Diana Athill and Susan Hill

These two books (Midsummer Night in the Workhouse and other stories by Diana Athill and Black Sheep by Susan Hill) have very little in common, other than that (a) the authors have ‘hill’ in their name, and (b) they are the final two books for my Reading Presently project and this is the last day of the year.  So I shall consider them in turn, and only if I’m very lucky will I find anything to link them…

Mum gave me Midsummer Night in the Workhouse as a cheer-up present a few months ago, and a Persephone book is (of course) always very, very welcome.  One of my very favourite reads in 2013 was Diana Athill’s memoir about being an editor, Stet (indeed, I claimed in Kim’s Book Bloggers Advent Calendar that it was my favourite, but while compiling my list I remembered another which beat it – full top ten to be unveiled in January, donchaknow) so I thought it was about time that I read some of her fiction.  Turns out there isn’t that much of it, and she speaks quite disparagingly of the whole process in Somewhere Towards The End (which I’m reading at the moment; spoiler alert, it doesn’t compare to Stet in my mind).

As my usual disclaimer, whenever I write about short stories – they’re very difficult to write about.  But they do seem the perfect medium for the expert editor, depending – as they do, more than any other fiction – upon precision and economy.  And I thought (says he, being very brief) that Athill was very good at it.  My favourite was probably ‘The Return’, about a couple of young women who are taken to an island by local ‘tour guide’ sailors – it was just so brilliantly structured, managing to be tense, witty, and wry at the same time.  But the last line of ‘Desdemona’ was exceptionally good (and you know how I like my last lines to stories…)

My only complaint with the collection is that they are a bit too samey occasionally – which might be explained by the new preface, where Athill explains that she mostly wrote from her own experience.  And her own experience seemed to be observing a fair amount of unsatisfactory marriages, and having a rather casual attitude towards marital fidelity (more on that when I get around to writing about Somewhere Towards The End.)

Her character and voice seem better established in her non-fiction, but this collection is certainly very good – and Persephone should be celebrated for collecting and publishing something which had been largely ignored in Athill’s career.  Hurrah for Persephone!

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Colin (yes, he blogs too, and apparently will be doing so more regularly in 2014) gave me Susan Hill’s latest novella, Black Sheep (which was on my Amazon wishlist) for Christmas, and I read it on Boxing Day while laid up with that cold.  I’m always so grateful that I gave Susan Hill’s writing a second go, after being underwhelmed by the children’s book I read first – and I have a special soft spot for the novellas which have been coming out over the past few years.

Those of you who follow Hill on Twitter, or remember her erstwhile blog, will know that she seems to finish a book in the time it takes most of us to boil a kettle.  Well, more power to her, say I – and I’ve been impressed by The Beacon and A Kind Man.  I hadn’t realised that I read those in 2009 and 2011 – well, time flies, and perhaps Hill does pause for breath between books.  Black Sheep is not only being marketed in a similar way, with equally lovely colours/image/format, but does – whether Hill has done this deliberately or not – belong in the same stable.  The three novellas have definite differences, and possibly started from very different inspirations, but they also share a great deal – all three concern remote, almost isolated communities, the complicated lives of simple folk, and (it must be conceded) a fair dose of misery.  Or perhaps just a dose of hardship, because the three novels all seem to come near to gratuitous misery, and then duck away.

Black Sheep takes place in a mining community in the past… I’m not sure how far in the past, or if we’re told, but definitely an era when people rarely left their village and almost no outside-communication took place.  The village (called ‘Mount of Zeal’) is divided into the pit, Lower Terrace, Middle Terrace, and Upper Terrace (known as Paradise).  We follow the fortunes of one overcrowded family home as the children grow up.  Who to marry, whether or not to get a job in the mine, how to cope with illness and grief – these are the overriding concerns of the different children and their parents – but these topics are less important than the way in which Hill writes about them, and the community they live in.

It is such a brilliant depiction of a village.  Setting the community on the side of this hill, leading from Paradise to the hell of the mine, may seem like a heavy-handed metaphor – but more significant is the claustrophobia of the village from any vantage, whether in the pit or in the fanciest inspector’s house.  We follow perhaps the most important character, the youngest boy Ted, when he emerges from the village into the sheep-filled fields above – a journey seldom made by anybody, for some reason – and there is a palpable sense of narrative and readerly relief.  Even while giving us characters we care about, Hill makes the whole atmosphere suffocating and, yes, claustrophobic.

