Friday 30 December 2011

Jane's letters

I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive. Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra, 31st May 1811

Very much enjoyed the two Jane Austen documentaries screened in the UK over Christmas. Despite my reservations about the title, The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen proved to be rather good. Amanda Vickery is a charming presenter and thankfully did not wear a bonnet.

Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait? was a riveting programme. The attempts of the art historians and costume experts to authenticate the portrait were fascinating and there was a good ole academic row at the end with Paula Byrne coming out of it rather well. My own feeling is that the portrait may well be genuine.

You are looking at my reading challenge for 2012. The new edition of Jane Austen's Letters edited by Deirdre Le Faye. You are also looking at my new year's resolution - to stop drinking so much coffee!

I would like to thank my fellow bloggers and readers for proving that the internet can be a place for friendship and creativity. Happy New Year!

Friday 16 December 2011

Digging to America

I've been buying books as Christmas presents using my usual 'one for you, two for me' method. Sticking to paperbacks though, hardbacks are just too expensive. All the Charlotte Bronte news yesterday made me want to re-read Jane Eyre when I've worked through my Anne Tyler phase. Very much enjoyed Digging to America. Look, I've even written a review!

Baltimore airport. Two Korean babies arrive in America to be met by their adoptive parents. A large welcoming party are gathered to greet Jin-Ho. Brad and Bitsy, her all-American adoptive parents and their friends and relatives hold balloons and pink ribbons and video record the arrival. Sooki has a much more low-key welcome from Sami and Ziba, the young couple who are adopting her and their mother, an Iranian immigrant, Maryam, who resents the way that Americans expect her to think and behave.

The two families decide to keep in touch so that the girls will grow up as friends. Each year on the anniversary of their arrival in America an Arrival Party is held to celebrate the event and the video is replayed. Brad and Bitsy raise Jin-Ho to retain her Korean identity - to the extent of occasionally dressing her in full Korean costume complete with headdress - and naturally Jin-Ho eventually rebels, wanting to be called Jo and coming to hate the Arrival parties.

I've always admired the way that Amy Tan writes about Asian-American culture clashes and Tyler writes with the same sensitivity and humour. I particularly enjoyed the chapter in which Hurricane Isabel hits the neighbourhood.

Jin-Ho began to feel prickly-skinned and excited, the way she did on Christmas Eve. During supper she kept twisting around in her chair to look out the kitchen window. The air was a weird shade of lavender and the trees were flipping their leaves wrong side to. "Keep your fingers crossed for our elms," her father told her. "As much money as I've spent on those things, I might as well be putting them through college." Digging to America, Anne Tyler

Wednesday 30 November 2011

The Accidental Tourist

'Macon sat next to her with a magazine he'd found rolled up in one of her pockets. He saw that The Police were experiencing personality conflicts. That David Bowie worried about mental illness, that Billy Idol's black shirt appeared to have been ripped halfway off his body. Evidently these people led very difficult lives. He had no idea who they were.' The Accidental Tourist,
Anne Tyler

Some regard Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as Anne Tyler's greatest novel. It's a little sombre for me. The Accidental Tourist is my favourite of the eight or nine Tyler novels I've read. It's the story of a blossoming love affair between middle-class pedant Macon and streetwise, extrovert Muriel. Macon writes tourist guides for people who don't like to travel and Muriel has half a dozen low paid jobs. They meet when she trains his psychotic (but lovable) dog, Edward.

Edward has a nasty habit of lunging at people on bikes, cornering family members in the laundry room and 'treeing' people ie chasing them up trees. Although the novel has tragic elements - Macon is grieving the loss of his son and the subsequent break-up of his marriage and Muriel is a single mother who has had to fight for everything - it is a wonderfully comic novel.

Geena Davis played Muriel in the 1988 film. I've never seen the film but I suspect Geena Davis is rather too pretty for Muriel as described in the book. She is a wonderful creation, over-dressed, too much make-up and hair, smart, tough and transparent.

Virginia Woolf said of Jane Austen that she is a writer of whom 'it is hardest to catch in the act of greatness.' This could also apply to Anne Tyler. A great writer but you just can't see how she does it.

Friday 18 November 2011

State of Wonder

My autumnal American reading plan is going pretty well except that I sat up waaaaaay too late last Sunday to finish State of Wonder and then felt a bit of a wreck at work the next day. If I told you that the plot revolves around a woman who sails along the Rio Negro to seek closure for the death of her colleague and also to track down a formidable female scientist who is investigating pregnancy in indigenous tribeswomen who remain fertile until their seventies by eating the bark of a tree, you may think it is a little far-fetched!

