Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Misleading titles...

...a quick post tonight, as life has been super busy of late (and I'm a bit of a minor medical mess at the moment - limping around and a bit coldy and suchlike) - but wanted to quiz you on something that came up at book group tonight: what is the most misleading title you've read?

I always think it's fascinating to see how a title can affect the way we read a book. I think I first noticed it with William by E.H. Young, which completely changed the slant of a book about adultery (to make it all about the father's viewpoint) - and since then, I've pondered it over with lots of books. Sometimes, as with a particular Muriel Spark, the title can even reveal a huge spoiler...

As for misleading titles - there is the whole tractors-in-Ukrainian school of titles, which thankfully seems to be dying out now (self-conscious wackiness never quite works) but others, like The Catcher in the Rye or even To Kill a Mockingbird seem to be so tangential as to be unreliable. Then there's The Silence of the Lambs...

But, moving away from that sort of metaphor, I thought of Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go - a title that seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with the novel (except for the shoe-horned-in song) or its tone. Similarly, Jocelyn Playfair's A House in the Country sounded like an idyllic rural novel, and certainly was not.

Over to you!

Monday, 17 November 2014

My Sister Eileen: the film

A while ago I blogged about the lovely book My Sister Eileen by Ruth McKenney, which I heartily recommend. And in the latest meet-up for Simon and Andrea's Film Club, we watched the film - well, one of the films. It turns out this unassuming little collection of childhood and adolescent memories had quite an afterlife - although mostly focusing on the few chapters dealing with life in a New York basement.

All the posters I can find seem to think Janet Leigh's legs are the star.

There was a play, a 1940s film, a stage musical (called Wonderful Town), and this film - from 1955. I think the script might be similar to the play and Wonderful Town, but they couldn't get the rights to Leonard Bernstein's music - and so new music was written (and, so the Wikipedia entry informs me, even had to appear at different stages of the narrative - so as to avoid possible suing.)

I thought it would be fun - but I hadn't realised how great it would be. I really love this film!

The sisters are played by Janet Leigh and the remarkably Betty Garrett (Eileen and Ruth respectively); they do indeed live in a basement flat, just about the subway, and Ruth is trying to make it as a journalist. That's about where the similarities with the book begin and end. (Oh, except for the introduction of the Brazilian Navy - which is quite out of keeping with the rest of the film, though still great fun, and seems too far-fetched, despite being true.) In the film, Ruth is the plain-Jane to Eileen's beauty (and, while Betty Garrett is hilariously dry and feisty, in her early 20s she ain't). They both meet eligible young men - one of whom is Jack Lemmon; the other of whom is choreographer Bob Fosse (who plays a complete sweetheart, in Frank Lippincott; Jack Lemmon's character is rather creepier by modern standards, but is - I believe - intended to be romantically forceful in the '50s.)

Alongside their sororal relationship is the bedrock of the film, it's actually rather a lovely ensemble piece. Special mention must go to charming Dick York, their rugged, friendly neighbour, who pops in to do their ironing (although he won't do sewing; 'that's woman's work') and protect them from unsuitable suitors. We spent the entire film thinking he was called Rick (in a Noo Yoik accent), but it turns out he actually is called the Wreck - his wrestling nickname. Sure, why not?

My favourite songs were the two frenetic, cheery ones - 'I'm Great (But No One Knows It)', and the superb 'Give Me a Band And My Baby', in which the four participating characters pretend to be playing various instruments. And the dancing! Leigh and Garrett aren't terrible, but it's Fosse and Tommy Rall who dazzle and amaze - particularly in a tap-dancing scene. Indeed, Rall's character (a romantic rival for Frank L) seems to be there simply to give Fosse a dancing partner of equal talent, but I'm not complaining.

I don't really know why a film as joyful, funny, engaging, and beautiful as My Sister Eileen - with great songs and exceptional dancers - ever fell out of favour, but I certainly hadn't heard of it until lately. And is Betty Garrett known? Wikipedia tells me she was blacklisted in the US during MacCarthyism. She is so brilliant in this - delivering a withering line like nobody's business, and remaining entirely sympathetic throughout.  Janet Leigh is also good fun, and an able comedian. It's basically all a delight - which is fitting, given what a delight the book is.