Of these three novellas, I still think The Beacon is the best – but the setting of Black Sheep is probably the most accomplished.  It lacks quite the brilliance of structure which Hill demonstrates elsewhere, and comes nearest to a Hardyesque piling on of unlikely misery, but that can’t really dent the confident narrative achievement readers have come to expect from Hill.  As a follow-on read from Ten Days of Christmas, it was a bit of a shock – but, if you’re feeling emotionally brave, this triumvirate of novellas is definitely worth seeking out.

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And there you have it.  No noticeable link between the two – but my Reading Presently challenge is finished!  I realise it isn’t as interesting for vicarious readers as A Century of Books, because (presumably) it makes no difference to you whether a reviewed book was a gift or a purchase, but I’ve enjoyed seeing what people have recommended over the years.  At the very least, it has assuaged a fair amount of latent guilt!  I still have at least 30 books people have given me, and I’ll be prioritising a few for ACOB 2014, but I’ll also enjoy indulging my own whims to a greater extent.

Appropriately enough, five of my Top Ten Books were gifts, and five were not – considering this year I read 50 books that were gifts and just over 50 that were not (finishing, because of DPhil, headaches, and new job, rather fewer books than usual).  All will be revealed soon, as promised…

Together and Apart – Margaret Kennedy

I think Together and Apart (1936) by Margaret Kennedy might just be the most 1930s novel I have ever read.  Not that it is the best (though it is very good) but that it is somehow quintessentially 1930s, stuffed with all the ingredients I have come to expect – marital politics; sensuality tempered by an intrinsic conservatism; a sense of change which is both progressive and nostalgic; fraught family gatherings; women discovering their voices, but torn between the roles of wife, mother, and independent woman; people explaining their feelings to each other at elaborate length.  Of course, none of these themes are unique to the 1930s, but they recur so often in novels of that decade that, together, they evoke the 1930s for me.  (Before I go any further – thank you Rob, who gave this to me in the Virago Secret Santa back in 2011, making Together and Apart possibly my only black Virago Modern Classic.)

It all starts off with that touchy-for-the-1930s topic of divorce, with Betsy writing to her mother about her proposed separation from her husband, the celebrated librettist Alec, and it’s worth quoting at length…

Well now Mother, listen.  I have something to tell you that you won’t like at all.  In fact, I’m afraid that it will be a terrible shock and you will hate it at first.  But do try to get used to the idea and bring father round to it.

Alec and I are parting company.  We are going to get a divorce.

I know this will horrify: the more so because I have, perhaps mistakenly, tried very hard to conceal our unhappiness during these last years.  I didn’t, naturally, want anybody to know while there was still a chance of keeping things going.  But the fact is, we have been quite miserable, both of us.  We simply are unsuited to one another and unable to get on.  How much of this have you guessed?

Life is so different from what we expected when we first married.  Alec has quite changed, and he needs a different sort of wife.  I never wanted all this money and success.  I married a very nice but quite undistinguished civil servant.  With my money we had quite enough to live on in a comfortable and civilised way.  We had plenty of friends, our little circle, people like ourselves, amusing and well bred, not rich, but decently well off.  Alec says now that they bored him.  But he didn’t say so at the time.
Divorce was no longer the great unthinkable, but you don’t have to be cynical to detect a hint of false brio in Betsy’s assured tone.  The respective mothers leap into action – and they remind me rather of the mothers in Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout.  Betsy’s mother is weak and anxious; Alec’s mother is domineering and formidable.  Neither, it turns out, is particularly good at bringing the separated couple back together, and there is rather a sense that they might have inadvertently accelerated the split…

From here, Margaret Kennedy weaves a complex and evolving pattern.  I expected the novel to focus on the married couple, seeing whether or not they could mend their rift, but Kennedy’s world is far wider than that.  I might even criticise it for being a little too wide, in that it occasionally seems to lose focus a bit as she tries to encompass a school, four or five households, and the minds and opinions of a dozen or more principal players.

