Stuck in a Book’s Weekend Miscellany

Tom Tiddler's GroundIt’s sunny! The flowers are out! It’s probably freezing! I’ll find out shortly – but, before I head off for the day, I’ll leave you with a book, a blog post, and a link…

1.) The blog post – sorry, egomaniac alert, it’s one of mine: I was over a Vulpes Libris earlier this week, writing about C.S. Lewis’s book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

2.) The link – if you’re on Instagram, get voting for your favourite Agatha Christie book in a knock-out competition at The Year of Agatha.

3.) The book – I keep championing the latest Furrowed Middlebrow books, partly because Project 24 means I can’t rush out and buy them all. But I can heartily recommend Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange, which I am halfway through (and will be reviewing for Shiny New Books, and discussing on Tea or Books? soon).

The 1951 Club is around the corner!

Karen and I both realised that it’s not long until the 1951 Club starts – 10-16 April – and we have leapt into action! I’ve made another one of the badges (please feel free to use at any point), and I’m going to busy myself looking among my books for some 1951 titles. I’ve loved these ‘clubs’ so much, especially the sense of community across the blogging world that it brings about – and building up an impression of a particular year in publishing, from many different voices.

1951 Club

For those who are new to this – we ask everybody to review books published in a particular year, in the same week. You can read it before, but most of us also try to do some reading that week. We welcome novels, plays, poetry, non-fiction or anything – and in any language – so long as it was originally published in 1951. Between us, we can construct an overview of a year that would take an individual reader years to put together.

We especially love it when people look beyond the obvious, but do feel free to start thinking with the Wikipedia page for 1951 in literature. I’m mostly excited that I’ll finally be able to read Ivy Compton-Burnett for one of these clubs!

Goldilocks: Philosopher

I’m in danger of just rewriting fairytales for the rest of Lent… but I thought I’d share Saturday’s poem. And will write some book reviews at some point…

It comes, to those in fairy tales
As the mildest of mild shocks
To be objectified by males:
Such, indeed, was Goldilocks.

Though (charitably) meant to praise,
Dear Goldie was more than her looks.
While victim of the male gaze,
She infinitely preferred books.

As Goldilocks must needs explain
“A model, I would scoff to be –
I’d rather be (I have a brain)
A student of philosophy.”

With this in mind, she took a stroll
(Ideally one devoid of men)
And, thankfully, saw not a soul –
But found a cottage in a glen.

“I’m tired,” thought Goldie, “And want food,
And seem to have misplaced my map,
A little sick of solitude,
And desperate (frankly) for a nap.”

She knocked and entered, seeing still
No owners – though the furry chairs
(And photos on the windowsill)
Suggested it was owned by bears.

In fact, in every room she’d see,
On shelf, or floor, or hook, or wall,
That every object came as three:
One big, one medium, one small.

Recalling that her first intent
Was sleeping, she ignored the rest:
And to the bedroom, off she went
And found three beds (as you’ll have guessed).

And, with philosophy in mind,
Adjudicating what she’d seen
She lay down on the middle kind:
The Aristotelian mean.

(You may be asking yourself why
The porridge has been overlooked:
Let’s say the sleep would fortify
Her strength before she went and cooked.)

She woke to find three angry bears
And also found she’d caused offence
She told them why she’d used what’s theirs,
With Aristotle as defence.

Unhappily, the bears as one
Preferred a different Greek instead.
“Your theories, dear, are quite outshone
By the Platonic ideal of ‘bed’.”

A little scared, she could observe
Each bear appeared as one who brooks
No argument – and, losing nerve,
Poor Goldie fell back on her looks.

She batted eyelids, twirled her hair,
Apologised for breaking in,
And found small, large, and middle bear
Forgave, in moments, every sin.

The moral of this tale, you see
Is – well, let’s think – do what you’re told.
And, if you don’t, philosophy
Won’t help – unless your hair is gold.

Stuck in a Book’s Weekend Miscellany

Well, my weekend is going well – I’d planned to go on a National Trust jaunt, but had a lie-in instead – but later on today I’ll be going BOWLING for the first time in about eight years. Maybe I’ve just got better at it, without practising? Right?

Anyway, let’s stick to books for now – I feel on more secure ground there.

Zoo of the New1.) The book – writing poetry every day without ever reading any is making me feel rather a fraud. And I was tempted by Zoo of the New, edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson. The name is very silly, because this isn’t new poetry – it’s from Sappho onwards, excluding any living poets under sixty – but a flick through made it seem rather appealing, and not just the usual suspects. Anybody looked through this? Supposedly it’s published on 30th March, but it was in my local Waterstones last week. (Great cover, incidentally, which this blog tells me is designed by Richard Green.)

