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 ;)

Bluestocking Book Tour

This sort of constitutes spoilers for this post.

What a cultural weekend I’ve had, friends. I was up in London, and managed to do three-count-em-three cultural things. That includes seeing a brilliant exhibition of Tove Jansson’s paintings in Dulwich and going to the play adaptation of The Slaves of Solitude at Hampstead Theatre. The novel is absolutely brilliant, and I did enjoy the play a lot, but had to think of it as a separate entity. It didn’t get across the ogreishness of Mr Thwaites, or the dark humour of the novel. And it changed details that didn’t need changing. Maybe it’s just interior a novel, with too distinct a narrative voice, to translate properly to the stage?

But I didn’t really want to talk about them today – I was going to write a little bit about the Bluestocking Books bookshop tour that I went on. Lauren had kindly asked if I’d like to join them, and I wanted to spread the word a bit. There are quite a few different themed tours (see the link above) but Saturday’s tour was more broad – an introduction to different types of shops across London. I was hoping that my friend would be able to join me, but it didn’t work out – but I joined four other people who were being guided by Lauren.

I won’t write exactly which bookshops we went to on the tour, because part of the business model is Lauren’s expertise in the bookshops of London and a curated experience of them, and I’d be giving away her talents for free – but I’ll talk you through where we went in more general terms.

The first stop was a bookshop for ‘esoterica’ and spirituality and what I’d call the occult, but I suspect isn’t called that anymore. There was a Christian corner, and I rather dashed for that. To be honest, a lot of this makes me feel uncomfortable (I didn’t relish being around a tarot reading) but I was intrigued by some books on conspiracy theories – not least because ‘conspiracy theories’ was an unexpected bookcase to have in this context. Anyway, that was that, and we were on to the next…

The second was a tiny antiquarian bookshop with a charming, knowledgeable owner who specialised in modern first editions, maps, and classics (in the Greek/Latin sense). He airily said that some of the books were “only £30”, but the ones I picked up were a little too much for my wallet. But it was fascinating seeing the collection, including a copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out that had been owned by Vanessa Bell – and had her inscription. It was wildly more than I could afford, but it was a delight to see it.

The third shop was one of the popular Charing Cross Road shops, and there’s where I did all my buying – I got 6 books, though 4 of them were for Secret Santas. I shan’t say which, in case the recipients see the books! But two of them were for me – being numbers 22 and 23 of Project 24. Only one book left to buy for the rest of the year! I could hardly leave a bookshop tour empty handed, could I? I came away with an E.F. Benson novel and a book about E.M. Forster by Rose Macaulay (published by the Hogarth Press).

The fourth shop was a graphic novel shop that I have been to before – and if I weren’t in Project 24, I’d probably have taken a gamble on one of them. But it was great to have a flick through.

And the fifth and final shop was extremely glamorous – mostly selling enormous art and style books – the sort of thing I’d call a coffee table book if they wouldn’t have necessitated getting a new coffee table. The lady who showed us around was lovely, but I was always treasure a line she said with no irony at all: “I’ve been off champagne for a week and it’s been tough.” Same, friend, same.

All in all, it was an amazing tour – such a great range of bookshops, some of which were great for buying and some were more for the experience. Throughout, Lauren had interesting facts and stories to share, and was a witty, friendly, and enthusiastic tour guide. All of us really enjoyed it, and most of us bought at least one book – and it’s certainly opened my eyes to bookshops I didn’t know existed, despite going around those areas often. To take me to three bookshops I’d not visited before, out of five, is pretty impressive! I had such a fun morning – despite the inevitable London rain.

Lauren doesn’t run Saturday tours all that often, but if you’re available during a weekday (especially if you’re a tourist) then I think you’d love this. Keep an eye out for which tours are coming up!


What makes an ideal audiobook?

Rachel and I talked about audiobooks in a recent episode of Tea or Books?, or perhaps not all that recent, but I mostly talked about how they weren’t really my thing. Now that I commute every day, I’ve become much more open to trying them, and in my previous post I talked about listening to Claire Tomalin’s autobiography. But what sort of audiobooks should I choose, if I do?

Photo credit

Because it’s not black and white, of course. Some people might loathe the idea of audiobooks, but nobody (one assumes) is delighted to listen to any at all. And I’m certainly slightly fussy – or, rather, I have a few rules for what I don’t like, and I’m trying to discover what I do.

What are my rules? Well, nothing abridged. I don’t want an incomplete version of the author’s work – why would I? It’s the reason I’ve never bought The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett in the Persephone edition, for instance. An edited version may be better than the original, perhaps, but it isn’t the same, and I’d constantly be wondering what was missing. (And, yes, somehow the work of an editor before a book is published is different… don’t ask me why.)

In a similar vein – nothing dramatised, unless I’ve already read the original. Or perhaps if it’s a story I already know really well.

And nothing which I have waiting for me in a beautiful edition that I’ve been looking forward to reading.

I’m testing the water at the moment with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I love Dickens, but I’ve still only read four of his novels – the size is a bit off-putting. And, while I do have a copy of this (along with all of Dickens – I have a feeling I swiped the set from my parents at some point), somehow the classics feel like fair game for this treatment. They’re so readily available that it doesn’t feel like I’ve made a conscious decision to include them in my book collection, and thus I can listen to it instead of reading the copy I have. Does that make any sort of sense?

