Thursday, 30 October 2014

Not spooky at all

I really don't like Halloween, for quite a few reasons. I don't like the whole celebration-of-evil root that the day has [I think I may be wrong about this part - see Hayley's useful comment!], and I don't like the idea that children should be able to demand goods with menaces in people's homes. I don't like the fact that many old or vulnerable people will probably spend their evenings scared in their homes. I don't like that vicarages get targeted by egg-throwing youths. ('Pranks' in general seem pretty unkind to me.) Most of all, I don't like that the creatures I'm scared of are put in decorations all over town.

SO, enough curmudgeonliness from me. I want to ask for your anti-Halloween book recommendations. Nothing scary, nothing murdery, nothing set in October. Basically, the kindest, nicest, funniest, loveliest book you can think of... any ideas?

(At the moment I'm re-reading Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, which I love, but which doesn't quite fit that bill.)

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers

Time for another link to a Shiny New Books review. And this one is an absolute joy - any fans of P.G. Wodehouse or early Hollywood will love this one. It's the 1914 novel Love Insurance by Earl Derr Biggers.

As is my practice, I'll give you the first paragraph of the review, and then send you over to Shiny New Books if you'd like to read more...

It’s fun occasionally to read a book that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously. And it would be impossible for Love Insurance (1914) by Earl Derr Biggers to take itself seriously for a moment – before a few dozen pages are finished, the reader has had to buy a number of extremely unlikely situations – but that all adds to the pleasure. It is unmistakably of its time (if A.A. Milne had written a novel in the 1910s, when he was still being guiltlessly insouciant, it might have been a lot like this) but that doesn’t mean it can’t still charm a century later.

The rest of the review is here...

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

Apparently I bought Pigeon Pie (1940) by Nancy Mitford in Clun on 15th August 2011. I have no idea where Clun is and no recollection of having gone there, but I suppose I must have done! I read the novel quite a few months ago, so forgive any patchy memory (I'm linking to some great reviews at the end!)

For all my Mitfordmania, I have actually only read one Nancy Mitford novel (The Pursuit of Love); despite very much enjoying it, and having lots of others on hand, I still haven't actually read any more. So I picked up this purchase from mysterious Clun, and started. The first thing I noticed was the author's note:
I hope that anybody who is kind enough to read it in a second edition will remember that it was written before Christmas 1939. Published on 6 May 1940 it was an early and unimportant casualty of the real war which was then beginning - Nancy Mitford, Paris, 1951
Well! That's quite the start, isn't it? As Nancy warns, this novel is about the phoney war - that bit at the beginning of war where everyone prepared themselves for an onslaught, and not very much happened. And so she is able to be rather casual about the war, in a way that would look rather scandalous even by the time of publication. And the heroine of Pigeon Pie is nothing if not casual. Lady Sophia Garfield is a flippant socialite who has married for money, finds her husband a bore, and lives for the petty squabbles she has with the other doyennes of London society.

I do rather love this compact description of the phoney war:
Rather soon after the war had been declared, it became obvious that nobody intended it to begin. The belligerent countries were behaving like children in a round game, picking up sides, and until the sides had been picked up the game could not start.
England picked up France, Germany picked up Italy. England beckoned to Poland, Germany answered with Russia. Then Italy's Nanny said she had fallen down and grazed her knee, running, and mustn't play. England picked up Turkey, Germany picked up Spain, but Spain's Nanny said she had internal troubles, and must sit this one out. England looked towards the Oslo group, but they had never played before, except like Belgium, who had hated it, and the others felt shy. America, of course, was too much of a baby for such a grown-up game, but she was just longing to see it played. And still it would not begin.
The things that do begin, in Pigeon Pie, are rather extraordinary. A much-loved singer is killed, and Sophia finds herself swept up in an unlikely espionage and kidnap plot. None of it is treated particularly seriously - it is definitely silly rather than tense, and a wry eye is never far from the narrative. The denouement is just as unlikely as all the rest, and treads an awkward line between satire and failure...

I love Mitford's tone, and I love her observations about the in-fighting of the upper classes. In another novel, Sophia could have been great fun.  But I'm not sure that Pigeon Pie (for me) is ever more than quite good. And that isn't particularly because of insensitivity (although that warning was perhaps more pertinent in 1951) but because Mitford is turning her hand to a genre at which she is not an expert.

