StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

I’m still cat-sitting, and enjoying having a house and a cat to myself. It’s a good way to get some reading done (finished a very good Sylvia Townsend Warner novel, which I’ll review next week) and indulge in catching up with some TV. It also means being introduced to the life of a commuter – which has given me joy (more reading time!) and angst (where IS THE BUS). Let’s go all joy and no angst for the link, the blog post, and… the TV show (gasp).

1.) The blog post – isn’t really a blog post, but I’m counting it. Trevor, the lovely fellow behind The Mookse and the Gripes, runs a ‘Mookse Madness’ series of polls in the blog’s Goodreads group. I believe ‘March Madness’ is something to do with baseball or basketball or American football or somesuch, but this series of rounds is all about BOOKS. Which are much better than all sports, I think we can agree.

You can see the polls here, I believe. Some are open and some will open later. There is currently no pairing at all where I’ve read (/finished) both books, but that hasn’t stopped me voting for such favourites as GileadTo The Lighthouse, and So Long, See You Tomorrow. Head on over and join in the fun!

2.) The link – everyone now and then I remember the Agatha Christie quiz on Sporcle. Can you name all 66 of her novels in 12 minutes? Spoilers: you can’t. But see how well you do. I’ve played dozens of times and my personal best is 61, I think.

3.) The TV show – yes, there is no book in this week’s miscellany, shockingly. I wanted to recommend the Netflix series Abstract instead. I don’t know which countries it’s available in, but it’s certainly viewable in the UK – it’s a documentary series Netflix have made, each one about a different sort of designer. I’ve watched one on an illustrator and artist who designs covers for the New Yorker and one for a stage and set designer – both fascinating, especially the latter. There’s also designers of shoes, architecture, interior decor, and more. Don’t let anybody tell you that we don’t live in a spectacular era of television!

Dearest Andrew (letters by Vita Sackville-West)

Guys, set your faces to impressed, because I’ve already read the first book I’ve bought in Project 24. I bought my second one today (more on that another day – or right now if you scroll through my Twitter feed) but if I keep this up – and I definitely, definitely won’t – then I’ll have finished all 24 books this year.

Dearest AndrewIt helped, of course, that the book was relatively slim. Dearest Andrew: Letters from V. Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber 1951-1962 (published in 1980) has a very long title for a book that is only 127 pages long. There is only one half of the collection, which the editor Nancy MacKnight explains as a case of Andrew wanting Vita Sackville-West to be centre stage – though the less charitable among us might suspect that she didn’t keep his letters.

They didn’t know each other when the correspondence started. It kicked off because Andrew – who lived in Maine – had a friend nearby who wanted to visit Sissinghurst, Vita’s beautiful home and garden. Said friend never actually got to Sissinghurst, but Vita’s reply was so encouraging that Andrew braved writing again – and so, after some fits and starts, their friendship begins and would last until Vita’s death.

The title of the collection is how Vita addressed him – after rather an interesting realisation about greetings in British English and American English – is this still the case?

My dear Andrew. No, I am given to understand that the American and the English habit is reversed. To us, My dear is a far warmer form than just Dear, yet if I put just Dear Andrew it looks so cold and formal to my English eyes. And if my American publisher begins his letter to me My dear it looks very personal and intimate! so what is one to do? I shall take refuge in Dearest Andrew which is what we reserve for our real friends.

The one review I found of this book is quite critical, suggesting that it’s a bit boring because it’s mostly about gardening, day-to-day events, and minutiae. Well, that’s exactly why I liked it so much. I enjoy letters because they show us the real person – and while I love reading an author’s thoughts on writing, I’m also rather enamoured by their easy, unthinking chatting about normal life. My only criticism is that there is perhaps too much framing from the editor, and quite a few of the letters are clearly not included.

So, perhaps not the best place to start for readers new to Vita Sackville-West – but if you know a little about her, or have read her writing, then I think this is a fun addition to her oeuvre.

Tea or Books? #34: novels based on real life: yes or no?, and A Pin To See The Peepshow vs Messalina of the Suburbs

E M Delafield, F Tennyson Jesse, and novels about real people – that’s what’s on the menu for episode 34.

