Thursday, 24 April 2014

Have you read... Nancy Spain?

Apologies to Karen/Cornflower for borrowing her 'Have you read?' title, but I need to crowdsource this one.  I was recently re-reading Ann Thwaite's biography of A.A. Milne, and towards the end she writes about a meeting between AAM and Nancy Spain, as Spain wrote about it at length in her autobiography.  So I went hunting to learn more about her... and, by a lovely coincidence, that fantastic Invisible Ink column in The Independent did a piece on Nancy Spain this week. (That link isn't working for me at the mo, so if you're having trouble then maybe Google it... and it might only work in the UK?)

She sounds a fascinating woman.  Apparently she was once famous on panel shows and the like, but - of more interest to me - she wrote detective novels in the 1940s and '50s. And they have brilliant titles (Death Before Wicket; Out, Damned Tot; Murder, Bless It and so forth) - not to mention that several are set in a girls' school called Radcliffe Hall. Ahem, if I may.

What really intrigues me is that (as I found out here) she was turned down from the Detection Club as her detective novels were considered too funny. I want in.

Many of the series are incredibly expensive and scarce, but - matching up with the gaps in my Century of Books - I have bought Cinderella Goes to the Morgue... so I'll report back soon.  But does anybody already know her novels?  Are they due a reprint?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Pumpkin Eater - Penelope Mortimer

Sorry to disappear suddenly - I went off to Somerset for an Easter weekend (the most dramatic moment: Sherpa getting stuck on the roof; eventually I pulled her through the bathroom window, with Our Vicar on a ladder and Our Vicar's Wife & Colin holding a tarpaulin like a firefighters' blanket).  Now I'm back in Oxford, and eyeing up the growing pile of books I've got waiting to review for you.  First up - one of those pesky Penelopes.

I had intended to read Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, as part of my vague project to read more of my unread Persephones, but it clashed with another title on my Century of Books - so instead I picked up The Pumpkin Eater (1962) in this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.  But, oh, aren't they always beautiful?

I thought the image on the front was simply abstract, until I realised that it was a pram full of faces - Downhill in a Pram by Susan Bower, to be precise.  And that is apt for the recurring theme of The Pumpkin Eater (and possibly my favourite thing about the book) - the number of children the unnamed narrator has.  Cleverly, Mortimer gives us a heroine who has a lot of children - but by never specifying quite how many, we get the impression that they are numbered in their dozens.  People are always shocked by how many there are; her various husbands (she's not short of them, but at least the number is given: four) baulk at them, and only one name is vouchsafed to us: Dinah.

The novel starts with the narrator in a therapy session.  These recur throughout the novel, and are very amusing (in a dark way), mostly because of the lack of progress that is made in them.  The therapist follows the narrator around in circles, expecting her to feel something about her husbands and children - but she is steadfastly stony-faced.
"And then?" he asked coldly.
"Then?  Well, then I married the Major, but since he was going overseas we went back to live with my parents.  I had Dinah there.  Of course he was dead by then."
"And did that upset you?"
"Yes.  Yes, I suppose it did.  Naturally.  It must have done."
He slumped in his chair.  He seemed tired out.  I said, "Look, need we go on with this?  I find it tremendously boring, and it's not what I'm thinking about at all.  I just don't think about those husbands except..."
"Except when?"
"I never think about them."
She has something of a Barbara Comyns heroine about her - that undaunted matter-of-factness - but Mortimer does reveal some of her emotional fragility as the novel progresses, and Jake the current husband is knocked from whatever pedestal her might have briefly mounted.  "One's past grows to a point where it is longer than one's future, and then it can become too great a burden," as she says in the narrative, towards the end.

And then there is the enormous glass tower Jack is building for them in the middle of the countryside.  It's a curious part of the novel, and I don't know how we are supposed to interpret it - as Freud would? As Ibsen would in The Master Builder? Or is a tower sometimes just a tower?

