Wednesday, 30 November 2011

A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee by Bea Howe

Most of you, my lovely readers, chose the obscure novel yesterday - which goes to show how lucky I am to have you lot reading my blog!  I'll probably end up writing about both - perhaps the well-known author will even pop up tomorrow in my absence, whilst I'm gallivanting in London.  Dark Puss suggested I wrote about the one I enjoyed more... well, I enjoyed this one more, but the other one was probably better.  (Other people used to that feeling?)

As you might have spotted from the post title, this is an obscure book, but I have mentioned it before.  A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee (1927) by Bloomsbury Group hanger-on Bea Howe lent its paper to my new blog background - I thought it was time I told you what was on the pages (other than David Garnett's signature!)  (Some of you may even have spotted a very brief section of this review in your blog readers yesterday... oops!)

The outline of the novel is pretty simple - William and Evelina have fallen in love, and deal with the difficulties of not being able entirely to understand one another.  Much of the narrative flicks back and forth between their minds, as they grapple with starting a new stage of their life together - melding two rather different personalities into one prospective marriage.  Oh, and along the way a fairy turns up.

Evelina is not unlike a fairy herself - she is fanciful, thoughtful - bright, light, and sparkling:

She was dressed in a silver frock with a deep jewelled belt that gripped her waist.  Her light brown hair was cut quite short like a boy's and brushed softly over her ears; it was shot with gold at its curling tips.  But it was her eyes, of an odd green colour, that William first noticed.  They regarded him so intently; like a child's.  They were also very bright.  Eyebrows thin, dark, arched, gave a flying look to her face.  Her face which was painted and pale.
William, on the other hand, is a little more staid and grounded.  Where Evelina is concerned with her 'secret self', and often wanders off into realms of imagination (although not in an annoying way, for the reader at least) William is an etymologist - the fluttering world of moths is his chief concern, and he approaches it with the eyes of a scientist.  (Scientists will doubtless tell us - indeed, my brother does tell me - that there is a greater beauty in the structure and order of numbers/nature etc. than in its aesthetics.  Well, horses for courses.)  William's captivation by lepidoptera is all-consuming, and colours even his attempted romantic overtures:
"One day I will tell you all about my moths.  In some odd way you remind me of them."  His voice was low and gentle.  Evelina did not know that this was the first compliment he had paid a woman.
Yet it is he, the scientist, rather than she, the wistful romantic, who stumbles upon the fairy.  I once attended a nighttime moth hunt, and sadly no fairies turned up.  The one William finds has not quite the daintiness of Tinkerbell et al:

A pale, extremely ugly, wizened-looking little face, about the size of a hazel-nut, stared up at him.  And this face did not belong to a giant moth or beetle!  The filmy stuff, the cobwebby matter which had first stuck between his fingers and given such a peculiar sensation to his skin, was evidently part of this creature’s clothing.  Underneath its thin protection, William could see the vague outline of a tiny body.  It was a woman’s body, shaped quite perfectly, like a minikin statuette.  With a vague feeling of embarrassment he knelt down and rolled his prisoner gently off his palm on to the ground.  The fairy did not move.  She only remained looking in a dazed way at him.  William gazed back.  He still felt completely bewildered.  
A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee is a strange little book, not least because the fairy doesn't do very much, except sit listlessly in William's house.  She emphasises, however, the disparity between William and Evelina.  He has no personal curiosity in the fairy, except as a scientific specimen - 'It had not even occurred to him to think of her as another living being.'  Evelina, on the other hand, is jealous that she did not make the discovery - and the existence of the fairy propels her even further into realms of the fanciful and fey.

A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee is a simple story which I found charming and enchanting - but which really could have done with a better structure.  It feels a little as though Howe started writing on page one, and put down anything that crossed her mind - which does give the novel a feeling of freedom and flow, but it ultimately lacks the impression of unity and progression which a properly planned novel has.  Evelina and William fall out and make up and fall out and make up - often without even seeing each other in between - which is possibly more life-like, but a little dizzying to read.

This was Bea Howe's only novel (although she wrote a few biographies) so it's impossible to tell how her style might have progressed.  For a first novel, A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee is rather delightful, and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone with a taste for a touch of whimsy - as an only novel, it does lead one to speculate what Bea Howe could possibly have followed it with, and gives me an altogether bemused impression of Howe as an authoress.  That creative inspiration should hit only once in this manner, and in such a manner, is curious and amusing.  Perhaps, just once, a fairy leapt upon her knee?

Tomorrow... another strange book, but one from almost eighty years earlier and a different language altogether.  Ten points to anybody who can guess...

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Readers

I'm going to be community minded again tonight (for which read: it's too late for me to write a proper book review) and point you in the direction of the latest episode of The Readers (click zee link).  For those not in the know, it's a podcast run by Simon S and Gav, covering all manner of bookish topics - always including plenty of recommendations for reading.

This week's podcast features lovely Kim as a guest, and equally lovely Polly also pops up with her five favourite books (and a mention of me!)  The chief topic of discussion is book blogging - a subject dear to all our hearts, of course.  I am in love with their discussion!  It covers so many areas - why they started; how long they take to write reviews; positive vs. negative posts, and so on.  All stuff I find fascinating - some people don't care much for blogging-about-blogging, but I'm all about the meta-conversations.  And all the way through I wished I were there to join with the chatter...   (They also talk about book-culling, and it's lovely to hear a tbr pile of 450 considered 'not bad' - my real-life-in-the-flesh friends consider half a dozen unread books as somewhat pressing.)

So, pop over and have a listen to the whole thing, but especially the first half.  And I'll be back tomorrow with another strange little book... (which is my vague way of saying that I haven't decided between two strange little books waiting for review.  Would you rather hear about the well-known author or the utterly obscure author?)

Monday, 28 November 2011

Henry Green Week with Stu

Thank you so much for all your lovely comments - they do mean the world to me.  I get very nervous about changing how my blog appears (goodness knows why I would get nervous about it, but... I do!) so I'm chuffed to bits.

A quick post today - something I missed out of my last Weekend Miscellany, because I hadn't spotted it - Stu (from the blog Winston's Dad) is planning Henry Green Week January 23-29 next year.  I announced all the way back in May that I intended to read some of my newly-acquired Henry Green novels soon.  And, of course, I still haven't - but I'm more than keen to join in with Stu's planned week.  Basically, pick one or more Green novels and join in!  These are the ones I have at my disposal:

Doting, Back, Party Going, Blindness, and Concluding.

I can't decide between starting with Blindness, because it was his first - or with Party Going, because it's the one I've heard great things about.  Or maybe even both!

Let me know - and let Stu know - if you're thinking about joining in... c'mon, if you all did it for Anita Brookner, you can definitely do it for Henry Green.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Playing - and Song for a Sunday

After four and a half years, it felt like time for a little face-lift.   I have made myself a Blog Header for the first time! I hope you like it - the pictures I chose felt appropriate, and the paper-background is actually from a page of A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee - the copy I own signed by David Garnett!   That's the same paper that forms my new background.  I have waved goodbye to my dots... for now, at least.