As with the G.B. Stern novel (and because I’m rushing up so many posts!) I don’t think it’s worth elaborating at length about the plot.  Kennedy shows us the consequences of actions, and movingly depicts the ways in which separation affects everyone – not just the ‘think of the children’ angle (although this is shown a fair bit, the children are all quite flawed of their own accord) but the married couple themselves.  The split between Betsy and Alec is never final and certain in their minds – both are plagued by regret or, more to the point, uncertainty about their decision (regret would be a form of certainty which neither can reach).  I have never been married, and of course never divorced, but I was still impressed by the nuances in Kennedy’s writing…

…with the caveat that this is the 1930s, and I often find that the dialogue in 1930s novels is never quite as nuanced as one might wish.  People do explain their emotions at length, and have oh-gosh-darling moments, but that all adds to the good fun of it all.  My first Margaret Kennedy book was her biography of Jane Austen, and it is interesting to see how her own fiction compares.  Well, of course Austen is better – but you can see where Kennedy learnt a bit about portraying human nature in its complexities, and I think Jane would rather have enjoyed reading this if she’d been around in 1936.

Ten Days of Christmas – G.B. Stern

I don’t usually do much in the way of seasonal reading, but I draw the line at reading anything with ‘Christmas’ in the title at any other time than Christmas itself.  So it was that I spent Christmas Eve and the next few days reading Ten Days of Christmas (1950) by G.B. Stern, very kindly given to me by Verity last December.

I forget exactly what the process was between me finding out about the book and being presented with it, but I’m pretty sure it started with spotting Jane’s review in 2011 (my eager comment is there below it).  Verity couldn’t have known, when she passed on her large print copy, that it would be exactly what I needed in my cold-ridden post-Christmas haze – not only because it was a rather lovely book, but because my eyes couldn’t cope with any smaller font size.

The novel opens with a vast number of characters and (ominously) a family tree.  I decided – as I always do when confused by characters at the beginning of a novel – to ignore all of this and plough onwards, reasoning that they would fall into place sooner or later.  And they did.  It isn’t important, for this review, to disentangle first marriages and second marriages, half-siblings, step-siblings, and cousins – but rest assured that they do all sort themselves out.

The central thrust of Ten Days of Christmas is the nativity play which the various children intend to put on for their family – and to raise money to replace a displeasing picture in the church.  I will cross oceans to read a novel about theatrics, and enjoyed all the to-ing and fro-ing this bunch of believable (if occasionally a little too wise) children go to in deciding who will take what part, which play to choose, and all that.

It was all shaping up to be an enjoyable and simple family-oriented story, but for one incident.  Rosalind – who, at 17, has forcibly transferred herself from being considered a child to being considered a grown-up – is given a pre-war ‘duck ball’ toy by an eager and proud cousin… and then given an identical one by someone else.  She believes she has handled the situation beautifully…

It is this simple incident, which could so easily happen, which spirals out of control to cause two painful arguments – one among the children, another among the parents.  Stern expertly shows how children and adults can feud in very similar ways – and how the variations often make the adults more childish than the children.

But, fear not, all is not dissent.  There is plenty of happiness sprinkled throughout.

Look, the influence of Jane’s recommendation is making me blog with her short paragraphs!

One thing I could not shake from my head throughout was how very, very similar it all felt to the premise of an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel.  How very easily she could have taken these characters and these incidents and crafted one of her works of genius!  The many children and adults, interrelated in curious ways; the single incident which becomes so immensely important; the back-and-forth discussions which spiral round and round.  G.B. Stern was friends with Sheila Kaye-Smith (they wrote these two celebrations of Jane Austen in collaboration) and Sheila Kaye-Smith (as we know from the very brilliant bibliophile-memoir All The Books of My Life) was a devotee of Dame Ivy – could I be right in concluding that Stern was also a fan, and that Ten Days of Christmas was her attempt to follow in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s hallowed footsteps?

Well, G.B. Stern doesn’t have anything like Ivy Compton-Burnett’s talent, and Ten Days of Christmas doesn’t come close to the quality of her novels, but (to my mind) that is true of all but the tiniest handful of novelists.  Setting Ivy aside, Ten Days of Christmas is a very good, insightful, amusing, and (despite the arguments) extremely cosy novel.  Perhaps it is too late to recommend a Christmas novel now (although, of course, neither the twelve days nor the ten days are over) – but for future festive fireside reading, I do heartily recommend indulging in this treat of a book.  Thank you, Verity!

The Best of Archy and Mehitabel – Don Marquis

I’ve been away from the internet for a few days, and with a stinking post-Christmas cold (which won’t go away and has left me exhausted) so I’m going to be hard-pressed to write my final four reviews of the year… but this afternoon I did finish my Reading Presently project.  Hurrah!  I have read 50 books which were given to me as presents… and I’ll write something about each of the outstanding ones before the end of the year, leaving my Best Books, summings up etc. until the early days of 2014.