Dr Marina Singh also loses her luggage, performs a c-section without anaesthetic or instruments, wrestles with an anaconda, has nightmares from the Larium she is taking to prevent malaria and dodges poison arrows. I loved every minute of this novel and it reminded me a little of another favourite, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

By contrast, Anne Tyler is a writer whose novels remain firmly rooted in Baltimore. Eudora Welty admired her work and Nick Hornby has called her 'the greatest novelist writing in English.' I'm enjoying Noah's Compass right now and I'm planning to re-read The Accidental Tourist next. I do like the way Tyler uses the vernacular to create an authentic American voice.

By the way Mrs Miniver's Daughter and Seagreen Reader and Lilac in May I'd love to comment on your blogs but your comments filter does not like me!

Friday 4 November 2011

Bel Canto

Autumn seems to be whizzing by but I've taken the time to enjoy my yellow pom-pom chrysanthemums and Ann Patchett's highly original novel Bel Canto. (Thanks for the recommendation Becca!)

Mr Hosokawa is a prominent Japanese businessman. Although work takes up most of his life he has had a passion for opera since his father took him to see Verdi's Rigoletto as a child. A birthday party is held in his honour at the home of the vice-president and the opera singer Roxanne Coss has been engaged to sing for the guests.

While the guests are enthralled by the soprano's beautiful voice the house is captured by armed freedom fighters and the guests are held hostage. Eventually the women are released - with the exception of Roxanne Cross - and all of the men, who include prominent diplomats and politicians, are held. A stand-off develops with the police circling the house with loudspeakers and the gunmen refusing to negotiate until their demands are met.

During the siege, relationships between the hostages and terrorists develop and change. Men whose lives normally revolve around work and terrorists devoted to their cause begin to develop their passions for music and chess and there is even a 'hostages v terrorists' football match!

I've just given the briefest outline of the plot because I don't want to introduce spoilers but what I love about this novel is the way Ann Patchett writes about opera. It reminded me a little of Willa Cather's writing about a perfomance of Casta Diva in My Mortal Enemy. I've already started Ann Patchett's latest novel State of Wonder and I can't put it down.

Friday 21 October 2011

The Golden Apples

'Lets let the orphans go in the water first and get the snakes stirred up, Mrs Gruenwald,' Jinny Love Stark suggests.' Eudora Welty

The girls from Morgana, Mississippi are spending summer camp at Moon Lake. Loch Morrison, Boy Scout and Life Saver, reluctantly watches over the lake while they swim. The girls are equally reluctant to take their daily dip.

The boldest orphan, Easter, goes in first, the other orphans follow and then the girls from Morgana, Mississippi. The alligators have been 'beaten out' of the lake, but there are water snakes and rumours of a cottonmouth moccasin. Underfoot are cypress roots and soft mud. A rope marks the boundaries for swimming. The Morgana girls have bathing slippers but the orphans are barefoot.

Eudora Welty's collection of interconnected stories The Golden Apples, first published in 1949 are so evocative of Mississippi you can almost smell the 'sweetbay and cypress and sweetgum and live oak and swamp maple.'

With the change of season I find that I'm moving again towards my favourite American writers and I sense an autumn reading plan emerging!

Sunday 25 September 2011

Louisa Musgrove's fall

As something of an Austen purist I'm not keen on sequels, prequels and spoofs of the six great novels. Recently there seems to have been a spate of well-known writers offering modernisations/re-tellings/murder mysteries. It may be fun for them but I won't be buying. Austen's genius was very rare and best left alone in my opinion.

However, I do love Austen biographies, essay collections and novels which pay homage but do not lift the characters and storylines or somehow manage to introduce zombies! I've been re-reading Persuasion for Rachel's reading week and dipping into A Truth Universally Acknowledged, Susannah Carson's selected essay collection.

Somerset Maugham has written an extremely interesting, if acerbic, essay on Pride and Prejudice which includes some radical thoughts on Persuasion. While acknowledging that Persuasion has a 'rare charm' he is unconvinced by the scene on the Cobb at Lyme and asks how Louisa managed to fall on her head when she was being jumped down from the stile. He also raises the question of Captain Wentworth's reaction to the fall:

'Anyhow she was unconscious, and the fuss that is made is unbelievable. Everybody loses his head. Captain Wentworth, who has seen action and made a fortune out of prize money is paralysed with horror.' W Somerset Maugham

My own thoughts are that Austen wanted to demonstrate that Wentworth was not invincible and this was an opportunity for Anne to assert her quiet strength. I'd love to know what you think.