(Comment facilities back to normal, after all that kerfuffle, so I hope it works.  Or works as well as anyone else suffering the vagaries of Blogger, that is!  As always, if you have problems, let me know...)

Enough of that - let's have a song, shall we?  To be honest, I'm running out of unusual artists to feature... so you might well have come across Aimee Mann before, but 'Wise Up' is too beautiful a song to ignore.  Over to you, Aimee:

All previous Sunday Songs here.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I am not best pleased, as the post I spent 45 minutes writing just disappeared. Darn it darn it darn it. Well, I'll try again, but I might be a little less insouciant than usual...

Firstly, I have yet to reach the end of the tunnel when it comes to comments. Apparently some of you can't see other people's comments - curiouser and curiouser! I think this might be people using Internet Explorer - can I recommend the all-round-nicer Firefox! I'm going to keep the new comment format for the next few days, and if the problems don't clear up then I'll probably change back...

EDIT: well, it wasn't working, so we're back to the old way of commenting for now... well, it's teething at the mo, but we'll be back to normal by tonight. I will keep trying!

But enough of these shenanigans! It's the weekend, it's already been miscellaneous, that can only mean that it's Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany!

1.) The blog post - is over at Tales From the Reading Room, and a fascinating discussion about Why Write Reviews? This isn't quite the same as Why Blog? A few bloggers noticed that full-length reviews tended to get fewer comments than other posts, and also themselves were often more reluctant to read full-length reviews than bookish-chatter type posts. Which led Litlove to write an interesting analysis of why she writes reviews - and, of course, the comments box is filled with conversation on the topic, including my tuppenyworth.

2.) The question - (for there is no link this week!) is on similar territory. I was wondering what you thought of the post Claire and I co-created on One Day? A few of you commented - most of you (of course!) did not. What did you think of the conversation format? Do you think it worked? Those bloggers amongst you - would you like to have a go yourself? I'd love to know your thoughts. (If the comments box doesn't work, email them to me!)

3.) The book - is The Outward Room (1937) by Millen Brand, which New York Review of Books Classics gave to me a while ago. I forget quite why I asked for it, or where I heard about, but I'm even more excited about it since I spotted in an old interview with Persephone Books that they had it forthcoming. Those plans must have been shelved, perhaps because of the NYRB edition, but a Persephone stamp of approval doesn't go amiss. Since I've yet to read it, I thought I should at least give it a mention. It's about a woman, Harriet Demuth, who escapes from a mental hospital and goes on a journey both of New York and of self-discovery. That synopsis puts me in mind of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, which is no bad thing - and it sounds as though it might have been rather revolutionary for 1937.

Ok, that's it for this miscellany - have a good weekend, everyone.

Friday, 25 November 2011


So far in November I have...

Tried and failed to take a photo of Sherpa.

Tried and succeeded to take a photo of Sherpa.  (Doesn't she look daft?)

Taken a photo of my Mum playing Scrabble.  (She was less likely to scamper away.)

Made a road-trip-themed-collage-covered notebook for my housemate Mel.

Taken icing sugar from a box of kitchen stuff left on the street.

Appreciated autumn.

Attended a proper village Christmas fayre.

Gone jumping in the street.

I've also done a fair amount of reading, but people tend not to take photos whilst I'm doing it.  For which I am quite grateful...

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Update on Comments... or what to do in the Face of Peril and Troubles

[this page has been edited to be used as a comments-help...]
I've changed the way comments work - they are now on the main screen, rather than a separate window.  You are able to reply to individual comments (this will bring up a new window - simply add your comment after the HTML string.)

People have reported problems, of not being able to see other people's comments.  This mostly seems to be the case with Internet Explorer - I recommend downloading the all-round-nicer Firefox or Google Chrome!

If this isn't working please do email me (simondavidthomas[at] or tell me on the Stuck-in-a-Book Facebook page.

If people are still having problems, I will have a rethink...

Living Alone by Stella Benson

You're probably quite used, by now, to my taste for odd books.  My doctoral research into fantastic novels has disproportionately weighted my blog towards ladies turning into foxes, imaginary children coming to life, old ladies being invented by accident etc.  So perhaps you'll forgive me if another title hoves into view, which somebody mentioned to me in relation to Lolly Willowes, since it's also about witches.  Living Alone (1919) by Stella Benson, as the post title suggests, is that book.  Before I get any further, I should mention that it is free on Kindle...

For those of you who live in the UK you, like me, might be vaguely familiar with Stella Benson's name.  I seem to have stumbled across it time and again in secondhand books - usually espying the 'Benson' bit, getting excited thinking it was 'E.F.', and realising it wasn't.  For some reason I put Stella Benson in the category of Marie Corelli or Ethel M. Dell - prolific writers who were rather sub-par.  I bought Living Alone as a Dodo Press reprint (original editions being prohibitively expensive) but had no high expectations.  Turns out, while Living Alone ended up being a little too weird for my tastes, Stella Benson is neither a poor writer nor an especially prolific one.  According to a rather scattergun Wikipedia page, she only wrote a dozen or so books - including poetry, short stories, and travel essays alongside novels.

Living Alone was her third novel, and is set during the First World War, although published shortly afterwards.  A note at the beginning states 'This is not a real book.  It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people.'  That should have set me up for the oddness which follows, but the first section of the book (easily my favourite part) is in the very real, very recognisable world of committees (in this case, one for War Savings).  The assembled characters include, indeed, 'Three of the women were of the kind that has no life apart from committees.'  They're the sort of people that E.M. Delafield is so funny about - people who take themselves incredibly seriously, and are unable to see themselves as others see them.  Rather than the insipid romantic drivel I had somehow associated with Stella Benson's name, her prose is delightfully dry and witty - I would happily have read a whole novel devoted to the committee meeting.  But... a Stranger runs in, and hides under the table.
To anybody except a member of a committee it would have been obvious that the Stranger was of the Cinderella type, and bound to turn out a heroine sooner or later. But perception goes out of committees. The more committees you belong to, the less of ordinary life you will understand. When your daily round becomes nothing more than a daily round of committees you might as well be dead.
The Stranger turns out to be... a witch.  She doesn't seem to have a name (although this wonderful exchange does take place:)
She grew very red.  “I say, I should be awfully pleased if you would call me Angela.”

It wasn’t her name, but she had noticed that something of this sort is always said when people become motherly and cry.
'Angela' lives in a house called Living Alone, a sort of guest-house for eccentrics and those of a reclusive bent.  It is thus perfect for witches.  And it has all manner of curious rules - for example:
Carpets, rugs, mirrors, and any single garment costing more than three guineas, are prohibited.  Any guest proved to have made use of a taxi, or to have travelled anywhere first class, or to have bought cigarettes or sweets costing more than three shillings a hundred or eighteenpence a pound respectively, or to have paid more than three and sixpence (war-tax included) for a seat in any place of entertainment, will be instantly expelled.  Dogs, cats, goldfish, and other superhuman companions are encouraged.
She has a broomstick called Harold, and flies about on this.  At one point she has a battle with a German witch during an air raid.  There isn't much of a linear plot, and it's all rather a jumble of mad characters and curiosities.  Some are too unusual to inhabit your average novel (such as another inhabitant of Living Alone, Peony, who speaks with a thick Cockney accent, mostly about a boy she once found in the street) but others would feel at home in Delafield or von Arnim or even Stella's namesake E.F. Benson.  (Were they related?  I don't know... but Stella's aunt was Red Pottage author Mary Cholmondeley).  Lady Arabel (who 'was virtuous to the same extent as Achilles was invulnerable') is one such character - she would fit alongside any agitated, eccentric Lady anywhere.