My friend Barbara gave me The Best of Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis for my birthday this year, with a note hoping that I didn’t have it already (always a worry when people give me books as presents).  Well, in this case, I had never heard of Don Marquis or the cockroach and cat of the title.  They originated in a New York newspaper column, when Don Marquis apparently discovered that a cockroach had, in his absence, been writing vers libre on the typewriter.  And that is what this little book contains.

The cockroach is Archy; Mehitabel is a cat, and (unsurprisingly) my favourite of the few characters which enter the scene.  ‘Toujours gai’ is her motto, as well as ‘there’s a dance in the old dame yet’, and ‘always the lady’.  Despite these protestations, she is arguably not particularly ladylike… often detailing the savagings she has given gentlemen cats who have wronged her.  Oh, and she claims to have been reincarnated from Cleopatra.

I don’t often read poetry, but this collection was enjoyable – a pleasant mixture of the silly, surreal, and profound.  Here’s a rather long example I liked, ‘mehitabel and her kittens’ (poor Archy cannot type capitals – although, as E.B. White writes in his reprinted introduction, that is no reason to foreswear them when referring to him):

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
but am i never to be allowed
to live my own life
i have purposely avoided
matrimony in the interests
of the higher life
but i might just
as well have been a domestic
slave for all the freedom
i have gained
i hope none of them
gets run over by
an automobile
my heart would bleed
if anything happened
to them and i found it out
but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove
them they are living
just now in an abandoned
garbage can just behind
a made over stable in greenwich
village and if it rained
into the can before i could
get back and rescue them
i am afraid the little
dears might drown
it makes me shudder just
to think of it
of course if i were a family cat
they would probably
be drowned anyhow
sometimes i think
the kinder thing would be
for me to carry the
sweet little things
over to the river
and drop them in myself
but a mother s love archy
is so unreasonable
something always prevents me
these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too
in spite of hell
well boss it will
be interesting to note
just how mehitabel
works out her present problem
a dark mystery still broods
over the manner
in which the former
family of three kittens
one day she was taking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject
we had a heavy rain
right after she spoke to me
but probably that garbage can
leaks so the kittens
have not yet
been drowned

My Grandfather, and Father, Dear Father by Denis Constanduros

Happy Christmas Eve!  It seems the right time for a Slightly Foxed memoir – and another Reading Presently candidate, since this book was a birthday present from Mum and Dad.

This was supposed to look festive…
…not like I’m about to burn it.

Slightly Foxed are, as I’ve mentioned before, utterly dependable when it comes to insightful, moving, and often rather laced with nostalgia – albeit invariably for a past I have not myself experienced.  The two-for-one set of memoirs by Denis Constanduros gives an interesting spectrum of childhood experience and reflections – although also something of a self-contradictory portrait.

When the good people of Slightly Foxed were sorting out a reprinting of Constanduros’s My Grandfather (first published in 1948) they discovered that there was an unpublished sequel of sorts – yes, you’ve guessed it, Father, Dear Father – both of which were read on the radio in the 1980s.  They are very different creatures.

My Grandfather is, as it sounds, a depiction of Denis’s grandfather – centre of his home, where myriad women (his wife, sisters-in-law, maid, housekeeper, cook, and daughter) fit in with his ideal of the home – the only other male being Denis.  In the hands of a tyrant, this household would have been miserable – but Grandfather could scarcely be less of a tyrant, at least through the eyes and memory of Denis.  Through this lens, Grandfather is the jolliest, most amenable man imaginable.  Good-nature and kindness line his every thought, as do childlike delight – even if it is for hunting.  He is a creature of routine, and Denis’s documenting of Grandfather’s weekly meetings with a lifelong friend, and the conversations they repeat every time, is really rather lovely.

It was lashings of cosiness and niceness, filled with character and vim (it is no coincidence, surely, that Grandfather loved Dickens dearly).  And then everything changes when we get onto Father, Dear Father.  Unlike the first memoir, it isn’t really a portrait of a single man – indeed, I came away from reading it with very little idea what Father was like, except that he liked sports and thin-lipped masculinity.

