StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

I’ve finished work for Christmas (sorry to people who haven’t!) and I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks of reading and relaxing – or trying to, and then ending up going to a zillion carol concerts and the like. But Christmas is my favourite time of year – because I get to spend it with family, and realising afresh the enormity of what God did for the world, and food. Those three things aren’t necessarily in the correct order there, but they are all wonderful. As are the usual trio of book, blog post, and link in my Weekend Miscellany!

1.) The link – I’m so proud of my brother Colin, who is now a crossword setter for The Times! And not just any crossword but The Listener crossword, the sort that is so fiendish that I don’t even understand the rules usually. His crossword is called ‘Jury’, and his pseudonym is ‘Twin’ – if you subscribe to The Times, you can see it here; if not, rush out to a newsagent and buy a copy.

2.) The blog post – Ali is planning a Muriel Spark year-long readalong in 2018. As with the Woolfalong, you can join in whenever you like. I’ve read lots (maybe most?) of Spark’s prolific output, but there are still a fair few on my shelves waiting for me.

3.) The book – I know nothing at all about Miss Jane by Brad Watson. But look at that coverrrr.

Tea or Books? #49: Death of the Author?, and The Woman in White vs Possession

Wilkie Collins, A.S. Byatt, and the death of the author (sort of) – episode 49 is quite the mixed bag.

I found it quite hard to describe the first half of this episode – though hopefully it will become clear! – and probably the best thing to do is to tell you how Karen described it when she sent us the suggestion (thanks Karen!). Here goes: ‘is it legitimate to read a biography to shed light on an author’s work, possibly colouring/enhancing your interpretation, or should the novels be allowed to stand alone as works of art and appreciated for themselves, independent of their creator?’

In the second half, we compare The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and Possession by A.S. Byatt – Victorian vs neo-Victorian – and I Have Thoughts.

In the next episode, we’ll be doing a Q&A – any questions welcomed; pop them in the comments – and early next year we’ve each chosen a book we really think the other one will love. And we reveal them to each other at the end of this episode…

The books and authors we discussed in this episode are:

Swans on an Autumn River by Sylvia Townsend Warner (as published as Stranger With A Bag)
Katherine Mansfield
‘The Phoenix’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Element of Lavishness by Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell
Victoria: a Life by A.N. Wilson
Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker by A.N. Wilson
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Virginia Woolf
Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light
Ivy Compton-Burnett
Agatha Christie
Forever England by Alison Light
Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster
Letters From Menabilly by Daphne du Maurier and Oriel Malet
William Shakespeare
Beryl Bainbridge
Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
John Clare
Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh
Elena Ferrante
Dan Brown
A.A. Milne
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andulusia by Penelope Chetwode
John Betjeman
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
No Name by Wilkie Collins
The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt
The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble
The Millstone by Margaret Drabble
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
The Boat by L.P. Hartley
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

No braggies, but I’m spending my weekend in a castle. Five friends and I have booked one in Dorset, and I’ll give full reports when I’m back. I’m SUPER excited. But, don’t worry, I shan’t neglect you completely – you get a book, a link, and a blog post.

1.) The blog post – is a Shiny New Books round up of the books to buy for Christmas. They asked all their contributors to suggest the best book to give this festive season (including me). Find out what everybody chose!

2.) The book – this is another one I saw somebody mention on Twitter. I hadn’t heard of it before, though it is from 2010 – Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud by Martin Gayford. It seems to do exactly that – painting a verbal portrait of Freud at work. Sounds fascinating to me.

3.) The link – is a festive piece of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I for those of us who have anything to do with publishing content for the public to read.

Tea or Books? Ask us anything

Those who listen to my podcast with Rachel, Tea or Books?, may have heard that we’re doing a Q&A episode for our (gasp!) 50th. We’re actually recording episode 49 next Monday, but I wanted to give a bit of time to people who might want to ask questions. We’ve had some fantastic ones in via email, but I thought I’d do a blog post so you can ask questions here, should you so wish.

Ask us anything – about making the podcast, about books, about our other interests. Go wild! I imagine we’ll answer all of them, unless there is an unexpected deluge.

Guard Your Daughters: now a Persephone!

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few weeks, so please don’t take delay as a sign of lack of excitement – because Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton has been reprinted by Persephone – and I’ve been quoted in it!!