I wish I could explain the narrative to you, but it dash all over the place without any real logic.  The overall impression is more or less surreal.  Certain paragraphs give a sense of this surrealism - for example, this family group observed in an air raid shelter:
It was a group whose relationships were difficult to make out, the ages of many of the children being unnaturally approximate.  There seemed to be at least seven children under three years old, and yet they all bore a strong and regrettable family likeness.  Several of the babies would hardly have been given credit for having reached walking age, yet none had been carried in.  The woman who seemed to imagine herself the mother of this rabble was distributing what looked like hurried final words of advice.  The father with a pensive eye was obviously trying to remember their names, and at intervals whispering to a man apparently twenty years his senior, whom he addressed as Sonny.  It was all very confusing.
Although I loved excerpts like this, I think it offers the key to my ultimate dissatisfaction with Living Alone.  I think novelists are most successful (or at least most pleasing to me!) when they chose either to write of ordinary life in a surreal way (Barbara Comyns, Muriel Spark, Patrick Hamilton) or of surreal events in an ordinary way (my oft-cited Pantheon of Edith Olivier, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Frank Baker, David Garnett.)  By writing of the surreal surreally, Stella Benson makes Living Alone feel rather overdone.  I felt the same with the small amount I read of Douglas Adams, incidentally.  I loved the unbalanced dialogue and exaggerated scenarios when feet were otherwise firmly on the ground - while we were in the world of WW1 committees - but as soon as broomsticks were given names, I wanted the dial turned down.  The writing was still good, but I was getting altitude sickness myself.  (A rather more positive review, and one which seemed to understand the plot better than I did, can be read here.)

I do not mean to say, as one reviewer of Edith Olivier's The Love-Child did, that I wish her to:
a brilliant future might be predicted for her if it were not for the consideration that the thing is a tour de force, and that it has yet to be discovered what she can do when dealing with lives lived out soberly under the light of the sun and not with a world of fantasy.
I do not wish her narrative to be sober.  I want it to be eccentric and unusual, but I do want it to be outside the world of fantasy.  Lucky for me, it seems Living Alone was a one-off, in terms of topic.  There are plenty of others out there that might well fulfil what I'm hoping to find, and I certainly shan't leave Stella on the shelf next time I stumble across her... have any of you read anything by Stella Benson?

(If you're finding comments difficult to process, I've been told that Comment Verification letters aren't displaying properly - click 'submit' and they should appear the second time.)

Other books to get Stuck into:

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner - mentioned a couple times above, this 1920s novel about a spinster becoming a witch is never over the top, and, even without the twist, is an exceptionally good domestic novel.

The War Workers by E.M. Delafield - nothing fantastic about this, except the quality!  If talk of WW1 self-important committees got you interested, this satirical novel is perfect.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Spinster - 100 years ago

I've mentioned before that I'm writing about spinsters in the early twentieth-century.  I find it a fascinating topic, and I know that many of you do too.  We all have access to wonderful spinster novels such as Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, The Love Child by Edith Olivier, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson etc. etc., but having the Bodleian at my lucky little fingertips does give me more scope than many.  Having read an article called 'The Spinster', published in a journal called The Freewoman, I thought I'd share it with you.  What makes it even more noteworthy is that it was published on November 23rd 1911: exactly one hundred years ago today.  The views are sometimes rather shocking. I wonder how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same? (For one thing, paragraphs were much longer!)

The Spinster.  By One.

I write of the High Priestess of Society. Not of the mother of sons, but of her barren sister, the withered tree, the aciduous vestal under whose pales shadow we chill and whiten, of the Spinster I write. Because of her power and dominion. She, unobtrusive, meek, soft-footed, silent, shamefaced, bloodless and boneless, thinned to spirit, enters the secret recesses of the mind, sits at the secret springs of action, and moulds and fashions our emasculate Society. She is our social Nemesis. For the insult of her creation, without knowing it she takes her revenge. What she has become, she makes all. To every form of social life she gives its complexion. Every book, every play, every sermon, every song, each bears her inscription. The Churches she has made her own. Their message and their conventions are for her type, and of their Ideal she has made a Spinster transfigured. In the auditorium of every theatre she sits, the pale guardian. What the players say and do, they say and do never forgetting her presence. She haunts every library. Her eye will pierce the cover of every book, and her glance may not be offended. In our schools she takes the little children, and day by day they breathe in the atmosphere of her violated spirit. She tinges every conversation, she weights each moral judgment. She rules the earth. All our outward morality is made to accommodate her, and any alien, wild life-impulse which clamours for release is released in secret, in shame, and under the sense of sin. A restive but impotent world writhes under her subtle priestly domination. She triumphs, and we turn half expecting to see in her the joy of triumph. But no, not that even. She has no knowledge of it. All is pure fatality. She remains at once the injured and the injuring.   Society has cursed her and the curse is now roosting at home.