Friday 9 September 2011

Dear Dodie

It takes a good biography to drag me away from my beloved novels and I'm pleased to say that this is a very good biography. It's not speculative or gushing or overly academic.

It follows Dodie's life from adored only child to flamboyant but untalented actress to extrovert saleswoman at Heals furniture store to successful playwright and novelist. Along the way she has an affair with her boss at Heals, marries Alex who is seven years her junior, moves to America during the war years because her husband is a pacifist and forms lifelong friendships with renowned actors, playwrights and directors.

And of course in 1934 she was given her first Dalmatian puppy, Pongo, the first in a succession of energetic, lovable (and destructive!) Dalmatians who inspired her most famous book.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on I Capture the Castle written when she was living in exile in America and homesick for England. Interestingly, she believed that Cassandra represented her girlhood self but when her ex-lover read it he thought that Topaz was very like Dodie.

There are some lovely anecdotes. One New Year's Eve, her husband went to bed early so Dodie crossed her Dalmatian's paws and sang Old Lang Syne with her dog!

Valerie Grove's portrayal of Dodie Smith as an extrovert with a generous heart who, more than anything, wanted to write and to write well is a must-read. Of course, I now want to re-read I Capture the Castle.

Saturday 27 August 2011


I have a bit of a chequered history with Elizabeth Taylor novels. I found Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont to be an utterly depressing portrayal of ageing and I've often found an underlying unpleasantness in Taylor's characters, yet I loved Blaming.

Palladian is a variation of Jane Eyre with orphaned Cassandra Dashwood going to work as a governess in a ramshackle mansion house with a romantic idea that she will fall in love with her widower employer and indeed she does. The mansion is populated with her employer's bossy sister, hypochondriac mother, brother with a drink problem, the girl he believes to be his daughter and a know-it-all Nanny who bullies the cleaner. The dialogue between Nanny and the cleaner is highly amusing and cleverly written but I found the rest of the novel pretty bleak.

I'd like to read the Beauman biography because I'm always interested in the life of writers but I think I'm done with Taylor's novels.

On a more positive note I popped into the lovely Foyles bookshop at St Pancras station last week and found a biography I've wanted to read for a long time -clue is my author of the month. I also managed to resist the temptation presented by the Cath Kidston shop next door!

Monday 22 August 2011

Cousin Rosamund

Cousin Rosamund is the third novel in West's trilogy. Written against failing health, it is perhaps not as polished as the first two but I have to say that I really enjoyed re-reading it.

Rose and Mary are now wealthy and acclaimed concert pianists with an international schedule. Rosamund appalls the Aubrey twins by marrying (apparently) for money. Rose marries the musician Oliver Wood. Kate, now elderly, still works as a housekeeper for the two sisters wearing a long dark dress with a cameo brooch at her neck which delights Mr Morpurgo who thinks she resembles a character from a Bronte novel.

West's inimitable style is both literary and feminine. She describes the rise of the fashion house of Chanel, the perfumes of the day, Patou and Vigny's Golliwog, the flowers and boxes of marrons glace presented to the Aubrey sisters after each concert and sets this against the aftermath of the first world war, the loss of thousands of young men and the ability of musicians to sense impending tragedy through their art.

I wish there were more of Cordelia in this novel. She surfaces with her husband occasionally at parties and manages to irritate both of her sisters but there are none of the spectacular rows of the first two novels or the the comedy arising from Cordelia's inability to play the violin.

Sadly we will never know the reasons for Rosamund's bizarre marriage as West died before the trilogy - or possibly quatrain - was complete although she did leave a synopsis. Perhaps it is best that we are left wanting more of this wonderful story.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Virago Modern Classics 2011

Sorry for late replies to comments on my last post but my computer - which was held together by little more than elastic bands and string - finally called it a day last month. As I've said before to me the internet is all about communication and to interact with other readers via comments is one of the greatest pleasures of book blogging. After re-reading the Rebecca West trilogy I found it difficult to settle down to reading anything else. Started The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins for book club but I prefer to read Victorian novels in the winter. Started The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, but within a few pages I knew it wasn't for me.