The book is quite sad and sombre, even when describing eventful days and happy occasions – you can tell, throughout, that Constanduros did not have an easy relationship with his father, and it didn’t come as a great surprise when it was revealed, towards the end, that he didn’t see his father after he was a boy – at least not until shortly before Father died.  The most curious scene is the one shortly before Constanduros’s parents get divorced – he seems to believe, still, that it was related to a practical joke that went awry.  The scene is given – seemingly unintentionally – through the uncertain and fragile eyes of a child who mixes up causality and thinks himself in some way to blame for his parents’ incompatibility.

I still enjoyed reading Father, Dear Father, because Constanduros is a good writer – but I can’t feel the affection for it that I feel for My Grandfather.  It is as though they were two different childhoods – and, indeed, I cannot understand how they fit together, since it seems throughout My Grandfather that Constanduros and his brother live in the grandfather’s house, yet it clearly isn’t the case when you read Father, Dear Father.  Would I be too much of an amateur psychologist to think that he compartmentalised his memories of childhood into the happy and the sad, aligning each with a different home and household?

Having not quoted from the book(s) yet, I will end with a lovely passage which is relevant to almost every book I read, and which I think will bring nods of agreement from most of you:

Sometimes it seems that only the tremendous is worth writing about, that everything one reads or writes should be full of mighty catastrophes or upheavals and that nothing less is worthwhile.  Earthquakes, wars, tragedies and triumphs have stretched our compass to such an extent that the sheer ordinariness of ordinary people and their lives seems absurdly trivial by comparison.  But there is a virtue in triviality.  I remember looking into a dog’s eye when I was a child and being surprised to see reflected, not only myself, but the whole garden.  There it all was, complete and exact, in brilliant miniature.

Hyperbole and a Half – Allie Brosh

I think I’ve mentioned the blog Hyperbole and a Half a few times over the years, and it is certainly very popular – it gets millions of views, even though it has slowed down a great deal over the past couple of years, as its author (Allie Brosh) has dealt with depression.  (She has written movingly and rather brilliantly about depression here.)  But generally it is an extremely light-hearted and irreverent blog, detailing Allie’s life through naive MS Paint pictures and snarky, self-deprecating humour.  I love it.

And its success means that Brosh was asked to write a book – which my brother Colin kindly gave me for my birthday.  It’s about half new content and half things which have appeared on her blog before (including my favourite, the story about trying to train her very stupid dog.)

Brosh’s drawings are deliberately made to look amateur, but I think she must actually be quite talented at drawing – it’s the sort of amateur which needs a professional.

I prefer her stories when they are stories – quite a few are more general reflections on her personality, or things of that ilk.  My favourites are those which do just narrate something which happened – getting lost in the woods as a child, wanting to go to a party despite being recovering from a general anaesthetic, moving house with two anxious dogs – because these reveal as much about her personality without losing a narrative momentum.

It’s not very similar to all the other books I review on Stuck-in-a-Book – it’s not even similar to the odd graphic novel I occasionally read – but it is very funny, occasionally incredibly insightful (when she chooses to be in that mood), and a brilliant dip-in-and-out-of book.

A Reader on Reading – Alberto Manguel

It’s been a good year for finishing books about books.  There was the wonderful Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, which is one of my books of the year and which I read over the course of a couple of days – there was Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, and there was his A Reader on Reading.  The Manguels I dipped in and out of contentedly for years – my lovely friend Lorna bought me A Reader on Reading back in 2010 – and it was with a happy sigh that I finally closed its pages a month or so ago.

It’s the sort of book that one inevitably reads with a pencil in hand, wanting to make little notes of agreement in the margins – or at least jot down page numbers to read again later.  Manguel’s work is a touch more high-flown than bookish books I adore (like Jacques Bonnet’s, or Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing) but even when he is discoursing on Argentinian highbrows I’ve never read of, I can’t help loving him – because, at heart, he is simply a passionate reader.

I believe that we are, at the core, reading animals and that the art of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species.
I had to give up making notes quite early on, because I knew that I’d essentially want to write down every page.  There are literary truths known only to the ardent reader on almost every page.  My head nodded in happy agreement so often that I’ve probably got whiplash (NB, I probably haven’t).  Check out these two:

Like so many other readers, I have always felt that the edition in which I read a book for the first time remains, for the rest of my life, the original one.
(That’s how I feel about I Capture the Castle and the curious 1970s edition I read.)