2.) The link – I’ve not read this yet, but my housemate was reading excerpts from the Guardian article about what happens when (if??) the Queen dies. It sounds fascinating – and I suspect the author was rather relieved that Her Maj didn’t die during his research period. As were we all, of course (love you, Lizzie!)

3.) The blog post – I’m just going to keep providing the world with links to reviews of The Lark by E. Nesbit until everybody gives in and just reads it. This week’s is from Call Me Madam!

The Three Little Pigs

I was going to write a Things I Have Learnt From Two Weeks of Writing a Poem a Day post today – but, by the time I’d finished today’s poem, it was quite late. So I’ll do that post soonish – suffice to say, so far I’ve managed to write at least some sort of poem every day of Lent. And today’s is on The Three Little Pigs – yes, it’s been done, but I thought telling a nursery rhyme could be fun.

Three pigs (of no enormous size)
Decided – with great enterprise
To try something transformative:
They’d build themselves a place to live.

But having got that far, they found
That each believed the plans unsound
Propounded by the other pair.
They split: one here, one here, one there.

Pig number one determined: straw
Was best for roof and walls and floor
And doors and windows and, indeed,
If liquefied, made potent mead.

Now, building regulations state
The roofs should be, ideally, slate
And doors and walls require more
(To keep them standing up) than straw.

The wolf passed by, prepared to huff
(And puff) – but nature called his bluff
A breath of wind, a tiny one,
And wolf found that his job was done.

(It’s sad to say, that little breath
Of wind meant pig was crushed to death.
It turns out straw, if in a stack
Can break more than a camel’s back.)

Pig number two observed the scene
Where Piggy number one had been.
He thought, “I knew that straw was wrong.
Now, sticks – they’re much more safe and strong.”

Suffice to say, no building guide
Has ever yet identified
As ‘Place To Start for Builder Pigs’
The hasty gathering of twigs.

The wolf turned up, and quickly saw
That ’twas with sticks as ’twas with straw.
His services were not required:
The pig had, under sticks, expired.

Let’s throw the third pig in the mix.
He’d (rather wisely) chosen bricks
Since noting (unlike straw or trees)
That almost every house used these.

He hired contractors, drew up plans,
Employed a fleet of men with vans.
The house was built and Pig, with glee
Moved in, and made a cup of tea.

The wolf was waiting – hungry, stressed,
Mere days from cardiac arrest –
And, rageful, watched the pig move in –
But vowed no porcine foe would win.

He Googled how to win this fight
And, after that, bought dynamite.
So, while poor Piggy drained his cup,
Wolf huffed, and puffed – and blew him up.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

I hope you’re having a good weekend. I’ll mostly be reading The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton, trying to prepare for recording the next episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ tomorrow – there are definitely worse ways to spend a weekend. Before I get further into that – here’s a book, a blog post, and a link…

Jacob's Room Has Too Many Books1.) The book – is one I’ve waited for for ages. And I’ll have to wait a bit longer: Jacob’s Room Has Too Many Books by Susan Hill – a sort-of sequel to Howards End is on the Landing. I read about it over at Cornflower Books – but, sadly, we’ll have to wait until October.

2.) The blog post – now that The Lark is back in print (or shortly back in print?) from Dean Street Press – the best book news of the year, without doubt! – it’s fun to see the reviews starting to come in. Here’s one from Liz.

3.) The link – I’m going to assume that everybody knows about Humans of New York by now… but, just in case… (Btw, at the risk of sounding like a hipster, I have two of his prints from the early days when he was sending them out for not very much. Sadly not signing them, though…)

The Runaway by Claire Wong

The RunawayI don’t think I’ve yet got around to mentioning the second book I bought for Project 24 (still only bought 2 books! I’m 2 in hand!) – it’s The Runaway by Claire Wong, which I bought because Claire is a friend of mine from church. I think she’s the first friend I’ve had whose had a novel published – as opposed to friends I’ve made after reading their novels – and it’s super exciting. And, thankfully, it’s also really good!

It does feel weird writing a review of a book by a friend, but I’ll try to pretend I don’t know Claire while I write this… I’m even going to follow my usual reviewing style of using the author’s surname when referring to them. And that will feel so odd. Sorry, Claire – you’re Wong from now on!

The runaway of The Runaway is 17-year-old Rhiannon, who leaves her aunt (and guardian) Diana after the last in a long line of fights. She doesn’t go terribly far – into the thick Dyrys Wood, next to the small Welsh village she grew up in – but it is enough to make her unfindable by the search parties that come looking. She finds a shelter, learns some rudimentary skills, and manages to set up her own solitary life there. Solitary except for a rather fantastic hawk, called Lleu, that is.

It tries to move again, and achieves only a pathetic little shuffle. If its wing is broken, it won’t be able to hunt. It will probably starve. Hawks take care of their young, but that’s as far as the altruism goes.

