the second The Solitary Child left me cold – you can see my reactions here . My most recent experience hasn’t left me with a feeling Bawden isn’t for me but I need to chose the next one more carefully it seems.

Footnotes

Author: The Ice House by Nina Bawden

Published: 1993 by Virago Modern Classics

Length: 236 pages

My copy: Bought from a charity shop in Oxford. Read as part of AllVirago/All August month in 2016. Also counts towards my Classics Club challenge and the #20booksofsummer challenge for 2016

 

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