StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

The weekend is already halfway over – and I spent Saturday in London, catching up with friends and seeing the excellent Lettice and Lovage, starring Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman. So wonderful to see two such talented actors performing complex, unusual, and amusing characters – it was a real joy. It’s sold out, I’m afraid, but maybe it’ll transfer? Anyway, here’s the book, the blog post, and the link – as C.S. Lewis almost called his book.

Insomniac City1.) The book – how did I not know about Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes? A zillion thanks to Jenny for mentioning it in the comment section the other day – it’s written by Oliver Sacks’ partner, and you know I can’t get enough of all things Oliver Sacks. Having not bought a book for six weeks, I’m back on track for Project 24… so this could be one I end up treating myself to…

2.) The blog post – is by me, I’m afraid. I wrote (over at Vulpes Libris) about a book that was very famous in the early 20th century – An Adventure, purporting to document two women’s inadvertent time-travel to Versailles just before the French Revolution.

3.) The link – the ‘long read’ at the Guardian is about the word ‘banter’. That doesn’t sound promising, but I found the 7000+ word essay a fascinating look at sexism, popular culture, and the ways in which a very British sense of humour can get distorted and turn dangerous.

Conspiracy Theories, Lung Cancer, and Shirley Jackson

This unusual trio of topics represent some recent(ish) non-fiction reading for me. I sometimes find non-fiction tricky to write about, because you should probably include all sorts of information from the book – particularly in a biography, where a review usually gives an overview of the person’s life. So I’ve grouped these three into one post where I give a mini-mini-mini-review of each. Sound good? Fab.

Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (2015) by Rob Brotherton

Suspicious MindsI’ve always been interested in conspiracy theories – without a single moment’s credulity, to make my position clear – and I was drawn to Brotherton’s look at the psychology of conspiracy theorists. I love pop psychology, and – while Brotherton doesn’t quite have the warmth of my great love Oliver Sacks – he is witty and thoughtful, and not at all quick to judge. This looks a little at some high-profile conspiracy theories – 9/11, JFK, Princess Diana – but mostly at the psychology that helps explain why some people are more likely than others to believe conspiracy theories.

Apparently there is no significant difference on the lines of gender, age, or political allegiance – obviously certain theories (the Obama birth certificate nonsense, anyone?) appeal to certain places on the political spectrum, but there’s no difference in propensity to believe. Brotherton does a great job of detailing many experiments from many other scientists which, pieced together, give a good picture. Did you know, for instance, that most people shake dice more rigorously for higher numbers? Or that you’re less likely to buy into a conspiracy theory if you’ve just done some tidying? This is such an interesting book.

When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirEverybody seemed to be reading this last year, and my friend and colleague Kate lent it to me… ages ago, tbh, but I finally got around to reading it recently. For those who don’t know, this was written by a young neurosurgeon who discovered that he had terminal lung cancer – indeed he died before the book was published.

The scene of diagnosis is very close to the beginning – after that, Kalanithi jumps back to his student days. He actually started life as an English major, and that helps explain why his writing is good (and why he peppers it so well with apt literary quotation). We are taken through the challenging life of somebody becoming a neurologist – I did end up skimming the fairly graphic sections on operations – until we come full circle to the diagnosis. And the second half of the book is beautiful and heart-breaking: the ups and downs of life after being told that you will die, though without knowing when. It is reflective, thoughtful, and the end made me cry on the bus.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

Shirley Jackson by Ruth FranklinI read this agggges ago, for Shiny New Books, but I had terrible RSI when it came to the review-writing stage, and had to give it a miss. I always hoped to follow up with a proper review, but it’s now been too long and I don’t remember enough about it…

It’s a very long book, and filled with all the interesting details you could want to know about Jackson’s childhood, marriage, and career. I was surprised by how autobiographical many of her novels turned out to be – and Franklin does a brilliant job at showing us the contrasts between the family life Jackson projects in her amusing domestic memoirs and her less happy reality. My problems (outweighed by how fascinating I found it) were chiefly that we had so much detail about her husband’s life – including before they met each other – which felt unnecessary, and made the book too long. And Jackson’s mother is mentioned an awful lot – and only twice (I counted!) does it not come with a comment from Franklin on what a terrible mother she was. It began to feel surreal. (But it’s still a really enjoyable and interesting biography!)

There you have it – a little pile of non-fiction, covering probably about as diverse a spectrum of interests as I have. Let me know if you’ve read any, or want to!