It was therefore very timely of Virago to re-issue five modern classics in hardback for the summer. Even better that they included Elizabeth Jenkins The Tortoise and the Hare which I've wanted to read ever since it was reviewed by Roses Over a Cottage Door, A few of my favourite books (now Lavender Tisane) Books and Chocolate and A Book Sanctuary

I loved this book. Although it is a sad story - beautiful woman who lives to please her wealthy husband cannot believe he is cheating on her with a dowdy spinster much older than herself - the writing and detail are beautiful with echoes of Jane Austen. There is also an excellent introduction by Hilary Mantel and an illuminating afterword by Carmen Callil. The cover design is Japanese Floral by Florence Broadhurst. A perfect summer read.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

This Real Night

Rosamund was sitting up, resting on one hand, and looking round her. 'Forgive me if I go on about blue flowers, she was saying. 'I do so love them. Where was it, that place you went and stayed, where there was an old house high above the sea, and there was a flower bed built up on the edge of the cliff, so that you looked at blue flowers rising to blue sea, and above that there was blue sky? Somewhere in the West Country?' Rebecca West, This Real Night

This Real Night is the second novel in Rebecca West's trilogy. It is also a perfect novel in its own right. In fact, I think it is darker and more powerful than The Fountain Overflows.

This Real Night moves from the end of the Edwardian era to the outbreak of the Great War. Rose and Mary are getting public engagements as concert pianists, establishing a name for themselves as musicians and earning money. Cordelia is as obnoxious as ever and after flirting with the idea of becoming an art historian - which requires another expensive course - she gets married. Rosamund is nursing and Richard Quin enlists as a soldier. The wonderful Mrs Aubrey is now in decline and characters familiar from The Fountain Overflows resurface. Mr Morpurgo provides financial support, Kate is the loyal servant with a gift for clairvoyance, Nancy Philips pays a visit and Aunt Lily continues to dress in a way which causes small boys to point at her in the street.

I won't give the ending away but keep a tissue handy!

Monday 4 July 2011

The Fountain Overflows

Rebecca West is remembered for many things - the novel Return of the Soldier written when she was just 26, an early career as a radical young journalist and suffragette, her affair with HG Wells and her extensive writing and travelling. Curiously, she is rarely remembered for the terrific novel she wrote in later life The Fountain Overflows which reflects upon an Edwardian childhood and the events leading up to the Great War.

Thank goodness for Virago Modern Classics who have re-issued West's finest novel with a cover appropriate to the story. Rose Aubrey is as charming a young narrator as Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle. Rose and her twin, Mary, are talented pianists who are taught at home by their mother a former concert pianist. Although the family live in abject poverty their mother knows their art will earn them a living one day. There is also a beautiful and tortured older sister, Cordelia, who cannot accept that she is not and never will be musical, a brilliant but largely absent father and a delightful little brother, Richard Quin.

West created a whole trilogy around the artistic, bohemian and female-centred Aubrey family. I'm hoping for good weather so that I can sit in the garden over the summer to re-read it.

Friday 24 June 2011

The Summer without Men

I'm a sucker for any book that says 'By turns, funny, moving and erudite, playfully reminding us of a contemporary Jane Austen' on the cover. Does Siri Husvedt's writing remind us of a contemporary Jane Austen? I'd say not. Austen's genius was very rare. Did I like this book? Well yes, with some reservations.

It's a depressingly familiar story. Husband leaves ageing wife for younger colleague. Wife goes briefly crazy and then takes herself off for the summer to teach poetry to teenagers and visit her elderly mother. Mia engages with the adolescent girls she teaches, her mother's sparky elderly friends and a young woman with a family and troublesome husband who live next door.

There are lots of literary diversions - discourses on the nature of mental illness, directly addressing the reader a la Charlotte Bronte and experiments with the narrative. I really liked the creative writing class and I thought the novel was excellent on newly teenage girls and the bullying, competitiveness and vulnerability of that age group.

Three contemporary novels in a row. Now I really am ready to go back to my beloved vintage literature.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Summer reading

I remember listening to an archive Radio 4 interview with the writer Storm Jameson. I can't quote her words exactly but she said the while many intelligent, articulate and perceptive people can write a good book it is not the same as writing a great book.