Others who got Stuck into this book

"The tone is maybe a little uneven, but when the wit works it really does sparkle." - Jane, Fleur Fisher in Her World

"It feels unreal and flippant; the language makes it seem a little like Enid Blyton for adults." - Karyn, A Penguin A Week

"A very enjoyable tale, filled with the usual Mitford acerbic wit, ridiculous characters and finely observed minutiae of upper class inter war life." - Rachel, Book Snob

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I've been rather under the weather this week (those reviews were thankfully pre-scheduled!) so haven't been around the blogs as much as I'd have liked... but I'm still going to rustle up a few links and whatnot for you.

1.) The Persephone Prize - have you entered? Are you going to? I suppose we should keep these things strictly confidential, so I shall just say that Mum and I have both entered (or are planning on entering) - the mother vs son competition starts right here!

2.) There are lots of Shiny New Books reviews of mine that I've not pointed to yet, but I'll stick one in here that isn't a date for A Century of Books (which I have officially given up finishing this year, but which will be finished eventually): Bed Manners, a spoof etiquette guide from the 1930s. It's every bit as fun as that sounds.

3.) Early announcement that My Life in Books will be coming back soon(ish)! I've had most of the answers in, so I need to chase some people and match up some partners (which I usually do earlier, but... not this time.)

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Have you read...?

I was listening to Carmen Callil on Desert Island Discs (she being the founder of Virago), and she gave a very eloquent reason why the book she'd take to the desert island would be Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson.

Has anybody read it?

You can listen to the whole interview here.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

My book group recently read The Soul of Kindness (1964) by Elizabeth Taylor - I have a feeling I recommended it, although can never quite remember - and I don't think we've ever had a more divided discussion. Some thought the whole thing uneventful and boring; some thought it a brilliantly subtle novel about realistic people and the way they interact. Guess which I was?

Well, if you've read my previous reviews of Elizabeth Taylor - you can see them all by picking her from that dropdown menu of authors over on the left, should you so wish - you'll probably have guessed that I was in the latter camp. (As a character thinks: 'men, she knew, are very interested in detailed descriptions of ordinary things'. Curiously unlike the usual division of men and women in stereotype - the masculine grand epic vs. the feminine domestic hearth.) The Soul of Kindness is an extraordinary novel and, just like her others, almost impossible to write well about.

The first thing I have learned with Elizabeth Taylor is that you can't read her quickly. Well, you can - but so much is lost. Because not much happens, and it's easy to skim through the calm conversations and quiet movements, and miss the spectrum of emotion playing under the surface, so cleverly told by Taylor.

The novel opens with a wedding. Flora isn't paying much attention to her husband; she is feeding doves (note their influence on the beautiful cover to my 1966 Reprint Society copy):
Towards the end of the bridegroom's speech, the bride turned aside and began to throw crumbs of wedding cake through an opening in the marquee to the doves outside. She did so with gentle absorption, and more doves came down from their wooden house above the stables. Although she had caused a little rustle of amusement among the guests, she did not know it: her husband was embarrassed by her behaviour and thought it early in their married life to be so; but she did not know that either.
That lack of self-awareness and observation is the central thread of the novel. Flora is the 'soul of kindness' of the title - as another character says, "To harm anyone is the last thing she'd ever have in mind." She is a blonde beauty, doted on by her mother, surrounded by people (mother, husband, friend, housekeeper) who never dream of crossing her, and who do not see any darkness in her. For, indeed, there is no darkness in her. I thought the novel might be about a craftily vindictive woman, but Flora is just monumentally naive - with a naivety either born of selfishness, or a selfishness born of naivety. She wants to help people. She is (as Hilary notes in her fab review, linked below) not unlike Austen's Emma - although Flora is less meddlesome. She just suggests things and engineers things, without seeming to give any great effort, and... mild disaster follows.

A marriage that shouldn't have happened. A union between two friends that will never happen because the man is gay. The encouragement to a young man that he is a talented actor, when he is hopeless and will only meet failure on that path. Everything Flora does is well-meaning. There is a moment of crisis (I shan't say what), but... by the end of the novel, most people haven't changed enormously. Human nature doesn't follow a brief and convenient narrative structure.