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

Burning SecretBurning Secret (1913) by Stefan Zweig – translated by Anthea Bell and published in a lovely edition by Pushkin Press – was one of the books my friend Malie gave me for my birthday last year. Being honest, she gave me a voucher and I picked it – but I filled her in on my choices! It matches the Confusion edition I reviewed last year and now, of course, I want all of Pushkin’s Zweig series…

It’s another short and powerful novel – this one takes place in a hotel where the Baron is on holiday. He is bored and, for want of a better word, horny. I think that’s the first time I’ve used that word on this blog, but it’s the most apt.

He was welcome everywhere he went, and was well aware of his inability to tolerate solitude. He felt no inclination to be alone and avoided it as far as possible; he didn’t really want to become any better acquainted with himself. He knew that, if he was to show his talents to best advantage, he needed to strike sparks off other people to fan the flames of warmth and exuberance in his heart. On his own he was frosty, no use to himself at all, like a match left lying in its box.

He casts his eye around the hotel for the most desirable woman to have a brief affair with, and lands upon a woman staying there with her young son, Edgar. He is 12, but this is the 1910s – so he seems very young and innocent to modern readers. The Baron decides that the best way to approach the woman is via her son – so he sets up a jovial friendship with Edgar – ‘Edi’ – in order to get closer to his mother; without this ‘in’, he couldn’t be introduced.

His ploy works. Edgar is flattered and entranced by this friendship with an adult – having been lonely through the stay so far – and his mother is quickly beguiled into an adulterous affair with the Baron. Once his goal is achieved, the Baron no longer puts any effort into charming the child – and Edgar is hurt, abandoned, angry. He knows something is going on between his mother and the Baron – but no idea what; only that they have a ‘burning secret’.

As I say, Edgar’s innocent naivety doesn’t quite translate to 2017 – but age him down a few years and it would. We don’t quite get prose from his perspective, it remains in the third person, but Zweig does enough to put us in the Baron’s mind and in Edgar’s mind in turn. Zweig is expert at bringing strong, painful, awkward emotions to the fore – and he masterfully interweaves Edgar’s fierce and confused anger through the narrative.

The story is simple, and short – 117 pages – but it is such a brilliant depiction of how unthinking unkindness can affect somebody, and how emotions that aren’t quite understood by the child experiencing them can reverberate and have their impact. Like Confusion, this is an excellent novella about the power of recognisable conflicts in recognisable places. I can see I’m going to have to buy more Zweigs…

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

By the time you see this, I’ll probably be driving off to a dear friend’s wedding – thankfully the temperature has come down a bit, so the idea of putting on a suit doesn’t make me collapse in a puddle of tears. I hope you’re having a great weekend, wherever you are – and I’ll help you along the way with a book, a blog post, and a link.

Scribbles in the Margins1.) The book – Scribbles in the Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books by Daniel Gray. WILL people please stop publishing books about reading while I’m on Project 24?? It’s the greatest temptation, and I very much want this. I went to school with a Daniel Gray, but I suspect it’s not the same one… though, who knows, maybe all the cool kids are bibliophiles now too.

2.) The blog post – be beguiled by this collection of excerpts about glass, courtesy of Jane at Beyond Eden Rock. Even more beguilingly, she doesn’t introduce it – so we have no idea why or how or when the idea and selection came to her.

3.) The linkBehind the GIFs. Silly but brilliant.

Tea or Books? #41: novels set in one day vs many years, and The Forsyte Saga vs The Cazalet Chronicles

John Galsworthy! Elizabeth Jane Howard! Circadian novels! Find out what that means, and much more, in episode 41.

Tea or Books logoGuys, it was SUPER hot when we were recording this podcast. It’s rather cooler now that I’m editing, but I rather worry that I wasn’t making much sense in this episode… forgive any heat-induced nonsense. And potentially wavering audible quality. So hot. I have cunningly edited out the bits where I went to get more cold water.

(Blame that for me saying ‘Alan Bennett’ when I mean ‘Arnold Bennett’.)

In the first half, we look at the length we like books to cover – from books where all the action takes place in one day to those where it’s over many years. And, for the second half, we’ve read more than ever this time – two chunksters, albeit only the first books in their respective series. We’re comparing A Man of Property by John Galsworthy and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard – the openers to the Forsyte Saga and the Cazalet Chronicles.

Thanks for the new reviews, by the way! Feel free to add them through iTunes app, or you can explore our iTunes page. Let us know which you’d choose, and any recommendations!