“No one’s coming to help you,” I say, and the words come out sounding sadder and more sympathetic than I had expected. I find that I don’t like looking at it, so I decide to go and search for those tin cans by the path instead.

Meanwhile, back in the village there are appeals to find her – but life also goes on. The friendships and tensions of village life continue – there is a host of recognisable and well-realised characters, from pent-up Callum to shy Nia to Tom, trying to balance being everybody’s friend while also being the local policeman. My favourite – surely everyone’s favourite? – is Maebh, a sort of surrogate grandmother to the whole village, who retains all the stories that have happened there. She is something of an oracle, and weaves memory and fiction in the tales she tells – using the storytelling form as a way of reminding the village of its past, and trying to set the right path for its future.

I love novels which incorporate storytelling (Angela Young’s Speaking of Love is another great example), and Wong handles it deftly; the atmosphere of fairy tale and parable seeps throughout the whole novel, while also remaining (paradoxically) firmly on solid ground. As with fairy tale, it matters less why Rhiannon has run away, and more about what happens next. And part of what happens next is the arrival of Adam and Grace – whose father was from the village – looking to better understand their past. Needless to say, it ties pertinently in with the current situation.

One of the reasons I really liked The Runaway is because of what it says about small communities. Too often these are treated as places to escape – claustrophobic, nosey, and repressive to creativity. It’s ironic that a novel where somebody literally escapes this community doesn’t suggestion that small-town life is an evil. Nor is it a rose-tinted view either. Instead, Wong shows us that this sort of village can be supportive even while it is constraining – both a blessing and a curse. More to the point, it feels like a real place – with real limitations and real advantages. (Wong also manages to write a 17 year old who isn’t maddeningly annoying and isn’t unrealistically good – very impressive!)

This is a really enjoyable, thoughtful, and touching novel that also has spark and humour – it feels like a modern fairy tale in the best possible way.


The Man Who Loved Virginia Woolf Too Much (Day 2)

It’s the fourth day of Lent, and I’m about to start on my fourth poem – so it’s all going to plan so far. As I said, I won’t be posting every poem – but I thought I’d share what I wrote on day 2. It’s something of a self portrait…

The Man Who Loved Virginia Woolf Too Much

A pensive smile, a far-off look,
A sense that here, at last, is truth
A somewhat tattered library book,
Oh lord… he loves Virginia Woolf.

He has fixed ideas about the sea
(Which mariners would contradict)
Each rock-pool is a simile
However dull or nondescript.

For holidays, he sometimes takes
A walking tour of Bloomsbury Squares
And points out all the guide’s mistakes
In case, by chance, somebody cares.

Occasionally, he handwrites prose
Inspired by Woolf (or so he claims)
With comma : full stop ratios
To rival those of Henry James.

Mention Faulker, Brontës, Proust,
Either Eliot, Brothers Grimm,
You’ll find it isn’t any use –
Only Virginia for him!

He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke,
He has no sinful thoughts, as such,
His only vice, his heavy yoke:
He loves Virginia Woolf too much!


The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue FlowerAin’t it just the way, in a week where I’ve proclaimed my scepticism about historical fiction over at Vulpes Libris, that I’ve also written about two historical novels that I’ve really liked? The True Heart fell within my ‘safety zone’ of post-1800, but The Blue Flower (1995) doesn’t – although it is the 1790s, so it’s hardly a million miles away.

I think I have chiefly heard people talk about The Blue Flower in the context of being upset that it didn’t win the Booker – and it’s certainly considered Penelope Fitzgerald’s best novel, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure I’d place it above others that I’ve loved by her (The Bookshop and At Freddie’s are both fantastic), but I did really like it.

The main character was a real person, though not one I’d heard of. He is Friedrich von Hardenberg, famed later under the pseudonym Novalis, and his Wikipedia page tells me that he was ‘a practitioner of German Romanticism’ as well as occupied as ‘prose writer, poet, mystic, philosopher, civil engineer, mineralogist’. Exhausting, no?

We don’t see any of that in The Blue Flower, though he certainly speaks like a philosopher (he is a kind, thoughtful, and eloquent character). Instead, we see him as a man in his early 20s, a student of history, philosophy, and law at various universities, who has fallen in love with 12-year-old Sophie. Fitzgerald’s strength is that this is no Lolita. There is nothing unpleasant on the page. He does not sexualise her – rather, he idealises her, and is more than happy to wait the four years until she can marry him.

The blue flower of the title comes in a story that Fritz tells Sophie (and others), about a young man who longs to see the blue flower. What does it mean? Fitzgerald isn’t vouchsafing it to us, though we may come up with theories. Karoline Just – a close friend of Fritz’s, clearly in love with him, though Fritz cannot see this – can only rule out options for what the blue flower symbolises.