The experience may come first and, many years later, the reader will find the name to call it in the pages of King Lear.  Or it may come at the end, and a glimmer of memory will throw up a page we had thought forgotten in a battered copy of Treasure Island.  
Of course, having read it over so long a period, I can’t remember all that much apart from the things I jotted down… I know that I ended up skimming some of the stuff on Borges, and was surprised by how interesting I found a political section towards the end.  When he wrote about individual authors and books, I tended only to be riveted when I knew the books myself (and I love that he uses Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the source of every chapter’s epigraph) but I was most delighted when he wrote about reading or writing in general.

I realised that if reading is a contented, sensuous occupation whose intensity and rhythm are agreed upon between the reader and the chosen book, writing instead is a strict, plodding, physically demanding task in which the pleasures of inspiration are all well and good, but are only what hunger and taste are to a cook: a starting point and a measuring rod, not the main occupation.  Long hours, stiff joints, sore feet, cramped hands, the heat or cold of the workplace, the anguish of missing ingredients and the humiliation owing to the lack of knowhow, onions that make you cry, and sharp knives that slice your fingers are what is in store for anyone who wants to prepare a good meal or write a good book.

Yes, this post is fast becoming simply a list of quotations, rather than a review, but I think that’s the best way to entice you to read Manguel.  (Plus, I’ve just come off the stage for the village’s Christmas show, and this is the best you can get out of me…!)  And with that in mind, I’ll end with the longest quotation yet – about anonymous authors.

The history of writing, of which the history of reading is its first and last chapter, has among its many fantastical creations one that seems to me peculiar among all: that of the authorless text for which an author must be invented.  Anonymity has its attraction, and Anonymous is one of the major figures of every one of our literatures.  But sometimes, perhaps when the depth and reverberations of a text seem almost too universal to belong on an individual reader’s bookshelf, we have tried to imagine for that text a poet of flesh and blood, capable of being Everyman.  It is as if, in recognizing in a work the expression in words of a private, wordless experience hidden deep within us, we wished to satisfy ourselves in the belief that this too was the creation of human hands and a human mind, that a man or woman like us was once able to tell for us that which we, younger siblings, merely glimpse or intuit.  In order to achieve this, the critical sciences come to our aid and do their detective work to rescue from discretion the nebulous author behind the Epic of Gilgamesh or La Vie devant soi, but their laborus are merely confirmation.  In the minds of their readers, the secret authors have already acquired a congenial familiarity, an almost physical presence, lacking nothing except a name.
Thankfully Manguel isn’t anonymous, so I can go out and buy other books by him – and the hardback editions of his essays are simply beautiful.  Despite being a die-hard fiction lover, I think my dream books are non-fiction literary essays – which are essentially what blogs are, of course.  My little shelf of books-about-books may not be as extensive or as personal as the wide (and widening) blogosphere, but it holds almost as special place in my heart, and I long to find well-crafted examples to add to it.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris

Ok, confession time.  I’ve often seen David Sedaris’s book Me Talk Pretty One Day in bookshops, and thought it was a good title.  At some point along the way, this noticing must have developed into delusion, because for some reason I was sure it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems.  Erm… nope.  Turns out it’s memoir.

A similar thing happened with Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) which I received from my friend Laura in a book group Secret Santa in 2011.  I took it up to the Lake District with me, thinking it was a novel.  Indeed, I was about thirty pages into it before someone referred to the narrator as David, and I suddenly realised that (a) the narrator wasn’t a woman, and (b) it was autobiographical.  I felt somewhat justified in my false assumption, though, scouring the blurb, because nowhere does it say that it’s autobiographical.  Lots of talking about him being a humorist par excellence (more on that anon), comparing him to Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde (because they have so much in common…), and talking about ‘his world’, which I suppose is a clue, but could equally apply to the world created by a novelist.  Eventually, in tiny letters by the barcode, I found the word ‘autobiography’, and all was solved.

As when I read Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet and only discovered halfway through that Ali was a man, it was an instructive lesson in how such things influence my reading.  When I thought it was a novel, I was quite enjoying it; when I discovered it was a sequence of autobiographical essays, I started to really like it.  And I wouldn’t be able to tell you quite why that was, except that true events don’t need to be as sparklingly innovative or well-structured – they have the virtue, instead, of being true.

Many of the anecdotes do have the ring of fiction, though – truth stranger than fiction and all that.  I found the tales of Sedaris’s life in his first apartment away from home rather unnerving, with the kleptomaniac young girl next door – then there is the time he is mistaken for an erotic cleaner.  As you are.  But the word ‘family’ is in the title for a reason, and it is Sedaris’s vivid depiction of his family which makes this book so extraordinary (and, one presumes, the same is true of his other memoirs – indeed, I don’t know how he had this many stories left to tell after publishing all those other essay collections).