The books and authors we mention in this episode are, as always, below:

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
One Day by David Nicholls
London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? by John Sutherland
Ulysses by James Joyce
Saturday by Ian McEwan
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Jodi Picoult
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Weatherley Parade by Richmal Crompton
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair
Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
Us by David Nicholls
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Agatha Christie
Marcel Proust
The Year of Reading Proust by Phyllis Rose
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Catherine Cookson
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
A Man of Property by John Galsworthy
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
A Pin To See The Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
H.G. Wells
Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

Margaret Kennedy DayI’m sneaking into the final moments of Margaret Kennedy Day – an annual event organised by Jane of Beyond Eden Rock – with a novel that I’d intended to read for the 1951 Club: Lucy Carmichael. The only thing that put me off then was its heft (it’s just under 400 pages) – but I managed to read it over a few days, and can throw my hat into the ring.

Lucy Carmichael is a slightly misleading title because, while she is certainly central to the novel, I’d argue that it’s almost as much Melissa’s book – and it is certainly she who opens up the first chapter, in this rather beguiling paragraph:

On a fine evening in September Melissa Hallam sat in Kensington Gardens with a young man to whom she had been engaged for three days. They had begun to think of the future and she was trying to explain her reasons for keeping the engagement a secret as long as possible.

She tells her fiance about her best friend Lucy, whose wedding is coming up soon – to an explorer who wants to be a botanist. Melissa describes her to a sceptical fiance – because the description doesn’t make her seem as pretty or wonderful as Melissa clearly thinks (and Melissa’s brother, Hump, has been similarly unimpressed in the letters she sends, thinking of her as Bossy Lucy). The reader sees this doubt, and finds themselves wanting to side with Lucy before she arrives on the scene.

One thing leads to another – I won’t say what – and the scene shifts: Lucy is now working at an institute that a kindly benefactor has built in a remote area for the benefit of the dramatic arts. The drama becomes about the Committee, and which play the young people should perform. This is perhaps the mainstay of the novel – this, and the will-they/won’t-they between Lucy and Charles, the son of Lady Frances – doyenne of arts and general social queen on this small stage. It means that we don’t see much more of Melissa, which is a shame, because she was that rare thing: a successfully-drawn witty character. Lucy herself is also winning – kind and wise and impulsive and thoughtful; an intriguing mix – but I still don’t think she deserved having the novel named after her.

I’m not sure this novel entirely knows what it wants to be. It feels rather as though Kennedy picked a setting and a plot – Lucy becoming part of a dramatic institute in a provincial community with much in-fighting – and decided to extend at both ends. We see how she ended up there; we see what happens afterwards. Lucy Carmichael, in short, is too long. It’s also too loose and baggy. There is the making of a truly exceptional 250 page novel within these covers, but I felt like the structure needed tightening. In fact, almost every scene needed tightening; it came across like a draft where Kennedy put down everything that came to her, and it should have had another winnowing.

river readingThe main case in point was, because the institute only turns up quite a significant way into the book, I couldn’t find myself much caring what happened there. The stakes weren’t high enough.

That sounds like I didn’t enjoy the novel, which isn’t true at all. In fact, I rather think that I might end up liking it more and more, the further away I get from it, when I forget the bits I found slow. And, indeed, when I forget everything except the impression it had on me – this is my third Kennedy novel, after Together and Apart and The Forgotten Smile, and I can’t remember even the tiniest detail about either of them.

This isn’t the glowing review that perhaps Margaret Kennedy Day should inspire. I don’t think I’m quite in the camp that adores her – but I also realise that it’s not the sort of novel that should be read so quickly. The writing is great, there is wit and thoughtfulness; Kennedy is clearly trying to inherit the mantle of Jane Austen (and there are many references to Austen throughout; Melissa and Lucy are both aficionados) and that’s an admirable intention, even if it highlights the disparity between their achievements are ‘structurers’. There is a lot to love here, and I did love the final chapter so much that I almost forgave everything else – but it’s always a shame when a novel doesn’t quite become (in my opinion, at least) quite the success it could have been.

Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn

ThreadsI don’t remember putting Threads (2015) on a wishlist, but I think I must have done – otherwise the choice my friend Barbara made in buying it and sending it to me was more serendipitous than I can expect. I imagine I put it there while reading Claire Harman’s biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner – but I had the happy experience, with my terrible memory, of forgetting anything about the connection at all until Warner’s name cropped up near the beginning of this book.

In brief, Craske was a fisherman who had a serious breakdown that left him unable to continue that profession – and he turned, instead, to painting and (later) embroidery. He was discovered by Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland, and briefly became something of a cause celebre in a select circle – though has since been rather neglected; the museums that hold his work are often ignorant or ashamed of the fact.