Tea or Books logoIt’s very nice to have Rachel back (hi Rachel!) and we’ve both been doing homework for this episode – reading these novels specially to discuss them. Which hopefully means we have some more details to hand than usual – but it can get confusing, so here is a handy guide to help you get through the slightly confusing interlinking of these two novels and real life. It’s the woman, the lover, and the husband in each case. (All will become clear when you listen.)

The people in real life: Edith / Frederick / Percy
A Pin To See The Peepshow: Julia / Leo / Herbert
Messalina of the Suburbs: Elsie / Leslie / Horace

Hope that helps! As always, let us know if you have any choices to make – and if you have any suggestions for future episodes. As long as it can be in an ‘X vs Y’ format, we’ll consider it! Our iTunes page is here, and you can rate/review through iTunes itself, should you so wish :)

Incidentally, I did some counting while editing this podcast episode, and it turns out this is the 23rd book I’ve read by E.M. Delafield!

The books and authors we mention in this episode…

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Daphne in Fitzroy Street by E Nesbit
The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Josephine Tey Mysteries by Nicola Upson
The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries by Gyles Brandreth
The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
Regeneration by Pat Barker
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald
Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer
Virginia Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light
Travesties by Ed Stoppard
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Summer in February by Jonathan Smith
A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse
Messalina of the Suburbs by E M Delafield
The Suburban Young Man by E M Delafield
The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse
The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor
The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

R.C. Sherriff over at Vulpes Libris

A quick note to say that I’m over at Vulpes Libris today, talking about how much I like The Fortnight in September and Greengates by R.C. Sherriff. If you listened to our Tea or Books? episode on them, then there’s not much that will come as a surprise to you – but I thought there’d be plenty of people who don’t listen to podcasts who might need a nudge towards reading those fab novels!

Speaking of Tea or Books? – apologies for a bit of a longer break than anticipated, but Rachel and I will be recording this weekend. If you have any thoughts about Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield or A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse, then do feel free to send in a comment or a voicemail. You can send voice recordings to simonthomasoxford[at] – it would be great fun to include those!


A little bit of theatre

It’s been quite the week for theatre and cinema – if going three times counts as ‘quite the week’, which I rather think it does. And that’s not even including watching Crush on DVD because it has Imelda Staunton and Anna Chancellor in it (word to the wise: they’re glorious, but not enough to make up for a rather shaky plot and Andie MacDowell handing in a rather underwhelming performance – but kudos to whoever put the Behind The Scenes section on the DVD that is literally just behind the scenes footage without any voiceover, including watching a man move cones around).

The film I saw at the cinema was La La Land (watching for the second time, and liking even more this time around), but you already know that that’s great. So I thought I’d mention the plays I’ve been to see.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

On Monday I went to see a production of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and managed to walk into a door on the way in (or, rather, the glass surrounds to a door that I couldn’t see). Ouch. I only realised the day before I went that it would be rather a tough watch – and, indeed, it was. At times I had my fingers in my ears and my eyes closed – there were some very realistic depictions of torture. But, ultimately, I was impressed with the production – it should be unsettling, after all – and the staging was very effective. TV screens were all over the stage, along with lots of floor-level strip lighting; the TV screens showed what was on stage, alongside pre-recorded footage of the same actors, and it was disorientating in the right way.

Sometimes I thought that more had been put into the staging that the rest of the production – two things especially: Julia seemed oddly unpleasant, and Winston and Julia fell in love at the first instant of their first encounter. (Does that happen in the book? I’ve read it twice, but clearly misremembered some of it – there was a central aspect to the plot that I thought they’d changed, but the Wikipedia summary corrects me.) There was an exceptionally good performance from the woman who interrogates Winston, though, and I was pretty impressed.

In the current political climate, an added dimension was there. Comparisons between Trump’s presidency and Nineteen Eighty-Four have brought about a huge rise in sales of the book (which is a brilliant novel, incidentally). Seeing the production in front of me, it was slightly reassuring to see the things that Trump doesn’t do (yet), but watching realistic waterboarding in the week that Trump announced he wanted to reintroduce it… well, it hit home how immoral torture is, and that it hasn’t disappeared. Similarly, the doublethink (whereby you will believe contradictory things, or that 2 + 2 = 5, if Big Brother instructs you to) felt so relevant to today and Trump’s constant, pathological lying. A very apt choice of play for 2017. See more about Creation Theatre’s production.