I’ve suggested a lot of books to Persephone over the years, and I think that they’re happy to hear reader thoughts. They’ve almost all been turned down on various grounds – unsurprising, given how selective they are – but I’ve also had the joy of seeing them published by other companies instead: Miss HargreavesThe Lark, and the various books that Bello have published. I’m always slightly suspicious (but in a delighted way) that they read my blog when looking for recommendations, having brought Edith Olivier, Richmal Crompton, E.M. Delafield, Vita Sackville-West, and more back to life. AND A.A. Milne’s Mr Pim Passes By, as Meredith kindly pointed out in the comments to my previous post.

Anyway, the same looked to be happening with Guard Your Daughters – which Persephone weren’t sure about, and which briefly looked like it might be snapped up by another reprint publisher. Fast forward a year or two and it is – oh joy! oh bliss! – between dove grey covers. It’s such a perfect Persephone, and I’m thrilled.

If you don’t know about it – let me direct you to my review and the podcast episode we did partly on it. It’s a funny, warm, and surprisingly haunting novel – almost within a page I knew it would be a lifelong favourite. I have my friend Curzon to thank for recommending it to me – thank you Curzon!

AND in this Persephone edition, they decided to put together contemporary and modern reviews (positive and negative) instead of an introduction. Lots of my favourite bloggers make appearances, and kicking them all off… it’s me! One of the things I’ve always wanted to achieve, but never really thought likely, was writing a Persephone introduction. I reckon this is just as exciting. I’ve been reading them since 2003 or ’04, my entire adult life really, and this is a dream come true.

If you haven’t read Guard Your Daughters yet – please get a copy. If you haven’t bought stocking fillers for the bookish people in your life – ditto.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

It’s a cold and wet day here in my little village, but one of the things I love about the countryside is that every weather is beautiful, in its own way. A city is grey and bleak on this sort of day – but the countryside is atmospheric and somehow alive in the grey and the rain and the wind. Basically, I love being in a village. It’s just as lovely as I was hoping! Anyway, I hope you’re having a good first weekend of December – and here is a link, a book, and a blog post to enjoy as you do.

1.) The book – is another book about books. As long as they keep publishing them, I’ll keep telling y’all about them. It’s called Dear Farenheit 451 by Annie Spence, and I don’t have a copy (yet!) – it’s a librarian writing letters to various books that have affected her over the years. Anybody wondering what I’d like for Christmas…

2.) The blog post – is also sort of a book; the wonderful news (posted by Mirabile Dictu) that Penguin will be reprinting E. Nesbit’s The Lark! It’s already been reprinted by Dean Street Press recently, but it’s lovely that even more people will have a chance to read this delightful novel. It’s chosen by Penelope Lively in a new initiative they’re running. (Whenever I recommend a novel to Persephone to publish, somebody else seems to do it – fingers crossed that somebody picks up A.A. Milne’s brilliant novel Mr Pim Passes By.) Click through to the link above to see the lovely covers the series is getting, since I can only really fit one image in this post.

3.) The link – if you were thrilled about all my chat about The Room recently and want more… here’s an ‘honest trailer’ for it. And I’ll stop soon, promise, because I realise that the overlap of people who love cringey bad movies and people who love middlebrow interwar fiction might just be me.

Bits and pieces

This is going to be a little ramble through various things that come to mind. Because sometimes a bit of variety among the book reviews is… well, different anyway.

I’ve bought my final book for 2017, everyone. It’s shipping from the US, so may not come for quite a while – but it’s a study of E.M. Delafield published a few decades ago, but which I either didn’t know or (more likely) had forgotten existed. As soon as I heard about it, I thought that was worth of being my last choice – I wanted to go out with a bang – but now I have to wait for a month before buying any more. (I’ll post my whole list of 24 at some point before the end of 2017.)

I don’t think I’ll be able to go crazy buying books in 2018, though. I toyed with doing Project 24 again, but have decided that would just be too painful – but I have very little room left for books in my little flat. And I sent 350 to various homes, charity shops etc when I was preparing to move house, so I’m down to BARE BONES (if bare bones is approximately 3000 books, of course. Which it is.) I might be able to squeeze in another bookcase if I don’t want to open the living room door fully ever again.

