Friday, 18 April 2014

Oxford Lit Festival

Last month I went to the beautiful Divinity School at Oxford for Kathryn Sutherland's absorbing talk on Jane Austen’s teenage writings. There was an opportunity to view some of Austen's early manuscripts and it was fascinating to see her extremely neat slanted handwriting. Afterwards, I went to to the Festival tent for a much needed cup of tea and a slice of chocolate button cake and then took a stroll down New College Lane (as recommended by Lucy Worsley). Even a spring shower didn't put me off walking around the colleges as a lovely mineral smell came off of the old buildings in the rain. I then took a walk to Blackwell’s and bought the new Ann Patchett and Gabrielle Levin's novel The Collected Works of A J Fikry.

It was sweet and funny and sad.  A J Fikry is a curmudgeonly independent bookshop owner with a passion for short stories and a dislike of mobile phones, Kindles and pretty much all aspects of modern life.  After losing his wife he turns to alcohol until he meets free-spirited book publicist Amelia who tries to pitch him her winter list.

I won't reveal what happens but I did love some of Fikry's inspired ranting:
I do not like children's books, especially ones with orphans and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult.  I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages.  I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items and - I imagine this goes without saying - vampires. Gabrielle Zevon
Enjoy your Easter break!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Still Life with Breadcrumbs

After a hectic week at work it was a relief to spend a whole evening reading on Thursday.  In fact I ended up reading into the early hours of the morning because I wanted to know what would happen next in Anna Quindlen's new novel Still Life with Breadcrumbs (although I'd kinda guessed.)

I read my first Quindlen novel a couple of years ago and I thought it was good but not great.  This one I liked much better.  It's about 60 year old Rebecca Winter (how many novels have a 60 year old heroine?) who was once a highly successful photographer who became something of a cult figure in the art world and a household name after her success with a series of domestic images. 

Now divorced, alone, strapped for cash with ailing parents she can no longer afford to live in her New York apartment and rents a rural isolated cottage.  Enter Jim the roofer who clears a raccoon from her loft, sorts out her firewood and clears her drive with a snow plough during a blizzard.  (Wouldn't you fall for a man who can drive a snow plough?)  Jim is a working man with a kind heart, no pretensions and a habit of saying 'Ah hell.'  He's also 44.  Quite a bit younger than Rebecca and it's nice to see a role-reversal relationship in a novel. 

Well I won't say what happened next but I enjoyed spending time in the company of these likeable characters and this self-assured author.  This novel reminded me a little of Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap an old favourite of mine.

Lots of contemporary fiction I want to read at the moment, Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The new novel from Jean Hanff Korelitz You Should Have Known and Ann Patchett's memoir The Story of a Happy Marriage.  Alas, they are all in hardback and I've pretty much blown my hardback budget for this year and it's only March!

Although I don't knit or make quilts I'm a regular reader of Jane Brocket's blog and I think she writes very perceptive book posts.  I do like her thoughts on the pleasures and freedom of blogging in this post.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Learning to love a hyacinth

You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is as well to have as many holds on happiness as possible.  Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey
I'm afraid The Little Friend was a Donna Tartt too far for me.  Awful people doing awful things to each other and really, if you threw a live king cobra from a motorway bridge, what are the chances it would go through the sun roof of your victim's car at the precise moment it passed below? 

Time to return to Jane Austen.  Northanger Abbey is perfect to dispel the January gloom and each time I re-read Austen I discover nuances unnoticed before.  I was struck this time by how spare Austen is with her physical descriptions yet how much they convey.  Catherine gazing at Henry Tilney with 'sparkling eyes' tells us all we need to know of a blooming young girl falling in love.  Henry may be a bit of a clever clogs but when Catherine tells him that she is 'learning to love a hyacinth' his witty reply that loving a hyacinth is 'rather domestic' but she may in time 'come to love a rose' is very endearing both to Catherine and the reader.

I'm also fond of Mrs Allen, it has to be said, she is not very bright but she is kind to Catherine  and as she is completely obsessed with clothes and fashion she is the go-to woman for advice on sprigged muslin, Mechlin lace and silk gloves.  Then there is the vain and silly Isabella Thorpe who foolishly plays one of her admirers off against the other only to lose them both.

I do like the cloth-bound Penguin editions.  Unfortunately some of the of the pink gothic keys on my copy of Northanger Abbey have rubbed off after I spilled my tea.  Good job I took a picture first. Happy New Year!  


Saturday, 14 December 2013

Winter novels

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg looking down at her old dress.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

I've never given a book away before so it's about time I did.  Little Women is a perfect Christmas read and you can almost feel the New England snow as you read it.  This is a new Penguin Threads edition which features hand-stitched cover art.  I'll randomly pick a name from the commenters on this post to receive an early Christmas present!

I would love to have visited Asia House in London last month to hear Amy Tan talk about her new novel The Valley of Amazement on a rare visit to the UK, but I couldn't get the time off work.  I've written before about my admiration for Amy Tan.  The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife and most of all The Hundred Secret Senses are some of my favourite novels.

Sadly The Valley of Amazement is not vintage Tan.  It gets off to a great start with young Violet Minturn growing up in her mother's Shanghai courtesan house at the turn of the 20th century.  Tricked into becoming a courtesan herself she is befriended and protected by Magic Gourd the sparky former courtesan who knows all the tricks of the trade and tells it like it is.  There are quite explicit details about the degradation of women in courtesan houses and their will to survive.  This part of the novel is very powerful but when the story moves on to Violet's mother and her history it becomes formulaic, overlong and the ending is far too neat.