This is how I felt about Every Last One by Anna Quindlen. Good but not great. It starts off as a portrayal of family life. Middle-aged mother Mary Beth Latham runs her own gardening business. Three teenage children, reliable husband, nice house in New England and comfortable finances. Quindlen is good on the conflicts between work and motherhood and the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with teenagers.

About half way through the novel there is a completely unexpected event which this reader certainly did not anticipate. Again Quindlen is very good at writing about the fractured nature of a crisis and the grief, guilt, gossip and small-town claustrophobia that follows. I think it was the continuous present tense that irked me - 'I'm sitting on the screened porch, I'm at the garden centre, I pull into the driveway ...' That said, I would read more Quindlen.

Having read two contemporary novels in a row I now need some Austen. Mansfield Park is on my mind ...

Sunday 5 June 2011

Beach Read

Last week we had a family holiday in beautiful Polperro, Cornwall. I took Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky after a good review in The Sunday Times caught my eye.

Loosely based on the ballet Pulcinella it is a story of family life with lost identities, coincidences and lovers re-united. I did enjoy it. I particularly liked ballet-mad Zoe who desperately wants to dance, begs her mother for lessons and devours ballet stories for girls. I also liked her mother, Caroline, a remarkably resourceful woman who makes a little money stretch a long way. Caroline's complete personality change after discovering a secret her own mother had kept from her was a little far-fetched but it kept me turning the pages. There is also the fascinating backstory of Josh and Ida Silver, humanists and activists in South Africa and parents of Zoe's father, Josh.

If you are looking for a superior holiday read, you may like this.

Friday 27 May 2011

Women's novels set in New York

At the florist's we found, among all the little trees and potted plants, a glistening holly-tree, full of red berries and pointed like a spire, easily the queen of its companions. Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy, 1926

I've been re-reading Willa Cather's brilliant novella My Mortal Enemy. Set in New York it is the story of Myra Henshawe, a woman who has beauty and wealth in her youth but throws away her inheritance to marry the man she loves. She then becomes dissatisfied and envious when she cannot maintain her standard of living and by the time she is in her mid-forties she has become bitter and he is fond of the company of other women. The story is relayed by Myra's young niece who both admires and dislikes her aunt. Myra's conflict between her desire for worldly goods and her passion for art and literature and music is what makes her a sympathetic character.

I spotted Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers - American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx in the library and borrowed it to find out some information about Betty Smith. Sadly Smith merits less than a line in this account of American literature while of course there are chapters devoted to Willa Cather. Cather is a more literary writer, but it seems odd that the writer of a novel beloved by so many readers does not merit a few pages in the history of American women's writing

Thanks to your recommendations I've ordered Joy in the Morning - the Betty Smith revival starts here!

Sunday 15 May 2011

Sense and Sensibility 200th Anniversary Post (2)

Willoughby, who for two-thirds of the book arouses the readers' detestation as a brutal scoundrel, is shown by a wonderful transition whose suddenness is equalled only by its complete convincingness to be actually an object of sympathy. Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen, 1948

The wild and stormy night of Willoughby's return is one of my favourite chapters in Sense and Sensibility. Elinor is keeping vigil over her dangerously ill sister and the wind is howling around the house when she hears a coach and horses draw up. Thinking it is her mother she rises to greet a grief-stricken and remorseful Willoughby. Such is Austen's genius - what Eudora Welty calls 'fairy gifts' - the heartless and mercenary Willoughby actually arouses our pity and even the cool-headed Elinor is overwhelmed by his charisma and physical attractiveness. I suspect Austen quite likes Willoughby too, as she slyly says:

His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, 1811

The new annotated edition of Pride and Prejudice is printed on thick creamy paper with beautiful photos and detailed notes by Patricia Meyer Spacks. Some of the annotations seem to state the obvious. Anyone familiar with Austen will know that 'vulgar' means of a low social class and 'dirt' is mud. It is a lovely book, but at £25 I think this is probably one for Austen addicts only!

Thursday 5 May 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

It seems a while since I updated my blog but I've been engrossed in a book! I have a weakness for coming-of-age novels and vintage American literature so Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a perfect read for me.

Eleven-year old Francie is growing up poverty-stricken in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, New York in 1912. Francie is a bookish child who likes to sit on the fire escape in her tenement flat hidden in the branches of the tree that grows underneath it, reading and listening to the comings and goings of the lively neighbourhood. On a Saturday she visits the library where she is working her way through every single book and has so far only reached authors whose name begins with B. Her mother and aunties are delicate-looking but extremely tough women who have to stretch a tiny family budget. Her father is a lovable and handsome loser who works when he can. Francie and her brother are always hungry. The rhythms and speech patterns of the working class Williamsburg community are brilliantly captured by Betty Smith.