Amusingly, Andrea and I spent some time musing on the fact that the song 'Why-oh-why-oh-why did I leave Ohio' (or whatever it's called) would have been a good fit, and kept wondering if it would turn up - only to discover later that it's in Wonderful Town, and thus would have been a very good fit!

Do track down the DVD - and enjoy this poor quality video of 'Give Me A Band and My Baby' as an introduction:

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Jen Campbell and The Bookshop Book

We all loved Weird Things People Say in Bookshops (if you haven't looked through a copy - it's hilarious), and now Jen Campbell is back with The Bookshop Book, which features contributions from the likes of Bill Bryson, Jacqueline Wilson, Tracey Chevalier, and many more.

Since there will be another series of My Life in Books here at Stuck-in-a-Book very soon, I thought it would be fun to ask Jen to answer the questions - with a bit of a bookshop twist. Over to you, Jen!

1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you?  Pick a favourite book and a favourite bookshop from your childhood, and tell me about it.
My mum reads a lot, and my dad used to read to me before bed every night. I actually spent a lot of time in hospital as a child, and books were a form of escape for me. A way to slip into other worlds unnoticed and have adventures in my head. I grew up in the north east of England, and there aren't many bookshops there but we'd go to a place called Hill's in Sunderland and get lost among the shelves. A childhood favourite is Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, about a dragon who lives in a cave in Cornwall, and a girl called Susan who goes to visit him, taking him doughnuts in exchange for stories about King Arthur.

2.) What was one of the first 'grown-up' books that you really enjoyed?  What was going on in your life at this point? 

Probably The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood... or if we're talking teenage grown-up books then probably Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume... ah, Judy. I read the latter on a beach in Portugal during the Easter holidays and remember loudly asking my mother about periods in front of lots of other people, much to her embarrassment. The Handmaid's Tale I read many years later, and completely fell in love. It was my portal to dystopian literature. 
3.) Pick a favourite book that you read in your 20s - especially if it's one which helped set you off in a certain direction in life - and what were your favourite bookshops at  this time?
Perhaps discovering Ali Smith in my early 20s (I'm 27 now). The way she writes astounds me - especially her short stories, and her play 'The Seer.' She's got a way of unravelling the world, and it's beautiful. She's had a big influence on my writing. 

My favourite bookshops when I was 20 was The Edinburgh Bookshop (where I got my first job as a bookseller) and Till's. Till's is a secondhand bookshop, also in Edinburgh, that smells of dust and vanilla and really good books. Now I work at Ripping Yarns, an antiquarian bookshop in north London that looks like the Burrow from Harry Potter - as in it looks as though it's held up by magic, and one day I'm going to pull the wrong book off the shelf and the whole place will come tumbling down. I love it. 

4.) What's one of your favourite books that you've found in the last year or two? 

Can I pick a few? The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey. (If you'd like to know more, I chat about books that I love over on my Youtube channel :)
5.) Finally - a guilty pleasure, or a favourite that might surprise people! And the most delightful bookshop you've ever come across.

Well, I reread His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman every winter... though that might not surprise people. I also like to relisten to Harry Potter audio books on long train journeys... though that might not surprise people, either! Hmmm. I have a secret love for the circus, and the history of freak shows. Probably to do with the fact that I have EEC Syndrome, and if I'd been born 100 years ago, I might have found myself in one. So, I have quite a collection of books on those subjects, and a large number of books on fairy tales from different parts of the world. The history of fairy tales fascinates me!

Picking a favourite bookshop is no easy task. Especially when my new book The Bookshop Book looks at over 300 around the world. Hmmm. There's The Book Barge, run by Sarah Henshaw – one woman’s quest to prove that books were worth something, by travelling around the UK in a bookshop boat, bartering books for food; Wigtown Book Town in Scotland, home to one of the best bookshop love stories, and a bookshop that performs weddings. A bookshop shaped like a cat in Japan; a bookshop that also sells cows in Kenya; a secret bookshop without an address in New York City; and a bookshop on the back of a donkey in Colombia… but perhaps one of my very favourites is Librairie Papillon in Mongolia, run by a guy from France called Sebastien, who bought the bookshop for his wife as a wedding present. They not only sell books to residents in Ulaanbaatar, but they also sell books to herders of the Altai mountains and Gobi desert. Stories that keep them company in elemental conditions, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. I think that's pretty special. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

In praise of Ivy Compton-Burnett...