I was swayed by it being Martin Jarvis, whom I love (and know chiefly through the Just William audiobooks, which we listened to over and over in our childhood). Then I remembered that I don’t love hearing comedy, because I want to do the timing in my head, and somebody else’s comic timing might not be the same as mine – but Jarvis is doing a grand old job so far. And you may already know that I think Dickens is first and foremost a comedic writer, and that adaptations over the years have placed far too much emphasis on the social commentary.

My only problems so far, besides occasionally wishing I could read the funny narrative myself, are connected with the vast cast and the way Dickens enjoys wallowing in the verbal acrobatics of a scene. It’s brilliant, but it means I’ve driven for half an hour before a scene is over – and even something like wine spilling on the ground can take 10 minutes to read out loud. I might not see characters turn up for the second time until I’m halfway through my week’s commute. And by the time I finish the audiobook, I might well have retired.

Do you have any rules for the audiobooks you pick, or any red flags?

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

This evening I went to Blackwells to hear Claire Tomalin talk about her latest book, and it reminded me that I have yet to write about it. So… well, I suspect you’ve worked the rest out for yourself. Here we are, and here we go.

Since I moved house, I’ve had to start driving to work. Driving for about 40 minutes and walking for half an hour, actually, which has given me an awful lot more time for audiobooks and the like. I already listen to a lot of podcasts, but this has spurred me on to trying audiobooks more actively – starting, because why not, with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own (2017).

I say ‘why not’ – I can actually give a pretty good reason why. I’d signed up for a trial with because I wanted to hear The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero. And it turns out that the recording was only available in North America. Doh! (I have subsequently been given and have read the book – watch this space.) So I had a credit to use… and my first thought was: who would I want reading to me in the car? The answer, naturally, was Penelope Wilton. And when A Life of My Own came up in the search results, I remembered that I’d been keen to read it. I might talk more about the crooked path of audiobook selection another day…

I’ve only read two of Tomalin’s many biographies – on Jane Austen and Katherine Mansfield – and, other than knowing about some of her titles (and the fact that she’s gone for enormous, much-biographied names like Hardy and Dickens), didn’t really know anything else about her. Oh, except that she is married to Michael Frayn, and is the grandmother (or, as it turned out, step-grandmother) of twins who used to run a YouTube channel, called Jack and Finn. It was quite fun going into an autobiography ‘blind’, as it were.

The problem with audiobooks, of course, is that I don’t have any quotations to share, and I can’t flick back through to see what I wanted to write about. But I do recall that she starts by talking about her parents – which I almost invariably wish any biographer would skip, since I’m not that interested. With an autobiographer, it is a least coloured with a real human connection – whatever the opposite of ‘dispassionate’ is (because ‘passionate’ doesn’t feel quite right – and it’s with genuine emotion that Tomalin describes her mother’s musical genius, her parents’ hasty courtship, and the bizarre honeymoon she learned about properly from her father’s latterday memoir, during which it became more or less clear that the marriage was a mistake.

Tomalin has a great gift, in this autobiography, for describing people and her relationship with them with complete honesty which is subjective (for how it could not be) yet never feels unfair. She writes about how her father disliked her, and it seems like the scrupulously just conclusions of somebody who was weighed the evidence properly. She has an emotional response to this, but the description is arrived at honestly. The same is seen in her marriage to Nick Tomalin – a man who the reader (or listener) cannot help intensely disliking, given his violence and selfishness, and his many affairs, but Tomalin has no bitterness – she tells us what happened and how it affected her, but clearly still loved him in some way, and excellently portrays the complex emotions and feelings she has towards his memory.

I wanted to read A Life of My Own because I thought it would be fascinating to learn about the craft of writing biographies. My main criticism of the book is what a small part this plays – almost all her books are tidied away discretely and discreetly into a single chapter, and I would have loved to hear more. As some form of compromise offering, there is plenty to fascinate in descriptions of her rise as a literary editor at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times (and the sexism she faced – not least in her supremely unqualified husband having the job before she did).

But Tomalin’s own life is so full and so expertly shown to us that it is certainly an acceptable substitute. As well as describing her upbringing, schooling, and marriage, she writes brilliantly about parenthood – the highs and the very low lows. I don’t know how she managed to write about her daughter’s suicide attempts, which ended with a successful one, but she did so extraordinarily movingly – and writes astonishingly about loving somebody with inescapable depression. Unsurprisingly, this period of Tomalin’s life was not discussed at the event I attended, but it is done with bravery and, yes, honesty in A Life of My Own.

It is such moments that show, I think, Tomalin’s skill as a biographer coming through. She knows that she cannot shirk periods like this if she is to portray her whole life – and something of the biographer’s objectivity weaves its way constantly through the subjectivity. It is deftly handled throughout.

Perhaps almost any life is fascinating, if written about well, and Tomalin’s indisputably is. And to her, I suppose, her success as a biographer is of less interest than her family, so it makes sense that she writes so much better and so much more about that. Go into the book with the right expectations, and I predict you’ll find it brilliant. And if Penelope Wilton is reading it to you, so much the better.