The Fur Person by May Sarton

I can’t remember exactly how it came about – begging, borrowing, or stealing (or, y’know, a present), but when I stayed with Thomas in Washington D.C. about 18 months ago, he gave me The Fur Person by May Sarton. That was not even amongst the nicest things he did – he’s a great guy, y’all – but it was definitely very exciting to get. He has been keen for me to read May Sarton for ages, and the one I did read (As We Are Now) never made its way to Stuck-in-a-Book – so, rather than strike out two for two, I’ll be talking about The Fur Person now. Full disclosure: I loved it.

How was I not going to love it, considering that it’s about a cat? Well, some cat-centric books have failed with me, one way or another. I wasn’t enamoured by Jennie (Paul Gallico), and – while I did adore Dewey, it was for all the wrong reasons. But The Fur Person (1978) combines a strong understanding of cats with a complete lack of sentiment – in the best possible way. So, although the novella undoubtedly includes cat-lovers, the narrative is presented from the cat’s perspective (albeit in the third person, if you see what I mean). He – Tom ‘Terrible’ Jones, no less – is pragmatic and selfish (like all cats) but willing to exchange affection and loyalty for the correct ‘housekeeper’, having realised that one cannot be a footloose, fancy-free young tom forever.

The story is simple, and supposedly based on the real life adventures of Sarton’s cat. He experiments with various housekeepers, before settling on the admiration and respect of Sarton and her partner. In a chilling warning to such as me, Tom is not interested in the cloyingly affectionate:

The trouble was, as he soon found out, that as soon as he came into reach, the lady could not resist hugging and kissing him with utter disregard for the dignity of his person. There are times when a Gentleman Cat likes very much to be scratched gently under his chin, and if this is done with savoir-faire he may afterwards enjoy a short siesta on a lap and some very refined stroking, but he does not like to be held upside down like a human baby and he does not like to be cooed over, and to be pressed to a bosom smelling of narcissus or rose.
Which is understandable, but there is a certain pathos in the way Sarton presents the scene. Tom is intent merely on getting out of the house – by the common feline method of standing silently by the door until obeyed – but, in the background, this would-be owner is mournful:

“You’re not a nice cat at all,” she said, and she began to whimper. “You don’t like me,” she whimpered, “do you?”
In another sort of novel, this might have been a tragic moment in her life – but, in The Fur Person, it is one of many instances that occur while Tom is finding his way to the idyll at the end of his journey.

The Fur Person bounded up the stairs, and at the very instant he entered the kitchen, the purrs began to swell inside him and he wound himself around two pairs of legs (for he must be impartial), his nose in the air, his tail straight up like a flag, on tip toes, and roaring with thanks.
It’s quite a sweet ending, but it doesn’t fall over the boundary into saccharine. And the reason for that, I believe, is because Sarton has observed the behaviour of cats so precisely. Everything she described rang true. Perhaps not the ten commandments for cats (individually they were accurate, but I suspect cats do not repeat these mantras by rote), but certainly the movements of tail and paws, the stretching, the staring and waiting – everything it described with such precision and accuracy that any cat-lover (particularly those of us who love cats but don’t live with any) will thrill to the reading experience.

Old Books, Rare Friends by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern

You know what it’s like with book reviews on Stuck-in-a-Book – they’re like buses; you wait a month for one, and then three come along at once. (If you’ve ever waited a month for a bus, then – please – just give up and get a taxi.) In the weekend last year where I coincidentally read a bunch of books I bought in America, one of them had the enticing title Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion (1997) by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern. (Who first told me about this? Was it YOU?)

I’m not the sort of man to walk away from a book about loving books, particularly one penned by older women, and so I was excited to read this. But it was quite a while ago, so I’m going to review this one in bullet points… let’s call it an experiment.

Leona and Madeleine take it in turns to narrate chapters, starting with their childhoods (perhaps unsurprisingly) and through the schooling and college education. 