...longterm SIAB readers know that I love Dame Ivy, but I'm spreading the joy over at Vulpes Libris today. It's also sort of about A Heritage and Its History (1959) which is the latest one of hers I've read - and which has the glorious opening line: “It is a pity you have not my charm, Simon.”

Monday, 10 November 2014

A busy weekend

What a busy little time I've had! I have, I'm afraid, been neglecting you all again - but when you hear what I've been up to, you will not be surprised.

Last Friday was my birthday (I turned 29, since you ask) and also my graduation. I graduated from three degrees during the ceremony - my MSt, MA, and DPhil - but it wasn't quite as busy as that sounds, as I was supposedly 'in absentia' for two of them, despite being in the room. But I did get to graduate from my doctorate - yet another stage in the very protracted process between handing in the thesis and having everything done and dusted. A very nice stage, I should add, and certainly the dressiest.

I entered in a richly embroidered gown, with green and white hood, and after a bit I got to head into the centre of the room with the doctors from New College and Magdalen College (or Novum and Magdalena as they were known in this exclusively Latin ceremony - at least they are two of the more identifiable colleges in Latin). We bowed in lots of directions, and then agreed (in Latin) to do something (in Latin) without knowing what it was. Outside for a quick costume change into billowing red and purple, and we came back in to rapturous applause, a handshake with the Vice Chancellor, and sitting on extremely uncomfortable seats for another hour or so while lots of other people did variants of the above.

Outside for pictures in the rain...

...and away to Somerset! For the birthday festivities were certainly not yet over. Our Vicar's Wife had arranged for us to go donkey walking in Dorset! If this sounds a bit mad, it probably is, but donkeys are my second favourite animal (after cats, obvs) and it was really lovely. Our donkeys were called Hector and Paris (apparently the woman who originally owned them names all her donkeys after whatever DVD she has recently watched - in this case, Troy) - and by the end of a few hours walking through fields and streets, I had certainly bonded with Paris. He was a real sweetie, albeit one who frequently decided he didn't fancy moving, thankyouverymuch. I learned about how to stare down donkeys.

But the day was not over - we went on to North Petherton Carnival!  Our Vicar had attended it in his childhood, and had long hoped to take his children there - but until now we hadn't been in Somerset at the right time. Well, I had tempered expectations - it's a tiny place - but the carnival was really amazing. Lots of floats going by, with some solo efforts, all the way to enormous floats with hundreds of lights, moving parts, choreography, and the like. Some really extraordinary things, and great fun to watch.

And now I'm feeling rather shattered after an action-packed weekend!

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Marrying Out - Harold Carlton

You know that I love Slightly Foxed Editions - I don't shut up about it - and the latest one I read is up there with my favourites now. I pretty much read it all in one setting. It's Marrying Out (2001) by Harold Carlton, originally published as The Most Handsome Sons in the World!, a memoir about the fall-out in a Jewish family when one of the sons wants to 'marry out'.

More in the Shiny New Books review...

Sunday, 2 November 2014


As I'm sure you all know, November is NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. They encourage people to write a 50,000 word novel (or start to a novel) over the course of the month, which means writing an average of 1.667 words a day, or thereabouts.

This has always been something I've vaguely thought about joining in. Not with any idea that it would result in a perfectly-formed work of art, but in order to make myself actually get on and write something.

Well... it's November 2nd and I haven't written anything. That's partly because I sent 9.30am-7.30pm yesterday baking for a party I was holding yesterday (which was super fun) but also because my enthusiasm had already waned, when I realised I hadn't planned anything properly. I did buy a beautiful new notebook, so...

Have you ever done NaNoWriMo? Would you? And did you know that Water for Elephants and The Night Circus began as NaNoWriMo projects, along with a whole bunch of other published novels?