But, as with many of my favourite novels, the important feature is voice.  Mortimer does this brilliantly.  We are immersed in the worldview and experience of the unnamed narrator, even without for a moment believing that she could plausibly exist in the way she is presented.  Her upsets and anxieties are certainly real, but the character is more than that - the centrepiece of a black comedy with only a toe in reality.  And, designed that way, it is a glorious novel.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Tove Jansson

You probably know that one of my very favourite authors is Tove Jansson - but I didn't know very much about her beyond what she'd put of herself in her fiction. So I was thrilled to learn that a biography of her was going to be published by Sort Of Books - indeed, translated (by Silvester Mazzarella) as, unbeknown to me, it was actually published in 2007.

And you guessed it - I'm pointing you towards my Shiny New Books review of Boel Westin's biography of Tove Jansson!  Not only that, though - Silvester Mazzarella very kindly agreed to write a brilliant piece about translating the book.  It's a long and interesting book that I don't feel I entirely did justice to in my review, written when cold-ridden, but I always think it's difficult to write properly about a biography - because, almost by definition, they have so much, and so much variety, in them.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Confession time...

I have a number of books to review, a play to talk about, a haul to reveal, and plenty of Shiny New Books links to give... but I couldn't resist doing as Susan D suggests and putting up a post about confusing authors.

Not as in I-find-Gertrude-Stein-confusing-to-read, but as in I-get-Gertrude-Stein-mixed-up-with-Gertrude-Jekyll (as it may be).

We had a nice cathartic, collective confession of confusion when it came to the many and various Penelopes, and I'd love to know who else has caused you angst in this way.  Almost invariably, I find, it all becomes clear once I've read one or both (or all) of the authors in question, but beforehand all is lost.  For instance, I used to be unable to disentangle George Orwell and H.G. Wells (that 'well' in both their names threw me) until I started reading them.

Well, I confessed some yesterday, but didn't mention these, whom I used to get confused:

  • Anita Brookner / Anita Shreve
  • Naomi Mitchison / Naomi Jacob
  • Edith Wharton / Eudora Welty

Over to you... c'mon, don't be shy. And remember, this is a safe space... so confess, don't judge ;)

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Thank you for all your lovely birthday greetings!  I will do the prize draw soon, and today bought the book I'm intending to send... it's very good, by one of my favourite authors, and not all that easy to find.

Now onto another Shiny New Books review for my Century of Books - Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West.  I volunteered to read the very beautiful new edition from Daunt Books, and was surprised by the date and description.  And after a bit of digging realised that, yet again, two authors with vaguely similar minds had become amalgamated in my mind - this was another case of the Penelopes (or V.S. Naipaul and V.S. Pritchett, etc. etc.) - Nathanael West was, of course, not the same as Nathaniel Hawthorne... embarrassing.

Anyway, enough preamble, do go over to Shiny New Books and read my thoughts on Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) - and don't forget to check out Oliver's Five Fascinating Facts about Nathanael West while you're there.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Happy birthday to Stuck-in-a-Book!

Yes, today is seven years since I started blogging.  Each year seems to come around quicker than the last - but you, dear readers, aren't looking a day older.  A hearty thank you to everyone - from those who have been there since day one to those who came here today accidentally, looking for an online bookies. You're all wonderful, and I truly appreciate you!

It's been an exciting year, blog-wise, and it feels oddly appropriate that as I come to the end of seven years, the shiny new Shiny New Books initiative is kicking off (incidentally I wrote a sort of 'behind the scenes' post for Vulpes Libris today).  Not that Stuck-in-a-Book is going anywhere, fear not.  I'm hoping for at least another seven years.

To celebrate, I'd like to run a book giveaway.  I haven't actually decided what the prize will be yet, but it may well be secondhand and lovely... so don't enter if you only love shiny new books (if that's you, there's a website I think you might like...)