Blackburn’s book – beautifully produced by Jonathan Cape, with a lovely solidity and brilliantly chosen cover and illustrations – isn’t really a biography. It’s more an account of tracing his life story, which emerges in bits and pieces as the book continues – and of Blackburn’s life as it continues alongside.

I feel like I don’t know much more about Craske than I did when I read the blurb on the inside jacket. He proves quite an elusive figure – beyond the bare framework that Blackburn details of his ancestry, his occupation, and his war. Perhaps he let his work do the talking – and there is plenty of that in this book; we see his depictions of the sea and ships which he painted on any surface that was available, from trays to biscuit tins. Eventually there is the extraordinary, large embroidery of the D-Day landings – a tiny part of which is shown on the cover. Usually the art conceit of using ‘detail’ to mean anything that isn’t the whole image really annoys me – but in this case it is only a detail. Craske’s work, whether in paint or embroidery, is a striking mix of naivety and knowledge. As a fisherman, he knows precisely how the sea behaves; as an artist, he is teaching himself and has a unique perspective.


Two people truly emerge from this book. One is Laura Craske – John Craske’s wife, who valiantly and quietly cared for him through mental illnesses that she did not understand (and his brothers – defeating any sort of stereotype of unsophisticated rural fishermen – were equally sensitive to Craske’s ailments and requirements). She was also determined for his work to have exposure, when offered, though also rather alarmed at the money that Warner and Ackland offered her for the work. By incremental millimetres, we learn about Laura’s character and resilience, and I certainly warmed to her.

But far and away the most dominant character in this book is Julia Blackburn herself. Her style of writing is so unusual, as is her approach. I had to check to see if she’d written any books before – she has, quite a few – because this feels so like somebody writing for the first time, and striking it lucky. Like Craske’s work, and (who knows) maybe influenced by his work, Blackburn’s prose is almost primitive. Here, for instance, she is doing some research into the family:

Philip came back with the photograph album and there was Grandfather the good doctor, tall and pale-eyed with a big blond moustache and a look of benevolent abstraction on his face. And here was Granny Cats his wife, also abstracted, but less benevolently so, or was that my imagination? And here was their infant son who appeared so thin and wan and that you would never expect him to survive into adulthood, but he got through and became a solicitor and married and had a son called Philip so that was good.

So many of her accounts seem to be about artwork she forgot to see or questions she forgot to ask. The raw threads of her biographical technique are exposed here, like looking at the back of a piece of embroidery. Many of the people who might have known the family are now very old – and she comments on the erratic interviews she manages to get. And the tangents! A thought leads to a thought. There is a chapter on a man she knew who had a parrot, which has nothing to do with Craske; there is a chapter that is a story a man called Keith sent her; there is a surprising chapter on Einstein’s visit locally (and accounts of the firm rebuttals made to her by Einstein experts that he couldn’t possibly have been seen riding a bike at that point, as he had yet to learn). There are sections of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, which I, of course, loved. There are very moving chapters on Blackburn’s husband and his illness.

It is all a very unusual combination, and would put Hermione Lee into hysterics – but it works, and completely beguiles. Blackburn does nothing linearly. The quest for Craske is the book, and he is not the subject – instead he, and his art, are (yes) the golden threads shimmering through the centre of this strange and wonderful work.

Song for a Sunday

I love Tori Amos, of course – that can’t surprise anybody who knows my taste in music. But I haven’t listened to her latest two or three albums all that much – and gave Unrepentant Geraldines a few spins recently. And so I wanted to share ‘Wild Way’, which is lovely, and has been on solid repeat…


Letters to Max Beerbohm by Siegfried Sassoon

Max B Siegfriend SOne of the nicest bookish finds is when you discover that two authors you like kept a correspondence. Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett; William Maxwell and Eudora Welty; Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. When people you like independently turn out to have connections, it’s like discovering two of your friends actually went to uni together. So imagine my happiness when I found a book of letters between Siegfried Sassoon and Max Beerbohm!

Granted, I haven’t actually read anything by Sassoon, but I grew very fond of him when I read another book of unexpected connections – Anna Thomasson’s A Curious Friendship, about Rex Whistler and Edith Olivier, but featuring a fair dose of Sassoon.

The full title of this collection, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, is Letters to Max Beerbohm & A Few Answers (1986). There are few answers not because they’ve been lost, but because Beerbohm was famously bad at writing them. His friends seem to have been pretty tolerant about this, and his letters (when he does write them) are friendly, fluid, and charming – but Sassoon bears the lion’s share of this exchange. Even this doesn’t quite make up enough for a book, and Hart-Davis has rifled through Sassoon’s diaries for more information to set the scene. (Hart-Davis’ footnotes are also occasionally rather amusing – for instance, he describes Sibyl Colefax as ‘relentless society hostess’.)