For that is what Taylor observes and depicts so brilliantly: truthful human behaviour. Some people at book group found the characters poorly drawn, and I do agree that we see them chiefly from the outside rather than the inside - but that is an authorial choice and (I think) a good and acceptable one. There are wonderful scenes where she draws up the difference between what people say and what they mean - and what other people think they mean. It is so (that word again) subtle, and done extremely skilfully. Perhaps the best, and certainly the most agonising, where those between Patrick and Frankie - Patrick being in love with the youthful, callous Frankie, and anxious for any possible attention from him, taking what he is thrown so gratefully.

Oh, and Mrs Secretan (Flora's mother) is the best depiction I have seen of a hypochondriac - usually they are hysterical or selfish, but Taylor's portrait shows the terror at the heart of the true hypochondriac, particularly the one who dreads the doctor. I speak as one who knows...

I should add that there are moments of lovely humour. I enjoyed this a lot, about Flora (and that naivety):
She sat gazing in front of her. On a table at her side was a piece of knitting which had not grown for days, and the book by Henry Miller Patrick Barlow had lent her, which she was reading with such mild surprise. ('What does this word mean, Richard? 'Truly? Well I suppose it had to be called something.' How had she lived so long without knowing? he wondered.)
All in all, I thought The Soul of Kindness a brilliant example of an exceptional writer. There are, of course, different books for different moods. When I wrote about My Sister Eileen recently, I shouted my love for books that are unashamedly lovely. Well, this is not that. It's for a different mood. But, in the right mood, you could hardly do better.

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"What I love about this novel is how subversive it is." - Hilary, Vulpes Libris

"I found the characters not entirely convincing and actually quite irritating." - Karen, Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

"The subtlety of Elizabeth Taylor’s writing is masterly." - Ali, Heavenali

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Literary Conference - César Aira

I guess my blog is, if anything, a bit of a celebration of well-written middlebrow, mostly English, mostly oldish, and mostly about tea cups and cats. Fair? Well, I also love to try things that are a bit different sometimes (especially - scholar that I am - if they are short, so the experiment needn't be all-encompassing). So, when I went off to a literary conference in the summer, I thought I'd take The Literary Conference (2006) by the Argentinian author César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver (one of three Aira novels sent to me by Hamish Hamilton a while ago, in a boxset of three with the cover designs below).

Somehow I got distracted, and only finished it recently - which, considering it's only 90 pages long, isn't very impressive, but it isn't because I didn't like it. I was delightfully baffled and bemused by the whole thing. It's surrealism mixed with postmodernism, with a dollop of science-fiction for good measure.

Our hero - and seldom has the term been used with less justice - has the same name as the author, and is off to attend a literary conference. We see extremely little of this. Instead we see his arrogance, his venom against rivals, and his determination to succeed. All are seen in the curious opening, where he discovers the secret of the 'Macuto Line' - a rope that has pirates' treasure on the end of it, under the sea, only nobody has worked out how to solve it. Guess who does?

But that is an overture to the main event. The protagonist wants to clone his rival, and has - since he is, he is willing to confess, a genius - devised a cloning machine, and secures a cell from Carlos Fuentes by means of a trained wasp.
Upon my return to the hotel, the excitement of the past few hours reached its anticlimax. The first part of the operation, the most demanding part for me, was over: I had obtained a cell from Carlos Fuentes, I had placed it inside the cloning machine, and I had left the machine to operate under optimum conditions. If you add to this the fact that the previous day I had solved the secular enigma of the Macuto Line, I could feel momentarily satisfied and think about other things. I had a few days to do just that. Cloning a living being is not like blowing glass. It happens on its own, but it takes time. Even though the process is prodigiously accelerated, it requires almost a week, according to the human calendar, for it must reconstruct on a small scale the entire geology of the evolution of life.
The climax of the novella is undoubtedly the way in which this clone goes awry. I want to say what happens so much - it is so strange, and yet extremely fitting (and goes back neatly to the beginning) - but I won't do Aira the disservice of spoiling the ending, in case you choose to read it.

I have no real idea what I thought about The Literary Conference. It did remind me of the two novels I've read by Adolfo Bioy Casares - in that it pretty much confused me, without alienating me. Perhaps it was more of a tourist venture into the tastes of others, but... it was fun, nonetheless.