The indictment which the Spinster lays up against Society is that of ingenious cruelty. The type of intelligence which, in its immaturity, conceived the tortures of a Tantalus might have essayed the creation of a spinster as its ripe production. See how she is made, and from what. She is mothered into the world by a being, who, whatever else she may be, is not a spinster, and from this being she draws her instincts. While yet a child, these instincts are intensified and made self-conscious by the development, in her own person, of a phenomenon which is unmistakable, repellent, and recurrent with a rapid and painful certainty. This development engenders its own lassitude, and in this lassitude new instincts are set free. Little by little, the development of her entire form sets towards a single consummation, and all the while, by every kind of device, the mind is set towards the same consummation. In babyhood, she begins, with her dolls. Why do not the parents of a prospective spinster give her a gun or an engine. If Society is going to have spinsters, it should train spinsters. In girlhood, she is ushered into an atmosphere charged with sex-distinctions and sex-insinuations.  She is educated on a literature saturated with these. In every book she takes up, in every play she sees, in every conversation, in every social amusement, in every interest in life she finds that the pivot upon which all interest turns is the sex interest. So body, mind, training, and environment unite to produce in her an expectation which awaits definite fulfilment. She is ready to marry, ripe to marry, needing marriage, and up to this point Society has been blameless. It is in the next step that she sins. Did Society inculcate nothing more, Nature would step in to solve her own difficulties, as she does where Society and its judgments have little weight. Among the very poor there is no spinster difficulty, because the very poor do not remain spinsters. It is from higher up in the social scale, where social judgments count, where the individual is a little more highly wrought, better fashioned for suffering, that we draw the army of actual spinsters. It is in the classes where it is not good form to have too much feeling, and actual bad form to show any; where there is a smattering of education, and little interests to fill in the time, that their numbers rally and increase. It is here that Society, after having fostered just expectations, turns round arbitrarily on one perhaps in every four and says, "Thou shalt not." No reason given, only outlawry prescribed if the prohibition is disregarded. And because Society has a dim consciousness of its own treachery - for its protection and like a coward - it lays down the law of silence, and in subtle fashion makes the poor wretch the culprit. (It is probably this sense of self-defection which keeps these cheated women from committing rape. Imagine an equal proportion of any male population under similar circumstances!) Probably, one will ask, What is all the fuss about? Is it all because a man did not turn up at the right time? Well, partly yes and partly no. Not any man. It was the right man she was expecting, HER man. Rightly or wrongly the theory of the right man has been dinned into consciousness of the ordinary middle-class woman. It may be merely a subtle ruse on the part of a consciously inadequate society to prepare its victims for the altar. However that may be, the result is the same. The Spinster stands the racket. She pays the penalty. She is the failure, and she closes her teeth down and says nothing. What can she say? Is she not the failure? And so the conspiracy of silence becomes complete. Then, mind and body begin. They get their pound of flesh and the innermost Ego of the Soul, the solitary Dweller behind the Mind, stands at bay to meet their baiting. Day by day, year by year, the baiting goes on. To what end - for what temporal or final good is all this? This is the question to which Society, in sheer amends, has to find an answer. This unfair war waged by instinct and training against poor ordinary consciousness can only be rendered decent by some overwhelming good accruing to someone or something. To whom and for what? These are questions to which we demand an answer as a right. Then, being answered, if any woman considers the benefit conferred upon Society great enough to outweigh the suffering entailed upon herself she may possibly undertake it in the spirit of some magnanimous benefactor. Because this inward warfare cannot truthfully be considered for one moment as benefiting the Spinster herself. Her character for instance, is not in need of that kind of tonic. For, be it noted, the Spinster does not overcome Sex as a Saint overcomes Sin. She does not, save rarely, crush out of existence that part of her which is threatening her life's reasonable calm. Driven inward, denied its rightful ordained fulfilment, the instinct becomes diffused. The field of consciousness is charged with an all-pervasive unrest and sickness, which changes all meanings, and queers all judgments, and which, appearing outwardly, we recognise as sentimentality. It is to this sentimentality that all reason and intelligence has to bow. It is by this means that we are all made to pass under the yoke. It is not, however, to be believed that every spinster will thus suffer mind and body to enter into bondage. Some are finding a way of escape. Some women have taken this way, and more will take it. It is the final retort. It is the way of the Saint. It would be the right way in overcoming sin. But in overcoming the life instinct itself, who shall say it is right? The way is to destroy the faculty. With a strong will and a stern regime it can be done. Women are doing it with a fierce joy that would have gladdened the heart of some old Puritan. You take the body and tire it out with work, work, work. In any crevice of time left over you rush here and there, up and down, constantly active. And for the mind, you close down the shutters on that field. No image, no phrase, no brooding, nothing there which speaks of emotions which produce life. And this sort of Spinster, more and more, is bringing up the younger generation. Another unconscious revenge! But this is the way of the few. As for the many, they go the sentimental way. For there is no shuffling possible in this matter. The Spinster must either keep her womanhood at the cost of suffering inordinate for the thing it is, and be compelled to turn what should be an incidental interest into the basis of all interest; or she must destroy the faculty itself, and know herself atrophied. There is no alternative. To offer work, pleasure, "doing good," in lieu of this is as much to the point and as sensible as to offer a loaf to a person who is tortured with thirst.

Let the social guardians remember that in the fulness of time physical developments show themselves, and that as they appear, so must they be provided for. This social slaughter can no longer pass without challenge, and they may remember for their comfort that if prurience has slain its thousands, chastity has slain its tens of thousands. In this matter, it remains for Society to justify itself.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Comments and the possibility that they have in some way become unhelpful...

Apparently quite a few people are having problems posting comments - I don't know if that's just for my blog, or for Blogger in general. If you've had trouble, would you mind letting me know at simondavidthomas[at], just so I know the scale of the issue! And if there are any comments you'd like to make, and can't, I'll post them on your behalf :)

Two Readers; One Day

So, Claire (Paperback Reader) and I had both read One Day by David Nicholls, along with seemingly everyone else in the world, and we both wanted to put up posts on it.  But we thought it might be fun to do something a bit different.  We're having a real-time conversation via email, and will post the results on both our blogs... hopefully it'll have the feel of a book group, but with the bonus that we can edit ourselves to sound better!  For a conversation covering not only One Day but Thomas Hardy, Mr. Darcy, and what constitutes good writing - read on!

SIMON: Hi Claire!  Hope you're well?

CLAIRE: Hi Simon, I am well, thank you.  Funnily enough, I was watching something that provoked me into thinking about missed connections/potential but interrupted moments, which was the essence of One Day, in my opinion.  I found those "what if?" and *nearly* sections of the novel both frustrating and emotive; I think we can all identify with them on some level.  What do you think?

SIMON: Good point.  I suppose, in outline, One Day is fairly inevitable - we know the lives of Dexter and Emma are going to overlap after their day/night together at the end of university - otherwise there wouldn't really be any point to the novel.  So Nicholls had to lace it all with will-they-won't-they moments, near-misses and misunderstandings etc.  I suppose One Day could borrow that 'only connect' mantra from Howards End - it's about two people trying, and repeatedly failing, to connect with each other.  I was worried it would feel too gimmicky, the concept of coming back to each of them on the same day every year - or too full of coincidences - do you think it was?

CLAIRE: I felt it was very contrived.  The anniversary of when they met happened to be the same date as all of those key moments in their relationship and [the big spoiler at the end!]? Really?  Life is full of coincidences but I think that Nicholls took the gimmick too far.  I agree though that it is about two people trying -and failing- to connect with each other.  I think that the reason I found it so frustrating is that those near-misses and misunderstandings are such an integral part of life and something we have all fell victim to at some point ... I felt that Emma and Dex's relationship was hopeless/futile and that these connections are so often outwith our control/at the whim of fickle fate and a bitchy traveller who steals other people's books!

Your allusion to Howards End reminds me of the tribute the book made to Tess of the D'Ubervilles and Hardy; it's been so long since I read Tess (and I have a hopeless retention for key plot details) but what was the relevance between it and One Day?

SIMON: Oh gosh, now you're testing me... The letter goes missing under the carpet in Tess, maybe that?  Can't see much of a link between the two, myself.  Nor did I find One Day as contrived as I'd thought it might be - because big events were recalled, rather than all happening on July 15th.  But I agree that The Big Spoiler Moment happening on the same date as their meeting was a coincidence too far…

Whilst we're on intertextual references - I was chuffed to see what Emma had on her bedside table at the beginning of the novel.  Now I can't remember what they all were (argh!) but I do know that I'd read them all - there was Milan Kundera, maybe a Muriel Spark?  It certainly made me like Emma, at the start at least.  I'm easily won over like that.  How sympathetic did you find Emma and Dexter, and did it change as the novel progressed?