The main point of interest here is that one of them was refused her doctorate, mostly because her supervisor disagreed with her argument. (That is NOT acceptable supervising.)

I could never really tell Leona and Madeleine apart from their writing styles, so their lives intertwined for me.

They set up a rare books business together, buying and selling, and this is where my interest was piqued.

They make catalogues! I could read about the preparation of catalogues forever.

They’re only interested in very old books, so my love of 20th-century literature was never really satisfied. But, oh well.

And they discovered sensation magazine stories that Louisa M. Alcott had written under a pseudonym – which led to a minor sort of literary fame for them.

I really enjoyed it! Reading about the books business, particularly in a time before the internet made book hunting both easier and less filled with surprises is always fun.

Here is my caveat (for which I have slipped out of bullet points). I love reading about readers; about people who hunt for books because they are desperate to read them. Rostenberg and Stern hunt for books for a living, and so (naturally enough) are concerned more with profit than anything else. Still, I couldn’t help weary a little at the number of times they said how much they’d paid for something and how much they’d sold it for – particularly on the occasions when that effectively meant diddling a seller out of money, because the seller had sold a book for less than it was worth. Which made it rather a surprise to come across this paragraph in the epilogue:

We have become keen observers of the generations who have succeeded us. Every age is critical of the next, and we are no exceptions. Although we admire and befriend many young dealers who do not confuse value with price, we deplore the all too popular conception entertained by many dealers that books are to be regarded primarily as investments. Such booksellers go in for dollarship, not scholarship.
I wonder how they think they differ from this? Perhaps as bibliophiles, albeit bibliophiles who get money from their love, rather than simply gratification.

But, this quibble aside, I found it fascinating and fun. It’s not up there with Phantoms on the Bookshelves or Howards End is on the Landing – the works of true booklovers, and lovers of 20th-century fiction into the bargain – and it’s not quite the book that I thought it would be, but Old Books, Rare Friends will still retain its place on my books-about-books bookshelf.

A review round-up

I’ve made my peace with not getting to the end of my Century of Books by the end of 2014 – that’s fine; the rules are very flexible – but I will bolster out the list with some of the others I have read which don’t quite warrant a post to themselves, for one reason or another…

A Painted Veil (1925) by W. Somerset Maugham
I read this in the Lake District, and found it rather enthralling if a little overdramatic and a touch sententious. But it was borrowed from a friend, and I didn’t blog about it before sending it back…

The Listerdale Mystery (1934) by Agatha Christie
This was part of my Christie binge earlier in the year, but slipped in just after my other Christie round-up. This is a collection of short stories, some of which were better than others. It also has one with a novelist who complains that adapted books are given terrible names like ‘Murder Most Horrid’ – which later happened to Christie herself, with Mrs McGinty’s Dead.

It’s Too Late Now (1939) by A.A. Milne
One day I’ll write a proper review of this glorious book, one of my all-time favourites. It’s AAM’s autobiography and I’ve read it four or five times, but have left it too late this time to write a review that would do it justice. But I’m bound to re-read it, so we’ll just wait til then, eh?

Summer in February (1995) by Jonathan Smith
This novel is an all-time favourite of my friend Carol’s, and for that reason I feel like I should give it a proper review, but… well, it’s already seeped out of my head, I think. It was a good and interesting account of the Newlyn painters. I didn’t love it as much as Carol, but it was certainly well written and enjoyable.

The Blue Room (1999) by Hanne Ørstavik
I was going to review this Peirene translation for Shiny New Books, but I have to confess that I didn’t like it at all. But was I ever going to like an X-rated novel about submission? Reader, I brought this upon myself.

Making It Up (2005) by Penelope Lively
I wasn’t super impressed by my first Lively, I have to confess. I heard her speak about this book in 2005, so it was about time I read it – but it’s a fairly disparate selection of short stories, tied together with the disingenuous notion that all of them have some vague resemblance to sections of Lively’s life or people she saw once on the train. Having said that, some of the stories were very good – it just felt like the structure was rather weak. Still, I’m sure there are better Lively novels out there?