Who comes off the page? I got the impression that Sassoon was much younger than Beerbohm – each letter is soaked with a sort of affectionate awe. It turns out that, for the bulk of their correspondence (in the 1930s), Beerbohm was in his 60s and Sassoon was in his late 40s and early 50s. A difference, yes, but not as much a one as comes across.

They both write letters that speak of deep friendship (and a curious resentment of Yeats). They are witty, thoughtful, and show a closeness and respect that you wouldn’t be able to get except through reading a book of this sort. They also have sketches and jottings by Siegfried, which are great fun, as well as verse that he throws into the letters – presumably fairly off the cuff.

The diary entries are well chosen, giving context to their friendship, and the mix of diary and letters works well. I enjoyed this description of their friendship, from Sassoon:

Conversing with Max, everything turns to entertainment and delectable humour and evocation of the past. […] Not a thousandth part can be recorded. But I feel that these talks with Max permanently enrich my mind, and no doubt much of it will recur spontaneously in future memories; he is like travelling abroad – one feels the benefit afterwards.

Well, we have certainly benefit afterwards. This is a slight book, and I certainly wish they had written to each other more prolifically. If they had, this might have been up there with the William Maxwell/Sylvia Townsend Warner collection of letters (The Element of Lavishness) as one of the great literary correspondences. As it is, it is a brief and brilliant gem that will enhance an appreciation of either Sassoon or Beerbohm.

Ian and Felicity by Denis Mackail

Ian and FelicityFans of Greenery Street – one of the loveliest of Persephone Book’s novels, about a young married couple being happy – may not know that there were a couple of sequels. One is a collection of short stories that I haven’t read, and I have an inkling that not all of them feature Ian and Felicity Foster; one of them features them SO much that they’re right there in the title. Ian and Felicity was published in 1932, seven years after Greenery Street. That doesn’t sound that long, but prolific Mr Mackail had published eight books (!!) in between – and so it is with a sense of nostalgia that we head back to the young couple to find out how they’re getting on down the line.

I should add at this point that Ian and Felicity is extremely difficult to track down, and the copy I read belongs to my friend Kirsty (who somehow managed to find a copy on ebay). I borrowed it approximately a zillion years ago, but finally got around to reading it a little while ago.

In America, the novel was called Peninsula Place – and that gives you a clue that the setting has changed a little. Ian and Felicity have outgrown their Greenery Street flat, and now have two children and a bigger town house a little way away from their first marital home and another step up the property ladder. They look back fondly (as the reader must) on that happy place – but this replacement is no less happy. Mackail (thank goodness!) has not started writing a gritty novel or a miserable one. Things continue in much the same tone – though with added parental anxieties, and the occasional wondering (often quickly quashed in slightly over the top internal self-reflection) whether life wasn’t all a bit simpler back in the Greenery Street days.

I loved reading Ian and Felicity. It was light and fun and an antidote to the unhappy marriages that populate so many novels – even those that are otherwise not unhappy books. My main qualm with it was the complete and utter lack of plot. I don’t need a lot to happen, but I would have liked more structure to the novel – it’s so episodic that it feels more like a series of notes, or loosely linked vignettes, than a novel. It wasn’t a big obstacle, but I don’t think it would have taken much to give this more of an overarching structure, and it would have lifted the novel into a whole new territory. (My only other qualm was how much Ian seems to loathe spending even a moment with his children, and how normal and admirable we’re supposed to think this; different times, of course, but this is not a model of every 1930s fictional father.)

But, as I say, it was still a lot of fun. Here’s a bit of the opening, to give you a taste:

“Dinner!” said Felicity, as she passed the open drawing-room door. “Come along, darling!”

“What’s that?” said her husband’s voice.

“Dinner, darling.”

“Supper, you mean,” said Ian’s voice; but he was coming. “Don’t exaggerate,” he said, actually appearing. “I’ve been in to look once, and I know just what we’ve got. Blancmange, again.”

“Well, darling, you know it’s Sunday.”

“As if I could forget it,” said Mr. Foster. But he smiled as he pulled down the front of his waistcoat, and he would certainly have pinched his wife’s arm with his other hand, if she hadn’t dodged him and gone through into the dining-room.

Harmless fun, isn’t it? Impossible to find a copy, but if you badger your local library, they might find one in the stacks. Or you might strike it lucky like Kirsty – keep an eye out on ebay!