CLAIRE: That sounds about right; I knew it was something about miscommunication/confessions going astray!  I did think it was clever that we were told rather than saw some of the key moments in their relationship as everything occurring on July 15th would have been ridiculous,

I was delighted by the intertextual references - we do love our books about books!  I took note of this wonderful quote about Muriel Spark. 
But at the best of times she feels like a character in a Muriel Spark – independent, bookish, sharp-minded, secretly romantic.
I certainly warmed to Emma, at the start, due to her love of books; however, both she and Dexter grated on my nerves throughout and not just because of their ineptitude in getting together.  My sympathies towards Dexter changed as the novel progressed, as I found Dexter became more sympathetic, but, conversely, Emma became an unsympathetic character. Regrettably, Emma was far from the Muriel Spark character that she professed to be. Ultimately, I didn't like either of them very much- did you?

SIMON: There were definitely moments when I couldn't imagine Dexter being any more loathsome.  The period where he was constantly on drugs, doing appalling television, feeling self-important and neglecting Emma - I just wanted her to high-tail it outta there.  I found this quotation, from that year, one of the most moving in the book:
"Dexter, I love you so much. So, so much, and I probably always will." Her lips touched his cheek. "I just don’t like you anymore. I’m sorry."
I think the conflict between loving and liking someone (romantically or otherwise) is something with which we can all identify.  Nicholls phrases it so simply there - and since it comes at the end of a long scene where Dexter has proved unbearably awful, and Emma has tried so hard, I found it really powerful.

But I came out the opposite of you - by the end, I liked them both.  Eventually I even warmed to Dexter!  How important do you think sympathising with characters is in One Day?

CLAIRE: Oh, that's interesting.  He was loathsome but I think as the novel -and the years- progressed I understood Dexter more; I think he was an addict, which, as I said above, made him more sympathetic to me.  Emma, I thought, was dissatisfied/unfulfilled and although that made me sad it also made me find her a little... fickle; once she had Dex she still wasn't happy and it was inevitable that their story had a tragic ending (spoilers galore! I think that there is a statute of limitations, especially on a book that is everywhere. Mwah ha ha).  I found it sad that as a thirty-eight year old Emma was so disillusioned by love and far removed from her twenty-two year old self.

Normally I do not have to sympathise, or even like, characters in order to enjoy a book but with One Day I think it hampered my enjoyment.  Although I liked it well enough I did not love it.  I needed to be more invested in their story, to will them together, but I didn't care enough about them; Em/Dex are not the star-crossed lovers of our generation.  Do you agree?

SIMON: I had a fairly odd relationship with the novel - in that, whilst I was reading it, I loved it.  I raced through it on holiday - and you know me and long books; it doesn't often work.  But almost as soon as I finished it, I started doubting myself.  Had I really liked it as much as I thought?  Was it actually a very good novel?  I did care about the characters - I must have done, to make me find it so compelling.  But afterwards I started to think - is Nicholls a good stylist, for example, or simply good at making a novel pacy?  (Is there a difference?!)

CLAIRE: I think there is a difference.  I similarly found it compelling-and we have established it wasn't due to my love for the characters- but I think it suffered from undue hype.  Surely to be classed as an epic love story of our times, we have to be more engaged and invested?  Mr Darcy doesn't start out as likable but, oh my, is his and Lizzie's story compelling.  One Day was absorbing and it absorbed me for more than one day but I don't understand why so many people love it/cry over it.  I saw the tragic moment coming, although it did make me gasp a little.  However, I don't think that really answers your question.  It was a good read but not a good book, if you see the same difference as I do? 

SIMON: That's exactly it!  Except I might be a trifle more generous and say it was a great read but not a great book - it might just sneak into 'good book' territory for me.  I have a feeling that those who wept/cheered over One Day either have had close experiences, or have yet to read Pride and Prej etc. (or my favourite romantic couple, Jane/Toby in The L-Shaped Room.) 

CLAIRE: I will temper my comment by saying it was a good read but not a great book (that seems fairer and more truthful to my own feelings).  I hate to say it (well, not really) but I think that as far as mainstream love stories go, Emma and Dexter, are fitting but they were too close to ... human for me; I prefer my love stories either more romantic/idyllic or far grittier (of which polar opposites both of your examples fit).  Emma and Dexter’s story was distinctly average.

SIMON: Like you, I more or less saw the tragic end coming.  That's one moment which I thought the film did extraordinarily well - and I wished I hadn't known it would happen, because it was quite a shocking moment of film.

Ah, the film.  Let's swap our reading glasses for our cinema specs for a mo - first off, who would you like to have played Emma and Dexter?  I would have loved Emma to be Romola Garai, which was only enforced by seeing her in a smaller role in the film.

CLAIRE: I haven't seen the film (I know!)  I meant to... then all the criticism of Anne Hathaway's shifting accents deterred me.  Did you find though while reading it that you had the cast in your mind's eye?  I always find it hard to re-imagine a character once they have been imagined for me onscreen.  I love Romola Garai, however, and think she would have made a lovely -and altogether more sympathetic- Emma; as for Dex, I'm not sure... somebody that does cad and endearing/vulnerable/messed up male well. 

SIMON: I never visualise characters when reading, so I was pretty open to any actors, visually at least.  Gotta say, I'd never heard of Jim Strugess before One Day, but he was a brilliant Dexter.  Dexter's more annoying phases were played with an undercurrent of embarrassment, so that he never felt quite as loathsome as he did in the novel.  Anne Hathaway... oh, Anne, I love you normally, but that accent was beyond dreadful.  Most of the time she was vaguely British, and then she would lapse into ee-by-gum Yorkshire.  No, Annie, no. 

CLAIRE: I've seen Jim Sturgess in a film before and thought he was well cast (not seeing how he actually comes across onscreen though, I can't judge if I was correct.)

SIMON: We've not really covered all the other characters... have to admit, Emma's boyfriend Ian made me feel very uncomfortable - mostly because I kept wondering how similar he was to me!  I'm totally the guy who makes jokes all the time, whatever the tone of the situation...  What did you think of Ian and Sylvie, as the substitute partners for Emma and Dexter?

CLAIRE: Ian made me very uncomfortable too; he started off sweet and self-deprecating and then became quite scary.  I don't think you should be at all concerned of being the same as him, Simon!  He had his insecurities and was obviously very much in love with Emma; I did think it was good of Nicholls to bring him back for Dexter in end, which redeemed his character.  Sylvie never really rang true for me; she was quite one-dimensional and what was with her family?!  The Sylvie of early Dexter/Sylvie and the Sylvie at the end of their marriage were disparate but, then, people and relationships evolve/devolve.  Neither character was a fitting substitute character, I thought, but acted as a foil to the "meant to be" partner.

SIMON: Sylvie's family were ghastly, weren't they?  'Are you there, Moriarty?' sounds like the worst game ever, and I usually adore silly family games.  I wish Nicholls had made her a little more believable, as a person Dexter would have picked.  Ditto swarthy French bloke, for Emma.

I suppose we should be drawing this discussion to an end, since it should take up less than one day(!) - can I just say, though, what fun it's been, Claire!  I hope the readers enjoy the format (shameless plug for 'we love you guys' comments!)  Perhaps we can just sum up our thoughts in one or two sentences?