I'll post my final thoughts on this novel when I've finished it but I'd like to read more novels set in early 20th century New York. I'm thinking Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy. I was also intrigued by Book Snob's review of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. As always, I would welcome any other suggestions.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Poly Styrene

Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, 3 July 1957-25 April 2011

Monday 25 April 2011

The Hundred Secret Senses

I've always intended this blog to be about beloved books which are passed down through the generations from mother to daughter. This female focus is particularly apt when reading Amy Tan. I've read and re-read everything she has published and I can quote huge chunks of my favourite novel The Hundred Secret Senses.

Olivia Yee grows up with her family in San Francisco. Steeped in American culture she is less than pleased when her older half-sister comes from China to live with them. Kwan has extraordinary powers and senses - she can diagnose and heal by touch, when she tries to wear a digital watch the numbers whizz around, she can sense with pinpoint accuracy electrical faults in a circuit and she can talk to the dead. Kwan is a source of constant irritation to Libby:

Kwan has never been able to correctly pronounce my name, Olivia. To her, I will always be Libby-ah, not plain Libby, like the tomato juice, but Libby-ah, like the nation of Muammar Qaddafi. As a consequence, her husband, George Lew, his two sons from a first marriage, and that whole side of the family all call me Libby-ah too. The 'ah' part especially annoys me. It's the Chinese equivalent of saying 'hey,' as in 'Hey Libby, come here.' I asked Kwan once how she'd like it if I introduced her to everyone as 'Hey, Kwan.' She slapped my arm, went breathless with laughter, then said hoarsely, 'I like, I like.' So much for cultural parallels, Libby-ah it is, forever and ever.
As the novel unfolds, Libby learns to love and appreciate the wonderful Kwan. If you are new to Amy Tan, I would suggest reading the novels chronologically. Start with the Joy Luck Club, then The Kitchen God's Wife - watch out for the wonderful Ding Ho Flower Shop - and then The Hundred Secret Senses.

Monday 18 April 2011

Catherine Morland

'Catherine grows quite a good-looking girl, - she is almost pretty today,' were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

With the exception of Jane Eyre it is rare to find a literary heroine who is not beautiful. During her six-week sojourn in Bath, Catherine Morland a likeable and unremarkable girl who takes everything at face-value is rewarded with her man while the artful, the fashionable and the foolish are the victims of Austen's biting satire. Northanger Abbey also contains a delightful defence of the novel and novel readers (as if we needed one!)

The beauty on the cover of my Everyman's edition is Priscilla Jones, Wife of the Artist by Thomas Barker of Bath (1769-1847).

Friday 8 April 2011

American Literature

I must stop buying these fancypants editions of literary classics because they are twice the price of standard paperbacks. It's the bookish equivalent of Carrie in Sex and the City when she spots another pair of Jimmy Choos!

Ethan Frome is a relentlessly tragic novel and portrays a completely different view of New England to Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs. The tortured relationship between Ethan, his wife Zeena and the young Mattie Silver plays itself out to its shocking conclusion.

Talking of toxic marriages Shadow Tag is an unflinching portrayal of the relationship between Gil, an artist and his wife Irene who is also his muse. Both are flawed. He can't control his temper and she is a loving mother but a cold-hearted wife. Irene keeps a 'false' blue diary which she leaves around for her husband to read while her real thoughts are recorded in a secret red diary. Shadow Tag could not be considered a comfort read and this marriage turns uglier than most bad marriages with alcohol playing its inevitable part, but sometimes you need to read about real life, as it is, both good and bad and Louise Erdrich excels at writing real life.

After all that tragedy I need some Austen.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Shadow Tag

Waterstone's no longer seem to stock the latest Louise Erdrich titles. Plenty of shelf space for charmless celebrity biographies, but no space for a fine contemporary American writer. I suppose it is market driven. Here in the UK I have to order Erdrich's latest novels when I find out about them from blogger friends who are also fans, such as Frisbee Wind or from the website for Erdrich's bookshop Birchbark Books.