She said “The young man has to go away from his home to find it. He only wants to see it, he does not want to possess it. It cannot be poetry, he knows what that is already. It can’t be happiness, he wouldn’t need a stranger to tell him what that is, and as far as I can see he is already happy in home.”

It is not the key to the novel’s comprehension or anything like that – but it is representative of the way Fitzgerald frame s a story. We come at it sideways and unexpected angles, hearing mundane conversations that hint towards a whole, waiting for Fritz to confide in his father about the engagement.

What makes Fitzgerald’s novels so great is undoubtedly her style. Whatever she’s writing about, she has a wonderful wryness. I have realised that one of my favourite authorial techniques is that slight detachment – the shared awareness with the reader that the scene shown is, perhaps, slightly absurd. She laughs gently at her creations, while watching them as though from Olympus…

“Sophie, listen to me. I am going to tell you what I felt, when I first saw you standing by the window. When we catch sight of certain human figures and faces… especially certain eyes, expressions, movements – when we hear certain words, when we read certain passages, thoughts take on the meaning of laws… a view of life true to itself, without any self-estrangement. And the self is set free, for the moment, from the constant pressure of change… Do you understand me?”

Sophie nodded. “Yes, I do. I have heard of that before. Some people are born again and again into this world.”

Fritz persevered. “I did not quite mean that. But Schlegel, too, is interested in transmigration. Should you like to be born again?”

Sophie considered a little. “Yes, if I could have fair hair.”

Sophie is an enigma. To others, she is an average 12-year-old. Not particularly interesting or imaginative – even, perhaps, a little stridently silly. To Fritz, she is ‘my philosophy’. And Fitzgerald balances the two brilliantly, so that we never think Fritz an idiot, yet we never think Sophie truly has any hidden depths. Fitzgerald has, I suppose, shown us the subjectivity of love – even in so bizarre and uncomfortable a situation.

My favourite character, incidently, is Sophie’s sister Mandelsloh. She has a delightfully biting wit, and an acerbic awareness of her own shortcomings. Here’s a quick instance of why I like her, in conversation with Fritz (who speaks first):

“Courage is more than endurance, it is the power to create your own life in the face of all that man or God can inflict, so that every day and every night is what you imagine it. Courage makes us dreamers, courage makes us poets.”

“But it would not make Sophgen into a competent house-keeper,” said the Mandelsloh.

It’s an unusual, exciting, glittering novel. It should be disturbing and it isn’t (which creates its own questions); it is Fitzgerald showing what an excellent writer she is. Is it her best novel? Possibly, but I don’t think it much hurts where you start reading her.

A poem a day for Lent (day one)

I hope you’ve had your fill of pancakes – Lent has begun! For many of us, it’s a time of contemplation leading up to the joy of Easter – but it’s also, of course, a time for giving up or taking up things. My brother has gone vegetarian for Lent (taking up vegetarianism or giving up meat, depending on how you look at it) – this excites me greatly, mostly because he has teased me for being vegetarian ever since I started, in 2001.

I’ve been watching a couple of arty programmes lately – The Big Painting Challenge and Portrait Artist of the Year – and it got me wanting to take up something creative in Lent. One artist said he had a New Year’s Resolution to paint a self portrait every day. Any sort of artwork every day seemed impossibly time-consuming, but I decided I could manage a poem a day. There’s always the option of a single rhyming couplet on hectic days. (And the project would require – yay – stationery!)

Lent poetry book

Perhaps I should emphasise this isn’t because I think I’m a great poet – rather it’s that I want to practise it more, and I like the idea of a record of Lent to look back on. I’ll be trying lots of styles, tones, and forms (though my go-to form is always something which takes a rigid structure and shakes it up a bit), and I will probably share some of them here, if people are interested. In fact, here’s day one – I thought ‘beginning’ was a suitable theme, and it was my jumping-off point for writing this one, as well as the title.


She is there in a house on a cliff,
Facing out to sea and out to land,
The place both meet; the place where both begin,
A refuge for escapers, holidaymakers,
From all that’s past that’s not permitted in.

In a room in a house on a cliff,
Cold with age and waiting to awake,
The day begins; the dying back of night,
A light-switch makes a lighthouse of a cave;
A wary hand declares ‘let there be light’.

In a room on the edge of a cliff,
She finds that she has walked to every wall,
To use each sense; to know that they are there,
The witnesses to something wholly new,
But witnesses which must stay unaware.

In a bed in a house on a cliff,
Blankets form a powerless defence.
The warmth may come; perhaps she has to wait,
For now no walls can stop the creeping cold;
The world outside will always infiltrate.

In a house on the edge of a cliff,
Caught between the country and the coast,
The last escape; the first place to defend,
Sometimes an end is the beginning;
Sometimes a beginning is the end.