CLAIRE: It's been a pleasure, as always!

Hm, one or two sentences?  One Day was a book about missed opportunities and failed connections and, regrettably, it failed to connect with me.

SIMON: Nice!  Ok, my turn.  One Day felt like a great read one day, a good read the next day, a mediocre film a later day, and a great conversation today!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Song for a Sunday

I recently got a lovely covers album called Birdy and, er, by Birdy.  This is the first song she released from it - a cover of Bon Iver's 'Skinny Love'.  She has such a nice tone to her voice, it's a bit weird to discover that she's only 15 years old.

To watch other Sunday Songs, click here.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Our Vicar's Wife is staying at the moment, so give her a cheery wave.  Thanks!
Feeling sleepy this weekend, so we'll move straight onto the book, blog, and link - although I'll whisper a little advance warning for Monday... I'll be trying something a bit different, and another blogger will be along to help me...

1.) The book - came from the lovely people at Sort Of books, responsible for the wonderful Tove Jansson editions and my recently-reviewed Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles.  Basically, their books are beautiful and they don't put a foot wrong.  They spotted my review, and thought I might like Telescope by Jonathan Buckley.  This is their blurb, from the website:

Daniel Brennan, approaching the premature end of his life, retreats to a room in his brother’s suburban house. To divert himself and to entertain Ellen, his carer, he writes the journal that is Telescope, blurring truth, gossip and fiction in vignettes of his own life and the lives of those close to him. Above all he focuses on his siblings: mercurial Celia, whose life as a teacher in Italy seems to have run aground, and kindly Charlie, the entrepreneur of the family.

Enriched with remarkable observations on topics ranging from tattoos and Tokyo street fashion to early French photography, Telescope is a startlingly original and moving book, a glimpse of the world as seen by a connoisseur of vicarious experience.
More info here - but I'd be surprised if I didn't love it, given how similar my tastes seem to be to this publisher's own.

2.) The link - a lot of you will have heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where aspiring novelists scribble as fast as possible during November to create their first draft.  Well, Peirene Press (lovely Peirene Press, I mean) have created PeiShoStoMo.  Peirene Short Story Month.  I'm afraid I'm announcing this nineteen days late, but you still have a week and a half to write 900 words, if you're interested... more here.

3.) The blog post - you know I can't resist it when I find reviews of my favourite books, especially when they're wonderfully enthusiastic reviews.  This one, of Miss Hargreaves (which I've just finished for the sixth time) was actually written back in March, but I didn't see it then.  It's a lovely review, and the post includes a picture of the first edition dustjacket, which I hadn't seen before and which I love.  (It's not the one pictured... I'm saving the surprise for when you've clicked on the link.)  Oh, I flippin' love everything to do with Miss Hargreaves - every time I read it I love it even more, and wish ever more fervently that (a) I could have seen Margaret Rutherford play her on stage, or (b) Maggie Smith would play her in a film.  Please, please, pleeeeeeease.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Thanks for your lovely comments on my Holywell Cemetery post - I was a bit tentative about sharing that side of my interests, but lots of us seem to have similar activities!  I'm sorry my responses to comments have been lax of late - will get onto that soon.

Since my 26th birthday has come and gone, it's about time I finished writing about the books I received for my 25th birthday, isn't it?  Well, truth be told, I've yet to read all of them, but I have read one of those given to me by Colin: Exercises in Style (1947) by Raymond Queneau.

Oddly enough, I was offered a review copy of this back in the dim, distant past.  I said yes-please-thank-you-very-much, and they sent me... The Fox by D.H. Lawrence.  (Which, incidentally, was very good - read more here).  Not sure how that happened, but it put Exercises in Style onto my radar, and I was pleased when Col gave it to me.  Before I go further, I must add that it was translated by Barbara Wright.  Thanks, Barbara!

The premise is simple, and the execution is complex.  An everyday incident takes place, described thus on the blurb:
On a crowded bus at midday, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him deliberately.  When a seat is vacated, the first man takes it.  Later, in another part of town, the man is spotted again, while being advised by a friend to have another button sewn onto his overcoat.
Queneau's experiment is to find as many ways as possible to express this anecdote.  There are ninety-nine different styles used - some are expected (Past, Present, Reported Speech), some are quirky (Couplets, Cross-Examination) and some are just plain weird (Paragoge, Parts of Speech, Permutations by Groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 Letters).

This definitely isn't a book to read cover-to-cover in one go.  I read it gradually over the course of several months, which worked out to be a pretty good approach.  Exercises in Style is, of course, more of an experiment in what can be done with words than a gripping beginning-middle-end read.  As such, it is interesting in the abstract, wider-view - but would be far too repetitive if read in one go.  I have to admit to flicking past the styles which removed any linguistic sense from the anecdote, and the Dog Latin meant little to me, but I was impressed by how varied the same unremarkable story can be, simply through stylistic choices.

Perhaps Exercises in Style should be on hand for the aspiring novelist - it should certainly be flicked through by anybody who claims to like novels 'in a plain, unfancy style' - because it reveals that there is no such thing as a plain style.  True, few novels would focalise wholly through smell, feel, or sound (as some of these styles do) but Queneau reveals how many different ways a writer can approach even the most mundane objects. I'd recommend anybody interested in language or the importance of writing in fiction should have a copy of this on the shelves, to dip in and out of, smiling.

It goes without saying that, being in translation, some of Queneau's nuances will have been lost - perhaps more important in Exercises in Style than other books, but the fact of translation doesn't diminish the point that language choices affect the ways we read.  Indeed, it enhances it.

Rather than go on any further, I think I'll type out a few examples, so you can see for yourself the sort of variety which Queneau creates:


In the dog days, while I was in a bird cage at feeding time, I noticed a young puppy with a neck like a giraffe who, ugly and venomous as a toad, wore yet a precious beaver on his head. This queer fish obviously had a bee in his bonnet and was quite bats, he started yak-yakking at a wolf in sheep's clothing claiming that he was treading on his dogs with his beetle-crushers. But the cock got a flea in his ear; that foxed him, and quiet as a mouse he ran like a hare for the perch.

I saw him again in front of the zoo with a young buck who was telling him to bear in mind a certain drill about his pelage.


Midday was struck on the clock. The bus was being got onto by passengers. They were being squashed together. A hat was being worn on the head of a young gentleman, which hat was encircled by a plait and not by a ribbon. A long neck was sported by the gentleman. The man standing next to him was being grumbled at by the latter because of the jostling which was being inflicted on him by him. As soon as a vacant seat was espied by the young gentleman, it was made the object of his precipitate movements and it became sat down upon.

The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare. He was clothed in an overcoat and was having a remark made to him by a friend who happened to be there, to the effect that it was necessary to have an extra button put on it.