The Man Who Unleashed the Birds (2010) by Paul Newman
This biography of Frank Baker (author of Miss Hargreaves) has been on my on-the-go shelf for about four years, and I finally finished it! The awkward shape of the book was the main reason it stayed on the shelf, I should add; it wouldn’t fit in my bag! It was a brilliantly researched biography, with all sorts of info I’d never have been able to find elsewhere – most particularly a fascinating section on his relationship (er, not that sort of relationship) with Daphne du Maurier after he’d accused her of plagiarising ‘The Birds’.

The Siren Years by Charles Ritchie

One of the greatest pleasures I have had in blogging is getting to know Claire’s blog. We all know and love her as The Captive Reader, and I am lucky enough to have very similar taste to Claire – we have both followed up each other’s suggestions, and have only had the occasional mishap. When I received Charles Ritchie’s The Siren Years: A Canadian Diplomat Abroad, 1937-1945 (1974) as a gift in the post, I was very touched – and a little nervous. I trust Claire. But… I thought she might have made a mistake. A book about politics? Me? And the cover did nothing to convince me… Lucky for me, I was wrong and Claire was right. Which makes a total of no recommendations from her that have turned out to be duds.

Ritchie often seems more like a society gossip than a diplomat, and that – you will not be surprised to learn – makes him much more up my street. He describes the people around him with a catty tone, albeit one au fait with national and international politics. Not to mention literature; Elizabeth Bowen was a large part of Ritchie’s life, and he is a sensitive interpreter of people.

And who can fail to be moved by any war memoir? The experiences of war, even on the home front, are so foreign to those of most of us today that any description of life then is both fascinating and poignant. Indeed, it is perhaps more so on the home front – because the places, relationships, and roles are recognisable, but thrown into extraordinary relief.

Since it’s been far too long since I read this wonderful diary, I shall just give you a series of quotations I noted down from it. After all, I am only going to say ‘I love this’ after each one, if I elaborate any further.

On public figures from Eton…
What happens to them at Eton? However innocent, stupid or honest they may be they always look as though they had passed the preceding night in bed with a high-class prostitute and had spent the earlier part of the morning smoothing away the ravages with the aid of creams, oils and curling tongs.

On politicians
[…] a few senators and political big-shots whose faces give one a feeling of familiar boredom like picking up an old twice-read newspaper.

On work rituals
Being a Private Secretary is a busy unreal sort of life – unreal because it makes one’s day such a programme of events. One does things in a certain order not because one feels like doing them at the time or even because this is the order of their importance, but because they appear in that order on the day’s programme. This programme is dictated by the engagements of the Chief, who is in turn a victim of his engagements and spends most of his day in doing unnecessary things which he does not want to do. Yet neither of us is unhappy. We feel that the ritual of our lives is obligatory – we grumble but we submit with satisfaction to the necessity. A day of telephone conversations, luncheon parties, notes acknowledged, visitors received, memoranda drawn up. Exhaustion is merely staleness – we return with zest to the game. What an extraordinary amount of time is spent in saving our own face and coddling other people’s vanities! One would really think that the people we deal with were a collection of hypersensitive megalomaniacs.

On war in London
Never has there been such a colourless war – not a drum, not a flag, not a cheer – just sandbags and khaki and air-read shelters and gas-masks and the cultivated, careful voice of the B.B.C. putting the best complexion on the news. London is waiting for the first raid like an anxious hostess who has made all the preparations to receive formidable guests – but the guests do not seem to be going to turn up. Every time the door-bell rings she thinks, “At last there they are,” but it turns out to be the grocer’s boy delivering a parcel. So the day pass. We look at our watches, turn on the wireless, pick up a novel and wait.