I’m trying to write my sketch for the village show. The Thomases have usually submitted a sketch to the show since we moved to Somerset in 2005, though I’ve missed a couple years. In that time I’ve played a Sound of Music obsessive, a Scottish cardinal, a Yorkshire vicar, half of Jedward, myself (in a postmodern sketch), a time traveller, a BBC news reader, a Victorian cameraman, and another BBC representative. We take it in turns to write, and I haven’t done one for four or five years, and I’ve discovered that ‘just start writing and see what happens’ might not be an inevitable winner. But it’s my only tactic – it’s going to be a spin on David Attenborough (played, though he hasn’t agreed yet, by Dad) and I haven’t named any of the other characters. Wish us luck.

I’m in London as I write this, preparing for the first of three days of playgoing – first up is the Sondheim musical Follies, with the divine Imelda Staunton – marking the fourth time I’ll have seen her on stage. Thinking about it, there are a few cultural events I’d recommend from recent trips. The film ‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ is absolutely brilliant – you won’t see better performances than Annette Bening’s and Jamie Bell’s this year, and they’d better get Oscar nods. (Also interesting to hear the sort of accent I might have had if I hadn’t moved away from Merseyside aged 6.) Do go and see it if you get the chance – but take tissues. Less readily available is Sofie Hagan’s stand-up – but head to see ‘Dead Baby Frog’ if you live near one of the places on the remainder of her UK tour. I saw it in Oxford the other day, at the theatre where I volunteer as an usher, and laughed my head off (though it’s also very moving – don’t worry, I laughed in the right places).

People keep talking about doing their Christmas shopping. I haven’t even thought about it yet. Maybe I should use London as a good opportunity to do some… but, instead, I’ll just do it all in a rush at the last minute, I’m sure. But I am in three separate bookish Secret Santas, and I have done the buying for those – partly because they come early, and partly because it’s easily the most fun sort of shopping to do. Yes, I’ll inevitably buy some books as gifts too, for other people, but for the Secret Santas it feels less like a “oh, Simon bought books, quelle surprise” cop out.

That’s enough of a ramble for now, and will hopefully tide StuckinaBook over until I write something about books again. Will I finish The Women in White by the time I’m supposed to be discussing it on the podcast next week, with 400 pages to go? Who can say. But seldom has a book mention of mine got so many “Oo, I love that!” replies on Instagram – encouraging. So far I am also enjoying it, though may have read too many Victorian books of late (by which I mean this is the fourth). So. Many. Words.

The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

My friend Mel and I have a history of buying each other the same presents. One Christmas we both (without consulting each other, but having set a £1 budget for gifts) bought each other a wind-up man on a penny farthing. This birthday (our birthdays are six days apart) we both got each other the non-fiction book The Disaster Artist (2013) by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.

This one is perhaps less of a coincidence – we have both enjoyed the so-bad-it’s-good film The Room, and its a genre of films, indeed, that we love. There’s nothing quite like watching a movie that defies logic in its staggering ineptitude, and if you can find one where the writing, acting, directing, audio, visual, and scene-building all combine into being a horror show of terribleness, then you’ve hit the sweet spot. Such, if you don’t know it, is The Room. Here’s a (fan-made) trailer…

The history of this 2003 ‘masterpiece’ is a bit bizarre – the lead actor/director/writer Tommy Wiseau funded it being screened in a cinema for an age, and had a billboard advertising it for five years in Hollywood. Over time, it became a sleeper cult hit – the twice I’ve seen it were at special screenings at a cinema in Leicester Square, where people fling plastic cutlery at the screen, join in with many of the lines, and dress in costume. But how did it get made, and what was behind so many of the odd choices in the film?

The world is likely to become a lot more alive to this film soon, as The Disaster Artist is a film coming out in the next few weeks – but it is based on this book by Greg Sestero (who played Mark, the second lead actor) and a journalist Tom Bissell – by which we can probably assume that Bissell wrote most of it and Sestero’s contributions were in interview form, but who can say.

The Disaster Artist wisely jumps between two timelines, rather than being entirely chronological, so that we get chapters about the making of The Room from the outset – interspersed with chapters which show how Greg and Tommy met, and the story of their friendship. It is an odd one. They met in an acting class, and became oddball friends. Greg was a young, handsome man embarking on an acting career against the advice of his parents; Tommy was a loner who refused to give his real age, nationality, or where he’d acquired enormous amounts of wealth from – and, to this day, he won’t say those things.

An unlikely friendship developed, though every step would be a huge warning flag in a film about a stalker. Tommy let Greg use his apartment, which had almost no furniture, but wasn’t happy if Greg spoke to any other friends. He would drive Greg around until late at night, and get upset if he asked too many questions. He was clearly jealous when Greg started to have minor success as an actor, and would ramble to him for hours on the phone about it all.