I was in London for a couple of days this week, at a very good Introduction to International Development course, and I thought I should use the opportunity to go to a play. Having not planned ahead, I was scrolling through what was on that night, seeing what still had tickets available, and landed on Travesties by Tom Stoppard.

I thought I’d read it when I was an undergraduate, but apparently not – or, if I did, I forgot every single thing about it. I certainly wrote about reality in Stoppard at some point, but maybe not this play – though it would have been a great one to choose. Travesties is the faulty reminiscences of ex-consular officer Henry Carr, talking about his dealings with Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara, putting on a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Only Stoppard would think of that, right? (Although it is based in the very loosest way on fact: all four men were indeed in Zurich at the same time.)

He’s certainly a whizz at crafting an entertaining play out of something that should really only be an intellectual exercise. The production (currently at the Apollo Theatre, with Tom Hollander in the lead role) was frenetic and fun, and there was plenty of laughter in the packed audience. But we often laughed in different sections – as different people clearly ‘got’ different allusions. I know The Importance of Being Earnest inside out, so loved all the many references to lines and scenes from it. Many of Wilde’s scenarios and quips are altered (subtly or otherwise) to fit the various other occupants of the play – it was great fun spotting where they all were. And so I assume that the same was true for Joyce, Lenin, and Tzara. I know a bit about Joyce, an outline of Lenin, and had never heard of Tzara – and it left me wondering: who on earth would understand everything in this play?

It does seem rather ambitious, to expect anybody in the audience to have a thorough working knowledge of all four elements of the play. I’m going to wager that that was also the case in 1974, when the play was first put on. But I suppose that is Stoppard’s talent – to make such a curio intensely entertaining, even while I knew that I must be missing much. (It’s at the Apollo until April, if you want to go and see it.)

And I’m going to the theatre again next week, to see Silver Lining. What better way to ride out 2017 than with books and plays? (And, yes, probably wine and chocolate.)

Project 24: Book 1

It’s taken five weeks, but I’ve bought my first book of 2017! In case you’ve missed this project, I’m only buying 24 books throughout the year. It wouldn’t be a challenge for everybody, but I’m sure quite a few of you appreciate what a big deal this is for a bibliophile who loves browsing and buying almost as much as reading.

And the first book which persuaded me to use up one of my allocated spaces? I found it in an Oxfam shop in Thame, having not heard about it before: Dearest Andrew: Letters From Vita Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber 1951-1962.

Dearest Andrew

It’s not particularly rare or anything – copies are available online for less than a pound – but it felt exciting to find a book about an author I love that I never knew existed. I love collections of letters, particularly a correspondence between two people (though, in this instance, only the letters from VSW survive) – and, to be frank, it was getting to the point where I really needed to buy something. I’m still ahead of myself – 1.5 books in hand!

The only review I’ve found of this collection is quite negative, I have subsequently discovered, but… well, I’ll make up my own mind one day before too long! I do know that the more I read by Vita Sackville-West, the more interesting a writer I find her.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

I’ve been coldy most of the week, so haven’t done much reading or blogging – slowly working my way through A Pin To See the Peepshow and (spoilers for the next podcast ep) it’s marvellous. But I’m hoping I manage much more reading throughout February than I did in January. For now, let’s have a link, a blog post, and a book.

1.) The blog post – is the exciting return of Shiny New Books! As I mentioned last year, I’m no longer on the editorial team – but will be an Editor at Large, and also very much like the look of the new format. New reviews will come every Tuesday and Thursday. Find out more by heading over to the new-look site.

Jennifer Walker E von A2.) The link – for people who like going to academic conferences, let me draw your attention to one in May. It’s the second conference about British Women Writers 1930-1960, held in Chichester this time. I couldn’t get to the previous one, and I’m kinda furious about that since there was a panel with papers on Richmal Crompton and E.M. Delafield. You can’t imagine how much I’d love to have heard that. ANYWAY, I’ll be giving a paper there, and the whole thing will hopefully be fascinating.

3.) The book – I’ve been reading Jennifer Walker’s biography of Elizabeth von Arnim on and off for 18 months (it is v good, it’s just somehow happened that way!). If you were put off by the hefty hardback, then you might like to know that the ebook is now available.

