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.

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.

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.


Reading stats for 2016

Apparently I wrote my 2015 stats on the first day of 2016, which suggests I was rather more organised then than I’ve managed so far in 2017 – but at least it’s still January, right? I particularly enjoy coming up with my favourite reads of the year (you can see my 2016 faves here), but it’s also fun to do a few more bits and pieces around the sorts of books I read. And I always enjoy reading other people’s too, so do pop a link in the comments if you’ve done it.

Number of books read
I read exactly 100 books in 2016 – and, yes, on December 30th that number was 98. That was so close to a hundred that I quickly finished off two books that were on my bedside table. (It’s also slightly fewer than I read last year – 106 – but makes working out percentages extremely easy.)

Male/female authors
I read 40 books by men, 57 by women, and 3 that had male and female authors. That’s a much higher percentage by women than last year, but that year was something of an anomaly – this was pretty par for the course.

74 fiction, 26 non-fiction. That is a lot lower for non-fiction than I was expecting, since it felt like I read a lot more non-fiction than usual in 2016. I think I just had a few periods where I blitzed a lot of non-fiction in one go. I don’t know if I’m disappointed in this statistic or not, but I’m certainly surprised.

Books in translation
Conversely, I thought I’d done quite poorly for translation this year, but actually read 8 – which might be an all-time high? They were from French, German, Swedish, Flemish, Turkish, and Spanish. Mostly French, I think.

Most-read author
3 books seems to be the most I read by any single author – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and E. Nesbit both landed on that number (and it was also the first time I tried Adichie – ‘discovering’ her was one of the keynotes of 2016’s reading for me).

Only 3, which might be my lowest ever – and none at all in the first half of the year. I re-read The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and The Victorian Chaise-Longue for podcasts, and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson because it’s fabs. I do like the idea of re-reading less, because I’m hoping to get further down the tbr pile.

New-to-me authors
This one was surprisingly high – 47 of the books I read this year were by authors I’d never read before. In a handful of cases it was because they were writing about authors I had read before, but mostly not. I do like it being about half-and-half returning to older authors and exploring new ones; I’ll keep to that in 2017 if I can.

Looking back at 2015’s stats, I apparently read 47 new-to-me authors that year too. Maybe that’s my number.

Oldest book read
I didn’t read anything at all from before 1900 during 2016 – is that the first time ever? More precisely, I didn’t read anything from before 1908: Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wive’s Tale takes this particular crown.

Newest book read
On the other hand, I read 8 books published in 2016 – mostly non-fiction. I think the one published latest in the year is probably Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Grahame.

Most disappointing book
There were a handful of books I thought I’d love and ended up… not. None of these were bad books, per se, but I really wanted to be enamoured by The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury – but they were all misses, for the most part.

And then there was Third Girl, which turned out to be a pretty weak Agatha Christie – but we all know that there are a handful of poor books among her output. I can cope with that one better.

Most frustrating book
Why the actual flip did Anthony Doerr need to make All The Light We Cannot See so very long? And so mediocre? And so totally pointless? I get crosser about the further I am away from the reading experience.

Most surprising delight
I had no idea I’d love Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee as much as I did – and it’s been waiting on my shelves for SO long.

The book I’d been nagged about for ages
I finally read some Colette! Probably not the best one to pick, but I did like The Other One a lot, and now Peter can rest contented :)

Best title
I can’t praise the punning Terms and Conditions enough – a brilliant title for a study of girls’ boarding schools.

Worst title
I really enjoyed The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre, but that orchard didn’t mean anything at all. It was a bizarre metaphor that can only have caused confusion to the book-buying public. (And, while I’m criticising, Cider With Rosie may be brilliant, but the cider-with-Rosie bit is quite negligible.)

Book I still haven’t reviewed and should but will I?
I finished Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther by Elizabeth von Arnim back in May, and it’s excellent, but I never got around to writing about it. And if I don’t soon, I’m going to forget even more about it than I’ve already forgotten.

Whither Virginia?
I read a book by Virginia Woolf (Roger Fry – a good biography, but confusing to read her in biographical mode) and a book featuring Virginia Woolf (Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister; much better than I’d imagined).

Animals in book titles
Guys, I need you all to check your reading for animals. Somehow there are always some. This year: The Lark by E. Nesbit, Panther by Brecht Evens, Dolphin Street by G.B. Stern, and The Bird of Night by Susan Hill.

Strange things that happened in books I read in 2016
Always the category I enjoy the most! Twins destroyed an art gallery, a toyshop disappeared, a wife was hypnotised to think her husband was invisible, dead people paced the Grand Canyon, the royal family lived in council housing, the world nonchalantly prepared for the end times, a tree haunted a boy, a man healed with his hands, St Francis steps in to save a donkey, Agatha Christie oversaw an argument between her detectives, Jane and Mr Rochester fell in love – but not the ones you’re thinking of – while the ones you are thinking of fought a battle.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

I’m off to Bristol this weekend, so scheduling a weekend miscellany in advance. As I write, it’s pre-Trump-inauguration, so… well, let’s just say the past is a different country and I’m writing from it.

Take Courage1.) The link – Hannah at the charity Lifelites got in touch about a raffle to win 100 signed books. Yep, one lucky entrant will win all of ’em – including books signed by Zadie Smith, Sue Perkins, PD James, Alan Bennett and John Le Carré. AND you’ll be helping a charity which donates specialist technology packages for the 10,000 terminally ill and disabled children in every children’s hospice in Britain.

2.) The blog post – Thomas’s annual book awards (‘the Hoggies’) are always good for a laugh. Enjoy!

3.) The book – there’s a new biography of Anne Bronte out, by Samanatha Ellis (whose How To Be a Heroine I’ve been intending to read for ages). Tempting, tempting…