On Oxford, and a building I used to work in
The moment I stepped out of the station I smelt the familiar smell of Oxford. What nonsense the woman was talking the other day when she said that it did not matter if a city were destroyed physically, if its soul lived. Cities are nothing without their bodies. When you have destroyed Paris and Oxford what happens to their souls? Oxford rebuilt in this age! It would be easy to see what it would be like by looking at the new Bodleian Extension – that blankly commonplace hulk which they have dared to plant in the face of the Sheldonian. That is the most distressing thing about Oxford – for the rest the changes are temporary.

On Elizabeth Bowen
“Take it from one of the best living novelists that people’s personalities are not interesting,” Elizabeth said in a dry voice; “except,” she added, “when you are in love with them.” Her books show much that you would expect if you knew her only as an acquaintance, he intelligence, her penetrating eye, her love of houses and flowers. These things you would have gathered from talking to her in her drawing-room. But there are certain passages in which her peculiar intensity, her genius, come out, which would be hard to reconcile with this cultivated hostess. That purity of perception and compassion seems to come from another part of her nature of which she is perhaps not completely aware.

On wartime
We have long ceased to find the war thrilling – any excitement in the movement of historic events is gone. There is a vague but persistent worry in people’s minds about the coming air raids this winter, but like everything else this is accepted as inevitable. The truth is that the war has become as much a part of our lives as the weather, the endless winter, and when the ice does break there will be no cheering in the streets.

The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars

A little while ago I got a very nice email from someone called Vicki, saying how much she enjoyed reading Stuck-in-a-Book, and asking if she could send me one of the books she loved as a sort of thank you. Well, I was very touched, and – not one to turn down a book recommendation or, indeed, a book – said yespleasethankyouverymuch. And shortly afterwards Betsy Byars’ The Midnight Fox (1968) arrived.

I hadn’t heard of it, but I think The Midnight Fox is well known in some circles. Yet again, having only read Enid Blyton for years on end means that I don’t know that much about other children’s classics. But now I have read, and very much enjoyed, this sweet and touching tale of a holiday on a farm.

The premise has a surprising number of similarities with Philippa Pearce’s much-loved children’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden, published ten years earlier. In both, a boy named Tom must reluctantly go and stay with his aunt and uncle, and greatly misses a boy called Peter. In both, a certain midnight aberration becomes an obsession, and changes the stay into a much happier event; Peter is written to from a distance, and becomes an accomplice in the discovery. I doubt that Byars plagiarised the book, but the similarities amused me.

The story is simple – Tom is beguiled by the beauty of this unusual fox, who is entirely black. He starts to look out for her, and becomes increasingly keen to observe her playing with her small fox cub; he is almost bewitched by this elegant, elemental life lived near to him – and must find a way to stop his hunting uncle from trapping the fox.

What makes it such a special little book? The style, I think. It’s not told with the gung-ho naivety of some children’s books, but treats Tom’s anxieties and concerns seriously – not least because we read it in the first person. Here is the opening…

Sometimes at night when the rain is beating against the windows of my room, I think about that summer on the farm. It has been five years, but when I close my eyes I am once again by the creek watching the black fox come leaping over the green. green grass. She is as light and free as the wind, exactly as she was the first time I saw her.

Or sometimes it is that last terrible night, and I am standing beneath the oak tree with the rain beating against me. The lightning flashes, the world is turned white for a moment, and I see everything as it was – the broken lock, the empty cage, the small tracks disappearing into the rain. Then it seems to me that I can hear, as plainly as I heard it that August night, above the rain, beyond the years, the high, clear bark of the midnight fox.
Thanks again, Vicki, for sending me this book; it was so generous and kind of you. I really enjoyed reading it – and I especially think this would be good to read aloud to a child, if any parents are on the look-out for something!

A Day in Summer by J.L. Carr

Quite a few of us in the blogosphere are fans of J.L. Carr’s 1980 novel A Month in the Country – that gentle tale of a man who goes to help restore a rural mural. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that rhyme.) But I don’t remember seeing reviews of any of his other novels – and had thought he might be rather a one-trick pony.