If you would like to enter, just pop your name in the comments and, out of interest and because I'm feeling the egotism of the birthday boy, tell me how long you've been reading Stuck-in-a-Book.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

As For Me And My House - Sinclair Ross

Well, I hope you'll still be having a wander around Shiny New Books, but that won't (of course) stop me writing reviews here on Stuck-in-a-Book - although they may quieten down a bit when Issue 2 starts to loom!  (Incidentally, we're keen to get lots of bloggers writing pieces for us - contact me on simondavidthomas[at], or all of us at info[at] if you're interested.)

And onto a book that I've been reading for about six months - As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross, kindly given to me by... someone.  I think Thomas at My Porch - certainly he is a huge fan.  Am I?  Hmm.  I don't know.  This is one of those cases where I know the book is very good... but I didn't very much enjoy reading it.

As For Me and My House (1941) takes the form of a woman's diary from provincial Canada - but Diary of a Provincial Lady this is not.  True, Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife are the central characters - Philip Bentley and his (anonymous?) narrator wife - but that's where the similarities end.  Basically, the narrator's life is miserable.  The small town is rude and ungrateful for the hard work her husband does.  He, in turn, has lost his faith and wishes he were a painter.  They are poor, their marriage is rocky, and dissatisfaction soaks every word of the novel.
He's a failure now, a preacher instead of a painter, and every minute of the day he's mindful of it.  I'm a failure too, a small-town preacher's wife instead of what I so faithfully set out to be - but I have to stop deliberately like this to remember.  To have him notice me, speak to me as if I really mattered in his life, after twelve years with him that's all I want or need.  It arranges my world for me, strengthens and quickens it, makes it immune to all worlds.
Well, as you can see, the writing is beautiful.  There is a deep and emotional richness to the way Ross writes.  I'm not sure it benefited from being in the diary format - it would have worked equally well, and probably rather more convincingly, simply as a first person narrative - but he certainly offers a fully-realised voice.  Just as convincing are the husband and (later) sort-of-adopted son, although I wonder if Ross intends us to believe the narrator to be as perceptive as she seems.

Here's another beautiful, dispiriting passage:
The sand and dust drifts everywhere.  It's in the food, the bed-clothes, a film on the book you're reading before you can turn the page.  In the morning it's half an inch deep on the window sills.  Half an inch again by noon. Half an inch again by evening.  It begins to make an important place for itself in the routine of the day.  I watch the little drifts form.  If at dusting time they're not quite high enough I'm disappointed, put off the dusting sometimes half an hour to let them grow.  But if the wind has been high and they have outdrifted themselves, then I look at them incredulous, and feel a strange kind of satisfaction, as if such height were an achievement for which credit was coming to me.
That rather aptly describes how it felt reading the novel.  Melancholy piled on melancholy.  It swept through all the pages, in every sentence, almost in every word.  The more I read, the more I felt outdrifted by it.  I don't demand novels of unswerving cheeriness, but... surely life isn't as bad as all this?  ("But a man's tragedy is himself, not the events that overtake him.")  It was wearying.  Beautiful, but wearying.

Of course, I read As For Me and My House as someone who has lived in a vicarage for many years, and whose father is still a working vicar (and mother a working vicar's wife).  I am well aware that it isn't always easy - that some parishioners can be difficult or aggressive or ungrateful.  In this novel it is the purportedly faith-filled whose hypocrisy stands out; in real life, it is just as likely to be the thoughtless atheist who tells you he'd like the church to burn down, or the teenager who thinks the vicar's sons are fair game to shout abuse at in the street.  But Ross gives only the tiniest mention (in Mrs Bird) of the positivity that comes with the profession.  The strangers who are kind to you as soon as you arrive in a new village, the people who selflessly give up their time to help with kids' events and so forth.  There is a world of literature bemoaning the claustrophobia of the small town - which needs to be balanced by how really lovely it is when people all know each other, care for each other, and let nobody go lonely.

Part of this seems like I just wish that Ross had written a different book.  But I think I could have really loved this one if there were a bit more balance - something more to alleviate the melancholy and hopelessness.  As it is, I do admire As or Me and My House.  Ross is unarguably a brilliant writer.  One I'd definitely recommend to sturdier souls.  And maybe my soul will be sturdier next time I try this one.