Somehow Greg agreed to make a movie with him.

Undoubtedly, it’s the chapters about The Room that are the most entertaining (if you’ve seen it before, at least). Tommy’s behaviour is entirely bizarre – Greg’s involvement on screen only came about because Tommy wanted to replace the original second lead. Rather than fire this unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) gentlemen, though, Tommy just filmed the same scenes twice – one with Greg, one with this guy – but didn’t use film for the latter. Eventually, shockingly, he was rumbled.

Tommy would ask for sets to be dismantled then demand they be put together again. He filmed on a terrible alley set, despite there being an available alley immediately next to it – because this is a ‘real Hollywood film’. He wouldn’t let anybody deviate from his nonsensical script, and he auditioned actors by screaming “you’ve just won a million dollars!” at them, and hoping they would act in response. And, despite his script-despotism, he couldn’t remember his own lines – it took him over thirty takes to deliver this 13-second scene:

The Disaster Artist is a hilarious and fascinating exploration of how appalling scenes came to be as they were, how the crew was replaced twice, and explains enigmas like the ubiquitous framed photos of forks, and an actor being replaced halfway through the shoot. Alongside, it is also a portrait of a man so unusual that he would be unbelievable in fiction. Because Tommy Wiseau seemed delighted with the result of his efforts. We don’t comprehend him because he is impossible to comprehend. But we see something of the frustrating composite that Greg saw. And they must still at least speak to each other, as they’ve made a new film: Best F(r)iends. Greg’s written this one…

The one major flaw in The Disaster Artist is that it’s written with the assumption that Tommy was the sole problem with The Room. Occasionally Sestero will acknowledge that (say) the sound guys were terrible, but blames this on poor guidance and lack of experience. More awkwardly, he doesn’t really acknowledge that his own performance in The Room is pretty shoddy. Yes, nobody else comes close to the surreal ineptitude of Tommy Wiseau, but Sestero ain’t great either. There were plenty of bad cogs in this machine.

In the end, Wiseau is something of a sad figure – lonely, driven by desperate ambition that can never be fulfilled. But Sestero makes him seem more like a man so deluded that he is protected from realising how much his dreams have failed. And, indeed, have they failed? I’d love to read a book that shows the aftermath of the film – how they dealt with its unexpected and slightly warped success – but, however that fame has manifested itself, Tommy Wiseau has undoubtedly made a film that has brought joy to millions. This is a unique Hollywood story.

The next club is…

You’ve got months and months of warning for… the 1977 Club! We added up all the votes for different 1970s years – all but one year got at least one vote – and 1977 just came out on top.

I’ve dug through my LibraryThing books about have almost twenty options – hopefully your own shelves will provide similar gems.

After this, we’ll probably be moving back to the 1920s, as mentioned. Partly (why we don’t go later) because of the personal taste that Karen and I have in literature, and partly (why we don’t go earlier) because the rise of cheap publishing, mass literacy, and the middle-classes after WW1 mean that there are a lot more options and a lot more books available. (But if anybody wants to start a form of 1985 Club, you have our blessing!)

Obviously we’ll remind you nearer the time – but nobody has the excuse that they didn’t get enough warning ;)

Tea or Books? #48: Sad Beginnings vs Happy Beginnings and The Semi-Attached Couple vs The Semi-Detached House

Emily Eden and the openings of books – we muddle our way through episode 48!

First – do send any questions you have for episode 50 to simonthomasoxford[at] We’re quite excited about finding out what you’ll ask – about us, about books, about podcasting. Anything. If it’s a geography question then I for sure won’t know the answer.

In the first half of this episode we look at the beginnings of books, and discuss whether we prefer them happy or sad – and it turned out to be a very difficult topic to nail down. Your thoughts must appreciated! And in the second half, we talk about two very good novels by the Victorian writer Emily Eden.

Here’s our iTunes page – do rate and review via apps and whatnot should you so wish.

The books and authors we mention in this episode are:

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Men and Wives by Ivy Compton-Burnett
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Love Child by Edith Olivier
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Women by Louisa M Alcott
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Margaret Atwood
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
P.G. Wodehouse
Nancy Mitford
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Don Quixote by Cervantes
‘Miss Brill’ by Katherine Mansfield
The Semi-Attached Couple by Emily Eden
The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Emma by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Fanny Burney
Portraits of the People and Princes of India by Emily Eden
Up the Country by Emily Eden