Tea or Books? #33: a Thomas twins crossover special!

C.S. Lewis, Meryl Streep, and Alfred Hitchcock! What do they have in common? They all appear in this special crossover episode – where Tea or Books? meets my brother’s podcast The C of Z of Movies.

Tea or Books logoThat’s right – Rachel agreed to sit this episode out, as did Col’s podcast partner Zijian, and we combined our two podcasts. In the first half, Colin talks about his reading tastes – and we look at The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. Briefly. In the second half we pick our favourite and least favourite Meryl Streep films, and quiz each other on some Alfred Hitchcock films.

So, yes, this is all pretty shambolic. We had fun… hopefully you did too? Maybe? And Rachel and I will be back next time as normal – as Col will be on his podcast. His plot to steal all our listeners might just work. (Btw, if you want to join in our reading for next time, Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield is very cheaply available on Kindle. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse is not.)

You can find the iTunes page for Tea or Books? over here – many thanks for the reviews that I found! I didn’t realise you could only see reviews for your country unless you went hunting.

Here are the books – and films! – we talk about in this episode. In an effort to avoid some confusion, I’ve put the films in non-italics.

How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg
The Grasshopper King (I guess??) by Jordan Ellenberg
But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman
The Death of Noble Godavary by Vita Sackville-West
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse
The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Tune In: The Beatles by Mark Lewisohn
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Agatha Christie
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
The LionThe Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
Elena Ferrante
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton
Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Hours
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Secret Garden
It’s a Boy/Girl Thing
She’s The Man
Life in a Day
La-La Land
Bridget Jones’s Baby
The Devil Wears Prada
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Sophie’s Choice
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
The Iron Lady
Death Becomes Her
Mamma Mia!
Lions For Lambs
Evening by Susan Minot (not Anne anything)
The Deer-Hunter
Kramer vs Kramer
Florence Foster Jenkins
Postcards From the Edge
Into The Woods
Rear Window
The Birds
Strangers on a Train
Shadow of a Doubt
Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Hacksaw Ridge
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith
Throw Momma From The Train
Lawrence of Arabia
The Grapes of Wrath
Going My Way
The Lost Weekend
On the Waterfront
The Apartment
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

Stuck in a Book’s Weekend Miscellany

I’m looking after my friend’s cat this weekend – yes, you’re right, I do live the high life – and trying to make sure I’m not actually heading into reader’s block. And I’m doing that by sneakily pretending I don’t even want to read, and thus fooling reading into being available later. That works, doesn’t it?

Rather than exploring the inner workings of my mind, let’s look at a book, a blog post, and a link.

Notes on the Cinema1.) The link – my National Trust magazine arrived yesterday (again, yes, I do live the high life – you can stop asking) and I was excited about the Rex Whistler exhibition at Mottisfont. Lord only knows where Mottisfont is, but I’ll find out and get there before April 23rd. (And do seek out the excellent book about Edith Olivier and Rex Whistler by Anna Thomasson btw.)

2.) The blog post – I meant to join in with Margery Sharp Day and didn’t manage it, but you can read Jane’s round-up of the reviews that were posted, and get tempted to read more. She’s fab.

3.) The book – I looked through the NYRB Classics bookcase in Blackwell’s today (quite excited that they have one), and Notes on a Cinematograph by Robert Bresson caught my eye. I think it might go wildly over my head – it’s all about cinema theory and whatnot – but I was tempted nonetheless. More details here. But let’s face it, Project 24 is making most books look tempting. I’m still on zero – almost bought one last weekend, but then my friend kindly gave me the book I was umming and ahhing over. THAT DOESN’T COUNT.

Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Closely Observed TrainsJust a quick post to point you in the direction of my latest blog post for Vulpes Libris: Closely Observed Trains (1965) by Bohumil Hrabal. Go and have a gander here; I’ve ended up reading rather a few Czech writers over the years. And by that I guess I mean three. But, still.

I seem to be in a bit of a reading slump at the moment, actually. Which is a shame, as I have a couple of books to read for the next podcast, and one for book group… well, hopefully blitzing a few episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on Netflix will put my mind back into reading. For now, I’ll just keep singing the excellent spoof Face Your Fears. Check it out.