Don’t go thinking this is Swiss Family Robinson or Little Women, though – Sedaris’s family is a pretty bizarre bunch, with many unpleasant elements.  And Sedaris doesn’t sugar coat.  His sporty, brash, vulgar brother is no treat; there is more affection when he discusses his sister Lisa, and her feelings about potentially being portrayed in a film of his books.  There is, of course, an irony in publishing an essay about choosing to shield his family from intrusion, but it is still a beautiful moment nonetheless.

There are a couple of misfires in the collection.  I could have done without his story of manipulating children to undress and sit on his knee – not (to my mind) wholly redeemed by the fact that he was also a child at the time.  The vignette of house-hunting and finding the ideal home in Anne Frank’s attic was a one-line dark joke which didn’t work as an essay.  But that is not a bad hit rate, out of 22 essays.

What makes these essays special, and wonderfully readable, is Sedaris’s eye.  He lets us into his family circle – with every blemish well known, and every annoying trait magnified through repetition, but also with a glow of affection – sometimes, for Sedaris, reluctant – which cannot truly evaporate.  How he gets this into words, and through the most eccentric anecdotes, I have no idea.  But it works brilliantly.  I am far from the first to discover the wonder of Sedaris’s tone, but perhaps I am not the last – and I want to encourage you, particularly if you are in the US where his books are everywhere (why didn’t I buy any when I was there?!) to pick this up and see what you think.  The good personal essay, the expertly wry memoir, are seldom found.  My thanks are due to Laura, for giving me a copy of this at a Secret Santa and giving me a chance to find an excellent practitioner of that rare form!

The Underground River – Edith Olivier

Back when I discovered Edith Olivier’s brilliant novel The Love-Child in a charity shop, I started raving about it to my friends in the dovegreybooks online book email list.  Little did I know that The Love-Child would go on to play an important role in my DPhil thesis, and that I’d present a few papers on it, but I did know that it was a really special book.  And so I very gratefully accepted the kind offer of a lady called Jane to send me a copy of The Underground River (1929) by Olivier.  That was in 2007 – and I finally got around to reading it in spring this year, while doing extra bits and pieces of research for my Olivier chapter.  And here’s a quick little post about it…

It’s a children’s book, about Tony and Dinda who escape from their terrifying great-aunt by going underground and (you guessed it) finding a river.  Many are the adventures they find there… Surprisingly large numbers of people live alongside the river, lit only by candles in the gloom – and some of them are pretty terrifying.  Along the way are men who ask young ladies to dance… who can then never leave them (Dinda manages to avoid this fate).  There are smugglers, kindly magical folk, adventure, peril… it’s the standard fare that I’ve come to expect from a childhood reared on Enid Blyton.  And some self-aware humour at times, maybe?

After a time they felt hungry, but they found it was very difficult to eat their meal in the dark.  They each had a knife and fork, but they had never guessed how hard it would be to cut slices for themselves off a sirloin of beef, with no butler to carve, no carving-knife and fork to carve with, and no light to carve by.
My favourite passage, of course, had to be the following – it’s nice to know that we twins are up there with magical creatures in terms of wonderment.

Tony and Dinda were really delighted.  They had never seen twins before, and they had always longed to know some.  In vain had they begged their mother to give them twin brothers or sisters.  She had always refused, and now here was a family entirely consisting of twins.  It seemed too amusing to be true.
There are nice illustrations by Margaret Forbes throughout, and the edition itself is rather charming – part of ‘The Enchantment Series’, whatever that was, and it is indeed enchanting.

I’ve read quite a few of Olivier’s novels (as always, you can see them all by selecting her from the author drop-down menu in the left-hand column) and none have lived up to the wonder of The Love-Child, but that is hardly surprising.  Whilst Googling The Underground River, though, I stumbled across someone else who has read her obscure books – Scott, of The Furrowed Middlebrow (that link will take you to all his Edith Olivier posts).  There is a coda to this gift-giving; I spotted that The Underground River was one of the few Olivier books Scott hadn’t managed to get hold of, so thought I’d ‘pay it forward’ (if you will) – and now this little book is on its way across the Atlantic…