That said, Magic Gourd, the ageing courtesan with a heart of gold is a wonderful character who reminds me of Kwan from The Hundred Secret Senses

Despite my aversion to 'weird twins' in fiction I very much enjoyed Curtis Sittenfeld's story of twins who share a gift for predicting dark events.  Sisterland is narrated by Kate who is married with children and tries to disown her gift.  The unconventional Vi positively embraces it and sets herself up as a psychic.  When she predicts an earthquake and becomes something of a small-town celebrity after appearing on the Today show, Kate whose husband works as a geological scientist and dismisses Vi's prediction as nonsense is deeply embarrassed.

Sittenfeld is particularly good on teenage angst and Kate's account of being invited to a slumber party at the age of 13 and messing around with a Ouija board which turns dark and ominous is very well written.  I won't give away the ending but I'll just say beware of October 16th!

2013 has been a great year for fiction.  Best of all was Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch of which more later.  Merry Christmas and see you all in the New Year!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Beginning The Goldfinch

 I do like a bit of superior chicklit and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones-Mad About The Boy certainly had its moments and made me laugh a few times but I have to say I was yearning to read something a bit more substantial by the time I got to the end.

My big autumn read is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  As I have not read The Secret History or The Little Friend I have no preconceptions about this writer but John Mullan's Ten Reasons why we love Donna Tartt's The Secret History from The Guardian a couple of weeks ago makes it sound very enticing.  I do like novels set in academia.

I'm about two hundred page in and it's very promising.  I liked the first chapter which is set in Amsterdam:
Outside, all was activity and cheer.  It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames et heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles.  In the afternoons, an amateur band played Christmas carols that hung tinny and fragile in the winter air. Donna Tartt The Goldfinch
I also loved the descriptions of Dutch paintings in a New York art gallery with 'peeled lemons, with the rind slightly hardened at the knife's edge, the greenish shadow of a patch of mold.'  The book has been described as Dickensian in some reviews and its central character has been likened to Holden Caulfield from J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in others.  I'll reserve judgement until I've read it  and at over 700 pages I may be a while!

Anybody read The Secret History?

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Interestings

As soon as I saw the reviews for the new Meg Wolitzer novel I wanted to read it. I loved the idea of a summer camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods which is specifically for creative teenagers. 

The Interestings begins in the 1970s with a group of teenagers who are would-be musicians, artists dancers and actors.  Six form a close friendship and call themselves The Interestings.  The novel chronicles their lives to the present day   I do like a 'how they turned out' story. Of course, life doesn't turn out fine for all of them.  Some do very well creatively and financially, some jog along and one spectacularly screws up his life.

I particularly liked all the cultural references which I could identify with being of a similar age to The Interestings - bands like the B52s and Talking Heads, Indian cotton shirts and Levis.  The lives of The Interestings are also influenced by notable events such as the rise and fall of Nixon, the Central Park jogger rape case, the Aids epidemic and, of course, 9/11.

Julie Jacobson is perhaps the most intriguing character.  A girl who is not exceptional but finds her niche among The Interestings as they hang out in teepees at Spirit-in-the Woods engaging in adolescent fumbling and drinking V&T (vodka and Tang).  Julie becomes Jools - popular, funny and accepted.

The Interestings is a big substantial novel.  The sort of book you can lose yourself in and I found myself reading late into the night unable to put it down.  That's not to say it's perfect, there are one or two clunky phrases and a couple of times a character uses an expression I'm pretty sure didn't come from the era they were supposed to be in at the time, but those are minor quibbles. I would highly recommend this book and I'm glad to have discovered Meg Wolitzer. 

I've read some exceptionally good contemporary fiction this year.  As always, I prefer American women writers and I'm now reading The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout.  There are new novels by Donna Tartt and Amy Tan to look forward to in the winter months and, of course, a new Bridget Jones novel by our own Helen Fielding.  Wonder how Bridget will cope with the Internet, blogging and Twitter?! 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Provincial Lady Goes Further

June 18th. Heatwave continues and everybody says How lovely it must be in the country, but personally I think it is lovely in London and am more than content.  
I've always said that the first volume of the Provincial Lady's diary is the best but I'm now going to Eat My Words because I've been re-reading The Provincial Lady Goes Further and finding it rather wonderful.

In this second volume the Prov Lady has had considerable literary success but this has not translated into very much cash and she is still tormented by her limited budget for clothes and the presents she would like to buy for the children.  She has however, rented a property in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, the heart of literary London, where she has time and space to write and can attend bookish events with 'dear Rose'.

Sadly, there is very little Lady B in this volume - she has moved abroad - but there is plenty of Our Vicar's Wife, Robert the undemonstrative husband, children Robin and Vicky and even Mademoiselle makes a welcome appearance.  Helen Wills is still around but thankfully has not produced any more kittens and Cook as usual has the last word.  There is also the scandalous Pamela Pringle who rings up in the middle of the night asking the Prov Lady to cover for her numerous indiscretions.

As always the Prov Lady is dissatisfied with her appearance but philosophically concludes that it is Useless to Struggle against Middle-Age.  She has no truck with  pretentious literary types and is quite capable of skewering sycophants with her wit.  She feels guilty about sending Vicky to boarding school and worries about Robin.  Her account of taking Vicky to half-term Sports at Robin's school and dissolving into tears when he wins a cup is very poignant.

As always I find myself fascinated with the details of 1930's England - Lyons tea shops, shampoo and sets, dresses made of delaine and tussore, Time and Tide magazine and rainy picnics.

I'm now re-reading The Provincial Lady in America.  Which is your favourite?