So, I was glad when my book group opted to read A Day in Summer (1963), Carr’s first novel – and evidence that he was fond of A [Time] in the [Situation] titles early on. But, except for similar titles, these novels have very little in common – except, that is, for quality. Both are very good.

A Day in Summer sounds a very halcyon title, but this is belied by the opening few pages. Peplow is on a train, coming into Great Minden. He has an imaginary conversation with his Manager; one of several in square brackets throughout the novel, from different characters’ perspectives, that give a very open access to their imaginations and projections:

[“I wonder if you’d mind very much if I take Friday off?””I suppose not. Is someone ill? Is it urgent?”No – well, it is and it isn’t. As a matter of fact I have to go off to a place in the country and shoot a man. Yes, that’s right, a man. They call it Great Minden. Perhaps you know it?””Really! Great Minden! I had an aunt living near there. If you wouldn’t consider it an impertinence, may I ask who – whom?””It’s the man who ran down my boy last summer. He’s with a fairground outfit, and on Friday he’ll be at the Fair there I understand. So it would be very convenient.””Naturally! Shall we see you again on Saturday? Monday?””Well, no. I’ve more or less decided it would be better for me to finish myself off too. In comfort, on the way back, all being well. It would by-pass the embarrassing formalities that usually follow. I’m sure you understand.”]
This isn’t precisely the tone that the rest of the novel takes – although it would be rather fascinating to read a whole narrative in this style. He isn’t really flippant about his action, and it is the thread that pulls the novel together, but Peplow isn’t really the leading character of A Day in Summer. And that is because, more than any other novel I can remember, this is an ensemble piece. Once Peplow arrives in Great Minden, the narrative flits from character to character, weaving their stories together so that the baton naturally passes from person to person.

There is a lascivious young schoolteacher who is having an affair with the vicar’s wife; the teacher is rightly terrified of the elderly spinster who runs the school with an iron fist. The vicar is desperate to hold his marriage together, but his wife despises him. There is a poor family with too many children, also with marital troubles; there is a dying man whose young son wonders why his mother left the family years ago. And, taking the cover on my book, is the man in a wheelchair, invalided by war, who happens to have been in action with Peplow.

There are, you see, too many characters to describe all that goes on; the plot is planned perfectly, and yet it feels less like a plot and more like observing villagers living their lives. Their unhappy lives, it should be said; misery is widespread, and marriages seem incapable of being content. Indeed, Peplow’s paternal grief seems perhaps less vivid than the teacher Croser’s sickness of being in a frustrating job, of the vicar’s pain.

Throughout, Carr’s tone is quite darkly witty, and I really loved it. Fans of A Month in the Country may find little to recognise, but this is by no means a weak first effort at novel-writing. Carr has a very impressive confidence even at this early stage, and handles a difficult tone and potentially unwieldy plot extremely well. Although A Month in the Country is a better book to curl up with for comfort, this is a stark, moving, and (yet) very amusing novel that is arguably equally good, in a very different way.

Land’s End – Michael Cunningham

While I was cat-sitting for a friend recently, I read (or finished) five books in quick succession, and it wasn’t until I got there that I realised that three of them were books I got when I was in Washington DC last October. I mean, I bought so many books there that I was almost inevitably going to find them about my person somewhere (I jest…). I wonder if it’s worth keeping track of how longer I have books on my shelves before I read them, and see if 15 months is the optimum time…

Anyway, I bought Land’s End (2002) because I’ve been wanting to read more Michael Cunningham ever since I loved The Hours back in 2003 or thereabouts. I’ve only got as far as watching Evening, the adaptation of Susan Minot’s novel for which Cunningham wrote (or, rather, rewrote) the screenplay. I have to confess that I was also sold on the Cunningham because of this:

Thomas/My Porch informed me that signed Cunninghams are ten a penny Stateside (they have pennies in the US, right? Whilst we’re on that, how confusing is the tax thing there? You just have no idea how much you’ll have to pay when you get to the till). But this is something fun and rather special. And I had my fingers crossed that the book would also be fun and special…

It’s a non-fiction book about Provincetown, Massachusetts – the very tip of Cape Cod. My horrendously inadequate geographical knowledge was, for once, approaching adequate – as I had heard of Provincetown, and knew of its peninsular qualities and unusual character. For why, you ask? A couple of my favourite vloggers (Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart) went there during their HeyUSA tour, as you can see here. From which I learned that Provincetown is full of creative people and drag queens (with, presumably, some overlap).