On the bus once (an S, or of that ilk)
I saw a little runt, a wretched milk-
Sop, voicing discontent, though round his turban
He had a plait, this fancy-pants suburban.
How he complained, this strange metamorphosis
With elongated neck and halitosis:
One standing near who'd come to man's estate
Refused, he said, to circumnavigate
His toes, when passengers got on and rode,
Late for lunch, panting, to some chaste abode.
There was no scandal; this sad personage
Found where to sit and end his pilgrimage.
As I went back towards the Latin Quarter
He reappeared, this lad of milk and water;
I heard his foppish friend say with dispassion:
"The buttons on your coat are not in fashion."

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Feeling Grave

Whenever I wander from the topic of books, it's inevitable that I'll leave some of my lovely literary readers behind - just because you like books doesn't mean you'll share my taste in CDs, films, cakes, cats, donkeys... but today's post might alienate even more than usual!  Because I'm going to write about graveyards.  Well, not really graveyards-plural, just graveyard-singular: Holywell Cemetery.  It's attached to St. Cross Church in Oxford, where I used to worship, and which closed down three years ago (see my post here.)  I had half an hour to spare the other day, so off I went with my camera...

I often sought refuge there as an undergraduate - being a country boy stranded in a city, this was the closest I could find to home.  Holywell Cemetery has a policy of leaving different areas untended in various cycles, for reasons to do with wildlife etc. I believe, so there are always plenty of beautifully overgrown areas.

But my love of Holywell Cemetery doesn't lie entirely in its rural feel.  A lot of people find graveyards spooky or disconcerting.  Not I.  For me, a deep peacefulness pervades them.  Entering a cemetery, one seems to have escaped time.  Those born in 1650 lie alongside those born in 1950, all equal. 

But what really fascinates me, having said that, what is above ground, and the infinite variety there.   Tombstones.  The lasting monuments to individuals really were varied - through the years, but also according (I assume) to wealth.  Some were huge and ornate:

Others were tiny; you can barely see this one hidden amongst the brambles.  It made me wonder - did that person (name now illegible) die after everyone they knew, or were their grieving family too poor to afford more than this small slab?

I think that's what I treasure about cemeteries - it's like rows and rows of book covers.  You can deduce a little, but only a little.  Unlike books, the stories aren't waiting to be revealed - tombstones offer all the information there is, unless one is willing to bury oneself in record offices.  There are mysteries in each epitaph - what, for example, is the story behind this?

'Martha Hawkins.  Died August 11th 1849.  Aged 18 years.'  The very barest outline of a life, but why so young at her death?  Who chose this inscription - who mourned Martha's passing and celebrated her life?  All these brief clues to lived lives.  I could read tombstones all day - the whole spectrum of emotions are there.  Joy, grief.  Regret, triumph.  Simplicity, complexity.

Above all - love.  The final words that will be dedicated to someone - and the words they choose hold such importance, often amongst such simplicity.  Unsurprisingly, I was especially touched by those triumphant headstones which proclaimed Bible verses.


Who could fail to be moved by these three words?

'Toby Kay. Died at birth'.  There was another similar tombstone, for a baby who had lived for 18 days.  It also had a little engraving of a toy duck.  But since it was only a few years old, I thought it best not to take a photo or post it here, since the grief is still fresh.  Other markers tell their own tale of history:

The circular plaque reads: 'This cross near his sister's grave stood where Ronald rests in the R Berks cemetery, Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium.'

Nor is Holywell Cemetery without its fair share of famous 'residents'.  Two Kenneths might be of interest - Grahame and Tynan.

And then, of course, there are some tombstones that are simply beautiful, and examples of fine artistry.  The first of those below was perhaps my favourite that I saw - not as ornate as others, but perfectly appropriate for the setting.

If you are ever visiting Oxford, I recommend that you make time to visit Holywell Cemetery - and not in a rush, either, but slowly and contemplatively.  Stepping into the graveyard, and walking between the tombstones, time seems to stand still - or simply not to matter.  Time has melded all the decades into one, here.  Beautiful craftsmanship sits alongside the simple and unassuming.  Lengthy epitaphs are next to those striking by their brevity - which, in turn, stand by those which time has rubbed illegible.  Each headstone reflects a life, lived for a hundred years or a single day, and each of those lives reflects outwards to mother, father, siblings, spouse, children, grandchildren...  It is a beautiful place to be, and not just for the eye.  It is beautiful for the spirit and the mind and the soul.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The Only Way Is (Mary) Essex

Sue, Ann, and Erika were all intrigued by the opening to Tea Is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex, which I posted the other day, and asked if I would say a bit more about her.  Here are those lines again:
It is highly probable that the tea shop would never have started at all if Commander David Tompkins hadn't fancied himself at being something of a dab-hand at cooking.
Well, never let it be said that I ignore the cries of my people.  I do misinterpret them a bit - because I don't remember all that much about Tea Is So Intoxicating, I decided to read one of the other Mary Essex novels I have on my shelf - the equally wonderfully titled The Amorous Bicycle.

You see, I read Tea Is So Intoxicating almost a decade ago, and I read it immediately after finished Moby DickAnything would have been refreshing right then - and, while I knew I loved the novel, which is about the struggles of setting up a provincial tea-room, I didn't know how much this depended on comparison.  Whom could I ask?  Nobody else knew anything about her.  I'm the only person to own any Mary Essex novels on LibraryThing (since Geranium Cat very kindly gave me her copy of Six Fools and a Fairy.)  And I bought Tea Is So Intoxicating on a whim, because it had a brilliant title and only cost 10p. 

Turns out, I knew more about Mary Essex than I realised.  But I'd nearly finished the novel before I discovered that, so I'm going to make you wait until the end of the review to unveil the surprise...

The Amorous Bicycle (1944) takes place in Queen Catharine's Court, an 'ultra-modern, ultra-select block of flats situated in South London, not too south of course, because that would not have had a desirable district number for notepaper, but fairly south.'  There is a huge cast of characters (which isn't the only thing which reminded me of Richmal Crompton's novels) and not really any principals - although the first we meet is Mr. Vyle, the resident manager of the building.  He's a bit of a coward, and unduly proud of his position, but basically a good egg.

I was going to go through the lot, but it might get a bit bewildering.  Suffice to say, they do all become fully-formed - it just takes quite a few pages.  Some are closer to stereotype than others - the retired Colonel and his ex-comrade cook are in the 'closer' category, not to mention the temperamental French chef for the building's restaurant.  There's also the James family - a long-suffering mother who is more than willing to share her sufferings, her actressy daughter and casual son, and her estranged husband (preposterously called Henry James) who is ditched by the mistress he absconded with, and tries to go back to the family he hasn't seen for a decade.  There's a coquettish young woman; a coquettish older woman; a browbeaten decorator determined to paint every flat 'pile blew'; a lascivious doctor; a self-important, plagiarising novelist... the list goes ever delightfully on.

It all sounds a bit like a soap opera, doesn't it?  Well, it's closer, as I said, to Richmal Cromptons novels - a useful comparison only, of course, if you've read any of them.  Gossip and intrigue sustain the residents of the building, all of whom seem to be contemplating romantic alliances to greater or lesser extents.