The Compleat Mrs. Elton – Diana Birchall

I wouldn’t normally count a book from the author as a Reading Presently candidate, but in the case of The Compleat Mrs. Elton (2004) by Diana Birchall (consisting of The Courtship of Mrs. Elton, A Defence of Mrs. Elton, and Mrs. Elton in America) things are different – because Diana is a friend of mine, and you may know her blog.  We first met online – through a book discussion email list – but have now met at least three times in person, and Diana gave me a present of this book (and the biography she wrote of her grandmother Onoto Wantana) at a lovely riverside tearoom in Oxfordshire.  Photographic evidence…

I suspect most of you will already have worked out what the book is about, if you do not know already, for – yes- it is Mrs. Elton from Emma, once Augusta Hawkins, the fairly ghastly woman who ends up marrying the vicar.  If any of Austen’s characters ever needed a defence, it is she, with her ‘caro sposo’ and ‘Mr. K’ and vulgarities here and there.

At least, that is the generally agreed line.  Diana disagrees.  Of the three, I found the Defence of Mrs. Elton both the most intriguing and the most controversial – but I will come to that in time, starting at the beginning with Augusta’s courtship.

Firstly, I should say that Diana writes Austen beautifully.  A long time ago I wrote about Diana’s sequel to Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma (which is brilliant) and there is no doubt in my mind that Diana is among Jane’s most faithful imitators – and it is a joy to read her taking on Austen’s mantle.  The courtship between Mr. Elton and Augusta Hawkins shows the future Mrs. Elton to be as aware of her age and singleness as Austen’s better-loved heroines… it’s a nice tale, and starts the defence:

If our lovers were in fact a venial pair, marrying only in a spirit of self-seeking, how much worse were they than half the world?  It was such a perfect case of like marrying like, that the most elevated love between two pure souls could be no more perfectly matched.  With a strong mutual wish for matrimony, and for each finding a partner who could bring benefits to the other, and a determination and resolve to be bettering themselves, Mr. Elton and Miss Hakwins stood a great chance of finding as lasting a happiness as exists in this mutable world.
Which leads me onto In Defence of Mrs. Elton.  Scenes from Emma, from Mrs. Elton’s arrival onwards, are shown again from that lady’s perspective, away from the satirical and subjective slant of the narrator.  In my opinion (and I would love to enter into a debate), Diana doesn’t so much defend Mrs. Elton’s character as give her a different one…

Augusta knew, even as she was speaking, that everything she was saying was wrong […]
Did she?  Hmm… of course, people often say one thing and mean another, or don’t come across in the way they intend, but it is perhaps too easy a defence to take a character’s objectionable qualities and say they were not really there.  Diana does, however, is more convincing and does a very good job when attacking the other characters – I hadn’t really noticed quite how awful Emma et al are to the newcomer, and Augusta’s plea swayed me…

They were all her enemies, yet what had she done to any of them?  Her ways, her manners, were not like theirs; she knew that well enough.  She was not capable of their sort of superior insolence, the exquisite politeness that only pointed up the disdain beneath: when she thought a thing, she said it.  If they were so pretty and exacting as to mind such a difference in her, and disapprove of the manner when the heart was right, what hope had she of ever living in harmony with any of them.
Onto the next and final story – whizzing through these, but hard to write about three novellas in one post!  Well, it’s the one where things go a bit mad, and it’s great fun.  Not only does Mrs. Elton go – with husband and children – to America, they travel among the Native Americans.  There is scalping…  From anybody who loved Austen less, I might not have forgiven the narrative world Diana takes her characters to, away from the English village life they call home, but I know that Diana would fall down dead rather than be disrespectful to Jane Austen.  The writing is good enough to support the scenario.  There is even much discussion of slavery – a wry comment on those who see slavery hidden behind Mansfield Park, I wonder?

“Yes – it is very painful,” agreed her husband, shaking his head.  “We cannot be glad enough that there is not such an evil institution in England as slavery; and hope that it can be removed from this country in the natural operations of time, so that America may one day be as fair and untainted a land as ours.”
From an English writer, this might come across as snobbery – but Diana is an American gal born and bred, which makes her tour of early America through the Eltons’ eyes particularly intriguing.  It’s a crazy idea, but it somehow works – and is a darn sight more entertaining than the next Lizzie-and-Darcy bonkfest penned by every author fixated with the 2005 film…

So, there you have it!  For those of us who adore Austen’s novels and are on the look-out for intelligent, sensitive, and adventurous explorations of her characters – look no further.  Now, in the comments… thoughts on Mrs. Elton?