Cunningham’s view of Provincetown is not as an insider or an outsider. He definitely defines himself in opposition to the tourists, who make the streets jam-packed during the summer months, so that getting groceries is almost impossible. But he does not live there all the year round, despite owning a house there; he prefers the anonymity of New York. Because Provincetown is apparently the gossip capital of the East, and everybody knows everybody. The year-round population (Wikipedia tells me) is around 3,000; this goes up to twenty times that number in summer.

I have trouble with travel literature. Visual descriptions don’t work for me, and writers of travel lit often want to give purple depictions of flora and fauna. But a genre I do love is memoir, and Cunningham treads the line between the two – falling, thankfully, more heavily into memoir. Or, rather, he describes Provincetown through a personal lens, rather than the anthropologist’s. If he is neither insider nor outsider to the town, then he is closer to the former than the latter.

The beautiful setting I read it in.

There is plenty for the anthropologist in Provincetown, though. Its character differs strongly from the surrounding area; it is (Cunningham says) the refuge of the outsider and eccentric. Some of those outsiders (and I now realise I’ve overused that word) are from the LGBT community, and – um – anything apparently goes in Provincetown. Cunningham very casually describes the beaches where you’ll find men having sex in the undergrowth, and those where you won’t. He mentions (and repeatedly re-mentions) this with such calm that it seems like a normal thing, to find people having sex when you pop down to build a sandcastle. Hmm…

But once we’ve left all that behind, I felt more at home in Provincetown – with its focus on art, friendliness, community, and (yes, I confess) gossip. Cunningham does a great job of explaining why he finds the town so special, more from the warm tone he uses than the facts he states. He incorporates the history of the town – did you know that the Pilgrim Fathers landed there first, before heading off to Plymouth Rock? – and its primary exports, but it is the affection with which he writes that really sells Provincetown.

I say ‘sells’; I still don’t think I’d go out of my to visit, still less live there, but anybody writing with wisdom and passion about their favourite place, and the experiences they have lived there, will win me over. From meeting his partner (and not forgetting his dramatic ex-partner) to the 2am gatherings outside a place that sells middle-of-the-night pizza, Land’s End is a curiously charming and almost old-fashioned depiction of a not-at-all old-fashioned place. Here is an excerpt to finish with, and to give you a taste of how he combines the personal and the observational:

If you do walk to Long Point, you will find yourself on a spit of sand about three hundred yards wide, with bay beach on one side, ocean beach on the other, and a swatch of dune grass running down the middle. It sports, like an austere ornament, a lighthouse and a long-empty shed once used to store oil for the light. You will be almost alone there, through the water around you will be thoroughly populated by boats. It is a favorite nesting ground for terns and gulls. When I went out there years ago with Christy, the man with whom I lived then, he strode into the dune grass and stirred up the birds. If I tell you that he stood exultantly among hundreds of shrieking white birds that circled and swooped furiously around him, looking just like a figure out of Dante, grinning majestically, while I stood by and worried about what it was doing to the birds, you may know everything you need to know about why we were together and why we had to part.
What a beautiful image, and moving reflection.

Anybody read this? Or been to Provincetown??

Marrying Out – Harold Carlton

You know that I love Slightly Foxed Editions – I don’t shut up about it – and the latest one I read is up there with my favourites now. I pretty much read it all in one setting. It’s Marrying Out (2001) by Harold Carlton, originally published as The Most Handsome Sons in the World!, a memoir about the fall-out in a Jewish family when one of the sons wants to ‘marry out’.

More in the Shiny New Books review