A Good Literary Haul for September

I am halfway through the book group novel for next week. Or it may be the week after. Anyway. It's The Queen of The Tambourine by Jane Gardam. I love Jane Gardam's writing and I have read loads by her, including, I thought, this novel which I thought I had on my bookshelves. I didn't, so I bought a second hand copy which fortunately arrived minutes before I left the. Smoke for das Boot yesterday.

I started it today, and from page one realised I had not read it before. I began by being amused by the Hyacinth Bouquetish character of Eliza. Then that palled, but before I could think I might give up the novel stepped up a gear. Unobtrusively. Jane Gardam is the most understated of writers. Don't expect big scenes; crash bang wallop chapters; shock horror revelations. It's the detail that matters in her books; the tiny shifts in behaviour, attitudes and thinking. Nothing and everything happens. She is not for the skim reader.

I'm loving it. And it was a tough gif after The Tidal Zone which introduced me to Sarah Moss. I think she has written about five novels so far. So I have been a bit slow on the uptake. I blame the library service. If you know me and my hobby horses, this will not come as a surprise.

Time was I'd go to our local library, small but with an admirable stock of books. I'd prowl the shelves and come home with a haul of novels by people of whom I had never heard. My horizons were widened. Then someone in some library service somewhere decreed that libraries should stock best selling novels by best selling authors and any book not borrowed n a six month period should be cast into outer darkness. So suddenly we found ourselves with libraries that stocked the same books as our supermarkets. Writers who I had discovered before the six month rule disappeared from the shelves. I am grateful that my reading was widened by earlier more enlightened library administrators, but it's a bugger these days. Continue reading

Wonderful Words

Some great reading this week. At the weekend I finished Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish, A Life in Time. It’s a memoir, but being Penelope Lively she bypasses all the clichés. It’s a social history as well as her history; beautifully written which is a given with her as an author, and absorbing. It’s perceptive, observant, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. There is a little impatience with the ageing process but never self-pity. The only time Penelope Lively has disappointed me was Spiderweb, which I think was written not long after her husband Jack’s death, so might be forgiven as a potboiler.

I won’t go into all the structure of Ammonites and Leaping Fish. There are lots of reviews you could read. I rather like this one. But this is how the book begins:

This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age. And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.

I borrowed my copy from the library, but there is so much in it that I want to return to it will soon be on my shelves. Continue reading

A Week

I may have to stop MasterB listening to the news; he seems to be adopting statesmanlike poses. What shall I do if he starts to brush his fur into an Osborne?

The Statescat

The Statescat


I just listened to Stephanie Cole reading one of Penelope Lively’s short stories, Licence to Kill. It had all the hallmarks of classic Lively – a certain dry tone, economy of words, acute observation and insight into the human condition. I want to write to her to say how much I have enjoyed her writing over the last thirty years, but I don’t think she’s on Linked In, and even if she is, I’m not.

There are a few fan mail letters I need to write; thank-yous to people whose writing has informed, entertained and enthralled me all my adult life. Katharine Whitehorn’s Observer columns made me want to read the newspaper. Clive James TV columns in the same newspaper introduced me to literate, crafted reviews.

If anyone knows where I can send the thank-yous, please tell me.
Continue reading

Six Books of 2012

I thought I might write a post of my top ten reads of 2012, but two stood out so far above the rest that I thought I might make it five, and one of those will be a reread.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel was, in my eyes, the deserved winner of this year’s Booker Prize. Her prose is so deft, her lyricism, her down-to-earthness all built a believable world with Thomas Cromwell as the unlikely hero at its centre. I was concerned it wouldn’t be as good as the first book in the trilogy, Wolf Hall, but it emphatically is. The only thing that stops me champing at the bit for the third volume is that Mantel has managed to make me rather fond of Cromwell, and of course the third volume is where it all goes horribly wrong. Perhaps that is something of an understatement for his fall from grace, trial and execution.
My second top book was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeannette Winterson’s powerful memoir. Like Bring Up the Bodies I started reading a library copy, but a few pages in knew it was a book I had to own. It is Winterson’s very own self-help book, how she survived an extraordinary childhood, succeeded against the odds in being herself, made it to Oxford, wrote a fictionalised account of her life in her début novel, had her own fall from grace, depression, attempted suicide, rebirth. Which makes it all sound rather dull. But it isn’t, no it isn’t at all. Her comments, her reflections, her humour, her absolute drive for survival make this a compelling and wonderful book. Her remarks about the importance of well stocked public libraries, or the power of language, the connection between the language of the King James version of the bible and understanding Shakespeare should be engraved on the eyelids of Michael Gove and anyone who thinks education is simply what we put in the National Curriculum. Oh, and she likes cats and dogs too.
In another year, Michèle Roberts Ignorance, a novel about collaboration, occupation and resistance in France under the Nazis, would have been higher up my list. It is a subject the French have not yet really faced, and is thought provoking and often painful stuff. Continue reading

Heat Wave

Ooh that Penelope Lively, she’s good. I just lost an hour or more to reading Heat Wave. Spare descriptions; clear prose; an ear for dialogue and the importance of things said and unsaid; an eye. I feel I have travelled the whole journey from spring to late summer, watching Luke and the wheat grow, seeing Teresa suffer and Pauline relive her memories while hoping for better for her daughter. I have met Maurice and Carol and found them wanting. Harry was never all he cracked himself up to be, while Hugh is considerably more than he seems, and James does not deserve to be treated so badly.
I am still at World’s End, outside the now closed doors, looking across the twenty acre field with its straw bales still and waiting. Such is the power of good writing to transport a reader, to build and maintain a world that seems so real, it is hard to understand that the last page is really the last, that Mr Chaundy will not be casting a dismissive eye over the next people to own this house, and that the weather forecasting postman does not exist outside the pages of this novel.