I am no great fan of romantic novelists.  If that is all they bring to the table, I must confess myself bored - but you probably know how greatly I prize good writing and Essex's is certainly not bad.  It would, admittedly, be infinitely better if she had never discovered the use of the exclamation mark.  I think it can be used to great aplomb in dialogue (c.f. The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, still my forerunner for Read of 2011) but is nigh-on unforgivable in narrative.  It always looks amateurish.

BUT - Essex's writing is funny.  Of course humour is subjective, but I think a lot of you might enjoy her humour too - it reminded me of E.M. Delafield, in that wry, observational style which occasionally does a little twist in the middle of a sentence.  Her unexpected turns made me smile - she is especially good, I thought, at introducing characters with quick, witty sketches.  Which is a mercy, given how many of them there are.  Here are three examples:
He was under forty, and good-looking in a rugged, rather ugly way.
The next one hit a bit close to home...
Professor Tyrrell, unmarried, and completely self-contained, lived in Number Ninety-one.  He was pedantic, he was finicky, he spoke repulsively correct English, in fact it was so correct that it was wrong.
And, self-deprecatingly, this was my favourite:
He was a vegetarian, and looked it.
Only the other day, when reviewing Edith Olivier's Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady, I lamented that she hadn't availed herself of the many opportunities to laugh at the absurdities of wartime.  Well, Essex barely comments on the more serious aspects of war (all but one person seem miraculously unaffected by any actual fighting) but is rather wonderful on the deprivations suffered by economising housewives and frustrated customers.
She proffered the menu.  It read Lunch 3s.6d. (and on the back Dinner 6s.).  Bread, one penny, Napkin, one penny, Coffee, sixpence.  Minerals and soda water.  On reading the menu, which on the face of it looked to be lengthy and extremely good, one's mood changed, because most of it had a tendency to boil down to Spam.
Indeed, it is the rumour of a far-off fishmonger selling 'dabs' (whatever they might be) which compels Miss Hungerford-Hawkes to belie the dignity of her years and procure a bicycle.  This is the first, but by no means the last, mention of bicycles in The Amorous Bicycle.  Essex's title derives from the well-known rhyme 'Daisy, Daisy' (read it here, if you don't know it.)  For somehow, often quite tenuously, the advent of bicycles to Queen Catharine's Court leads to all sorts of happenings, romantic and otherwise (and it is rather nice that Essex focuses on romances between those not in the first flush of youth - this is by no means a youthful romance-by-numbers novel.)

I did have to laugh at the following line - I know enough evangelical cyclists to understand.  (Guys, it's just a mode of transport.  I don't tell you at length how great walking down the street is.  Just saying.  Oh, and when I'm driving, please don't cycle down the middle of the road, or jump red lights.  Ta.)
Really, Mrs. Plaistow decided, people with bicycles were very much like people with babies, they just couldn't stop talking about them.
And not everybody has a fondness for this wartime economy:
Mr. Vyle didn't think so much of a nice bike.  He found that biking made his ears cold, and he was fed to the teeth that he would probably have to give up his car because he couldn't get the petrol for it and he knew that Mrs. Vyle would point out that other people had "ways."  Mr. Vyle hadn't any ways.  He was rather alarmed at the prospect of what might happen to him if he tried any tricks.  All the same he'd see this blasted war somewhere else before he bought himself a nice bike, as Tutton suggested.
Incidentally, when I worked in Rare Books in the Bodleian, I dealt with a lot of boys' comics from the early twentieth-century.  Throughout the early 1940s the back cover held advertisements for a bike manufacturer (showing boys on bikes capturing Nazis; using their bike bells to win the war, etc.) but each said essentially "Sorry, bicycles not available during wartime, but keep an eye out once the fighting's all over."  The residents of Queen Catharine's Court do, admittedly, have some trouble procuring their vehicles - but a fair few manage it in the end.

While I was reading, I wasn't trying to decide whether or not Mary Essex was a great novelist.  She obviously isn't.  My quandary was whether or not she was good - and, exclamation marks aside, I decided that she was.  I'd certainly read more by her, and have one more waiting on my bookshelf.  Her characters and plots don't reinvent the wheel, but are diverting enough, and her style is pleasantly amusing.

So, that twist I promised you.  While hunting around on the internet, I discovered what I had already suspected - that Mary Essex was a pseudonym.  What I had not expected was that I had already heard of Mary Essex under her actual name - which is (drum roll)... Ursula Bloom.

I expect a lot of you have heard of her.  Perhaps you've seen her mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records.  Because Ursula Bloom wrote over 500 books, under various names.  In terms of quantity, she could look Barbara Cartland in the eye.

This discovery did leave me a bit shocked... how could someone so prolific actually write good books?  I know a lot of you will think "All that matters is that you enjoyed it."  That's partly true, but I've always been a believer that literary merit exists, and that books can't be judged entirely subjectively, or on how pleasing they are to the reader.  Was my judgement wildly off?  There are so many books I have disparaged or discarded because of poor writing, yet I thought the writing in The Amorous Bicycle above average.

So... I am left puzzled.  Did Ursula Bloom put extra effort into her Mary Essex titles, or am I so enamoured by the 1940s that I'll forgive a wartime novelist that which I'd condemn from a 21st century writer?  I don't know... but I'd love any of you who've read any Mary Essex to comment, or if you've got one languishing on your shelves - grab it, read it, and get back to me.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Morning everyone!  I usually try and write my Weekend Miscellanies in advance, so that they appear on the dot of midnight, but I was at a friend's house yesterday evening and too zonked to write anything when I got back.  And, prepare yourself, today's post is quite self-indulgent... I was going to be bashful and modest, but... no, I'll try that next year instead.

1.) Spangle very kindly asked me to participate in a series on her blog called Chapters In My Life.  As with the My Life in Books series I ran in March/April, we were both inspired by the My Life in Books TV programme.  I chose five books which were important during my life, and which have led to my current reading tastes.  I also tried to steer clear of my normal answers to such things, so there is nary a mention of Miss Hargreaves!  You can read it here, and see the others in Spangle's series here. As a sneak peak, my first choice is Enid Blyton's Five Get Into Trouble, but I now have a suspicion that I chose the wrong book... Our Vicar? Our Vicar's Wife?

2.) A teensy bit of trumpet-blowing, but trumpet-blowing occasioned by surprise and delight - according to Wikio, I am now top of their ranking of UK literary blogs!  I know these things are only a bit of fun, and I'll probably have dropped to no.93 by next month, but I couldn't help being rather pleased.

3.) A now a bit of fun - a great quiz I happened upon called Shakespeare or Batman?  Not as easy as it sounds... I got 20/30, which is the worst score of anybody I know.  Great.

4.) Slightly Foxed's beautiful little limited edition hardbacks have proved so popular that they're going to reprint their bestselling titles in paperback form.  More info here; the first will be Mr. Tibbits's Catholic School by Ysenda Maxtone Graham.  Anybody read it?

5.) To most of us, Elizabeth von Arnim is far from being a neglected author (she appears on my 50 Books list, for goodness' sake - what greater acclaim IS there??) but a mention in Downton Abbey a few weeks ago has apparently created something of a resurgence of interest.  A lovely little article here.  And a confession from me that I'm three episodes behind with Downton...