If you are new to this writer I would suggest starting with Love Medicine or, my favourite, The Beet Queen. Her novels are not for the faint-hearted - I don't mean that they are gruesome - I mean that many of them examine the harsh realities of life for those living on and around the reservations. Shadow Tag arrived last week and I started reading on Sunday night. Something nice about beginning a much-anticipated novel on a Sunday - kind of sets you up for the week!

Finished The Historian. I thought it was very well-written but could have been edited by at least 200 pages for a sharper story. Too much travel and history and not enough character development for my tastes. That said, it genuinely made me jump a couple of times and there was some beautiful descriptive writing:
At farms along the road we stopped to buy picnics better than any restaurant could have made for us: boxes of new strawberries that gave off a red glow in the sun and seemed not to need washing; cylinders of goat's cheese weighty as barbells and encrusted with a rough grey mould as if they'd been rolled across a cellar floor.

Saturday 19 March 2011

The Historian

About time I rejoined the 21st century for a while with a contemporary novel. I do like novels set in academia so I was pleased when my reading group chose Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian for March.

I was immediately drawn in by the opening of this novel. An ancient book mysteriously appears on a student's desk and reappears when he returns it to the rare books section of the university library. There there is the mysterious disappearance of the charismatic professor who had been researching the history of Dracula and only a smear of blood is left on the ceiling of his study. The papers and letters he leaves behind are all addressed to 'My dear and unfortunate successor.'

I'm only a couple of hundred pages in - this novel is 700 pages long(!) - but I'm enjoying the elegance of the writing. I'm not particularly interested in the legend and history of Dracula per se but so far the novel is holding my attention.

I was sorry to see that Jane Brocket is wavering about whether to continue her inspiring blog. I have to say that I've never found the book blogging community to be anything other than positive and mutually supportive. Possibly because reading is a non-competitive activity?

Friday 11 March 2011

Sense and Sensibility 200th anniversary post (1)

Have you read Sense and Sensibility? It is a clever novel. They were full of it at Althorpe, and although it ends stupidly I was much amused by it. Letter from Lady Bessborough to Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, 1811

Elinor Dashwood is my favourite Austen heroine and each time I read Sense and Sensibility I discover something new about her. Austen was possessed of what Elizabeth Jenkins refers to as 'the occult power of creating human personality - the rarest form of literary genius.' Depth and nuance of character which may not be apparent on first reading an Austen novel are revealed upon re-reading.

Surprisingly, Elizabeth Jenkins was not fond of Elinor. She describes her as 'too rational.' I would argue the Elinor is the only character who keeps it together and retains a sense of humour despite almost unbearable provocation. Marianne falls to pieces when she is abandoned by Willoughby and it is Elinor who supports her while she is simultaneously aware that the man she loves is secretly engaged to the loathsome Lucy Steele who never misses an opportunity to remind her.

Yet when Marianne goes into raptures about autumn leaves, Elinor can dryly remark. 'It is not everyone who shares your passion for dead leaves.' When Lady Middleton's noisy, spoilt children pull their mother and damage her clothes, Elinor remarks that she 'never thinks of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence.'

Whether the novel ends 'stupidly' depends I suppose on your opinion of Edward Ferrars. I still find him a bit of a sap and think perhaps Colonel Brandon would have been a better match for Elinor.

I know you all have busy reading schedules but if anyone gets the time to re-read S&S this year I'd love to know your thoughts!

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Mostly Jane

Found Jane Austen by Elizabeth Jenkins in my local second hand bookshop. I'm intrigued by the handwritten inscription and very much hope that "H" was fond of Austen and delighted to receive this book as a gift from "J" on Christmas Day, 1948.

While I think that Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen -A Life is the definitive Austen biography, Elizabeth Jenkins' uses her experience as a novelist to provide a unique insight into Austen's genius and her polished style makes this book a real pleasure to read.

When Jenkins' describes 'the brilliant perfection of Pride and Prejudice, sixteen years maturing in the mind of an unequalled artist' and the 'peculiar loveliness of Sense and Sensibility' it makes you want to immediately re-read them.

Talking of which, this year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility. Anyone planning a re-read?

Sunday 13 February 2011

North and South

Described by Jenny Uglow as 'sexy, vivid and full of suspense' North and South is a compelling novel with magnetic central characters.

Margaret Hale's father has a crisis of faith and removes his family from their beloved New Forest to Milton, a manufacturing town in Manchester. Dismayed by the smoky industrial landscape Margaret's mother becomes ill. Her father takes in students and one of them is the powerful cotton-mill owner John Thornton.

Hypnotised by Margaret's dark beauty, dignity and scornful disdain of capitalism he falls in love with her. Margaret befriends a local girl, Bessy, who is dying as a consequence of breathing in the dust when she worked at the cotton mills:
'Fluff,' repeated Bessy. 'Little bits as fly off fro' the cotton, when they're carding it, and fill the air till it looks all fine white dust. They say it winds round the lungs and tightens them up. Anyhow there's many a one as works in the carding room, that falls in a waste, coughing and spitting blood, because they're just poisoned by the fluff.'
After Margaret protects him during a riot by the workers on strike and is injured in the process, Thornton declares his love and is refused. Her mother succumbs and dies, so does Bessy and suddenly Margaret's father. (Charles Dickens once said that much as he admires Elizabeth Gaskell he wished her characters were a little more steady on their feet!)

During this time, Thornton begins to doubt Margaret's virtue after he sees her walking out after dusk with a young man (who turns out to be her brother, but that's another story.) Margaret's stoicism and compassion see her through and after some clever plot twists she comes to appreciate the true value of the man she once disdained and the industrial town she once disliked.

Thank you so much to Make Do and Read, Shelf Love, A Few of My Favourite Books, Potter Jotter, Lilacs in May and Iris on Books for recommending this marvellous novel and I very much enjoyed this post about Victorian embroidery and art by Jane Brocket.

Friday 4 February 2011


Wuthering Heights is the first Victorian novel I ever read and I'm always moved by its final poetic paragraph:

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass and wondered how anyone could imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
The complex and sophisticated structure of the novel means that our first impressions of Cathy are pieced together by Lockwood when he spends the night in her old bed. The three versions of her name - Catherine Earnshaw, Catherine Linton and Catherine Heathcliff scratched into the ledge represent the identities that she will inhabit or may inhabit.

Her old text books with a diary scrawled as marginalia is the only time in the novel we hear Cathy's own voice, without it being represented through a narrator and even the nervous Lockwood is drawn to her when he sees the wickedly funny caricature of the curmudgeonly old servant Joseph that she has sketched on a blank page.
Each time I re-read Wuthering Heights it becomes more apparent to me that Catherine dominates the novel and is by far the most interesting character. As Lockwood observes ' the air swarmed with Catherines.'

Friday 28 January 2011


Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. Remus Lupin
I'm collecting these handsome new editions of the Harry Potter series for my daughters and I couldn't resist a quick re-read of my favourite Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I believe that the evil hooded Dementors and the way they operate - sucking all positive thoughts from the body - are based on J K Rowling's own experiences of post-natal depression. Evidence, if it were needed, of the sophistication of her writing and how it can appeal on many levels.

I was reading a transcript of JK's interview with Oprah and I was struck by her comment 'writing is essential for my mental health.' Now I don't write but I do believe that reading is essential for my mental health. Browsing through book blogs I suspect that the same is true for others - we don't read as a hobby, we read as an essential part of our well-being. I'd be interested in your thoughts whether you read, write, create, craft or bake.

Friday 14 January 2011


'Do you know, I saw the prettiest hat you can imagine, in a shop window in Milsom Street just now - very like yours, only with coquelicot ribbons instead of green; I quite longed for it.' Isabella, Northanger Abbey
I've been reading Susannah Carson's collection of essays on Jane Austen and some of the selected letters. I've been fascinated with all the detail about fabrics and dress-making. In a letter to Cassandra dated 1798, Austen describes a hat she is customising and her intentions to replace the black feather with a coquelicot one 'and besides coquelicot is to be all the fashion this winter.'

Coquelicot was one of the fashionable Regency colours - a bright orange-red like a poppy. I love the fact that Austen was interested in clothes and fashion and I've learned that persian was used to line dresses, sarsenet is a fine soft silk and cambric is a white linen. Who knew?!

Monday 3 January 2011

Oh, Mr Knightley

I've been re-reading Emma and dipping into A Truth Universally Acknowledged, a collection of essays edited by Susannah Carson. Alain de Botton's thoughts on Austen's novels strike me as particularly perceptive:
These are books that speak to us of our own lives with a clarity we cannot match.
Thus Jane Fairfax's secret smile of delight at the new pianoforte, Frank Churchill's laughingly spelling out the word BLUNDER in the alphabet game and Mr Knightley's glorious 'if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more' speech to Emma could all be happening right now.
Happy New Year!